Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Reverse Culture Shock!

I must confess. Since returning from Mexico this past weekend, I have been experiencing a moderate case of reverse culture shock, or as my son Maxwell calls it, "counter-culture shock".
Culture shock is the psychological disorientation one experiences when living or working in another culture. Reverse culture shock happens when you come home.

"Reverse culture shock results from being re-exposed to a familiar environment after being away from it for a period of time. For some, the experience is more intense than initial culture shock. Frequently, many experience feelings of frustration at re-adapting to the home environment (Peace Corps Worldwide)."

Max had a particularly stubborn case of reverse culture shock when he returned from a summer study program in Spain several years ago. He was irritable, moody and quite critical of American culture. He told me, "Spanish restaurants charge for bread, but give you a free bottle of wine with dinner! American restaurants should do the same!" (Not a bad idea, I thought--at least for us, but maybe not for the restaurant owner.)

I know. Wasn't I prepared for reverse culture shock? After all, I am an anthropologist. Yes, intellectually, I understand culture shock and reverse culture shock. And, I recall experiencing both when I spent a college summer study program in Ecuador. No one is immune and few are really prepared for what I call "re-entry shock".

According to the Center for Global Education, the stages of reverse culture shock are:

1. Disengagement - This happens before you even leave the foreign country, maybe a week or two before departure. You begin to realize that you must separate and say good-bye to the friends you've made abroad and to the place you briefly called home. It is not uncommon for people to feel intense feelings of sadness. This happened to me a week or two before I left Mexico. As my friend and I were watching a beautiful sunset from a rooftop terrace, my eyes suddenly and quite unexpectedly filled with tears. He understood what was happening to me, but the waiter was confused. Another close friend told me she sobbed for an hour and a half, the entire time it takes to ride from San Miguel to the Leon airport. The van driver was trying to comfort her.

2. Initial Euphoria - This is a feeling of elation and excitement at the idea of going home. I experienced this as a feeling of homesickness for my sons and colleagues and great anticipation for the return to the U.S. The length of this stage varies, but it was brief for me.

3. Irritability and Hostility - This is a difficult phase of reverse culture shock and I started feeling it when people were pushing each other to get off of the plane and talking on their cell phones. How rude, how impersonal they are. Hey, slow down, I'm on Mexican time, I thought. Then, while waiting for a connecting flight in Houston, which was delayed, I became annoyed at the Homeland Security announcement about the terrorist threat level of orange. I recall thinking, Do they really have to announce it every three minutes?! Why not every hour? This stage can also include the feeling of being a stranger at home and longing to return abroad. Yes, I've had both of those symptoms!

4. Re-adjustment and Adaptation-Gradually, one readjusts to being home. Getting back to a familiar routine and spending time with supportive family, friends and colleagues helps tremendously. I haven't fully entered this phase yet, but I am working on it!

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