You know when you ride a bike after a few years, and it feels awkward for a few moments? Your body still knows how to ride the bike, but it doesn't feel quite natural?
That's reverse culture shock.
It's a reminder of how acute our conception of "normalcy" is. It's returning to "normal" but feeling out of place, a stranger in what is supposed to be comfortable. But since this not-normal-"normal" was so automatic before your time away, your body goes through the motions. That's why you don't fall off your bike. That's why your routine day-to-day breakfast feels wrong on your tongue, because you have tasted other breakfasts, but it's somehow familiar. It just takes a few mornings to actually feel like you're here and not there. It's like your mind is straddling two realities, unsure which is the current.
Of course, this is accentuated when the reality you came from is increasingly different from the one you're coming back to. After living in a small fishing village in France for a few months, it wasn't that difficult for my brain to comprehend that I was back in small town Vermont. Upon return, I could reflect on my daily routine there and understand it from here without a problem. After living in Ecuador for a year, my brain had a bit of a strenuous exercise. It was difficult to imagine my friends in busy Quito eating humitas when I was picking blueberries in some field without another person in sight. Beyond that, with a new "normal" in Ecuador came new neural connections... literally. I learned Spanish there, and had never spoken it here. It was surprising, frustrating, and a bit funny when I went to my grandma's house soon after arriving back from a year in Ecuador and I couldn't speak to her in French. My mind was hardwired in Spanish! Eventually the French came back, and luckily the Spanish stayed too.
After living in Kenya for three months, I'm having a hard time back in Canada/USA understanding that what I lived there wasn't a dream. I'm drinking water from the tap in my kitchen, and just weeks ago I was speaking to women who walk seven hours daily for water. My bedroom here is significantly larger than the structure I lived in there. I'm not hearing Swahili, I'm not eating ugali, and I'm not washing my clothes on the stove. Rather than being relieved I'm back to "normal," I'm a bit overwhelmed by all the stuff in my house that I don't need. When I stepped out of the airport, I was mesmerized by the pedestrian lights. I wasn't gone for that long. How is it that I had forgotten they existed?
That's reverse culture shock, my friends. The worst culture shock I ever had was after a three week trip to Southeast Asia when I was fifteen. Even though it was such a short period of time, it made me question everything I thought I knew. I spiraled into existential shock, for months. (I'll have to write a blog post about what I wish somebody had explained to me at that time... much of the guilt I felt came from a place of misunderstanding and societal misinformation... anyway, more on that another day). Perhaps that one was so strong because my experience in Southeast Asia was the first one that really rocked my senses. This reverse culture shock from Kenya is a tiny reverberation of confusion compared to that one, even though this is after a longer period of time away, because it's not my first rodeo.
It's strange and uncomfortable, but perhaps it's a survival mechanism to pretend like the other reality doesn't exist in order for this one to take root again. You know when you sleep away from your house for a night and wake up disoriented? Reverse culture shock is taking a few moments to orient yourself when you wake up at home and don't recognize your surroundings because your mind is still in another reality far from this one.
But it's not all bad.
Reverse culture shock can make you realize the things you had forgotten. You can be amazed by the beauty of the natural landscape when you return home from extended periods away. When we live in a place for so long, we don't recognize the intricacies of everyday life the way we do when we return back to it. Whereas before leaving you don't stop to breathe in the fresh air of your home, or examine the common birds, or the smells of the bakery down the road, now you do. It's like you're a tourist where you're from. For the first time, you notice the small purple flowers that have always been dotting your lawn. You're more attentive to objects you had always taken for granted. The sunlight fractions out from clouds differently, and now you're hyper-aware of it. It's spectacular to realize how much of our surroundings get filtered out once we're used to those surroundings, and even more spectacular to be reminded to breathe and observe.
Normalcy doesn't exist. Although this may seem unsettling, I think it's more comforting than anything else. It keeps us curious. It's a reminder of how much we have left to learn, and it's a reminder not to take things for granted. Where I grew up, it was normal to have access to forest, so I internalized that it must be normal everywhere. In Nairobi's slums, forest isn't in sight. Plus, cost barriers exist. Having "space" means something entirely different. It takes time to re-adjust to new conceptions of what this means.
It's easier to envision new possibilities when you've lived many "normals." It allows you to question societal norms that you might not otherwise question. Why doesn't our school system include more time for play like in Sweden? Why hasn't my city banned plastic bags when the country of Kenya has? Why do I always eat the same thing for breakfast? What is preventing me from going to that museum down the road I've always just passed by? When we internalize one kind of normalcy, our realm of thought is constricted. When you've lived many different "normal"s, you tend to ask yourself why things are the way they are.
It's nice to have a cozy sweater, and feel comfortable in it, but if you only ever wore that sweater, you wouldn't understand how lucky you are to have it. And to extend the metaphor: when you travel, you can thread what you learn into that cozy sweater back home to make it even richer. Ecuador's culture is not as neurotic as the stress-filled go-go-go of Canadian University culture. Upon returning home, I realized I didn't have to buy into that stress culture because other possibilities exist. Kenya's culture is very family oriented in ways that my Montreal culture is not. I can learn from that experience and use it to make my Montreal "normal" more family-oriented.
Culture shock happens. Reverse culture shock, too. Although sometimes we push it away, it should be a cause for celebration, regardless of the initial difficulty, because it allows us to better define what we want from our realities, wherever we are when those realities materialize.
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