June 14, 2015

The Unfortunate Consequences of Travel: Reverse Culture Shock & How to Deal With It.

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Culture shock: the mythical state of adjustment most travelers never want to admit they’re experiencing.

“It’s just jet lag,” we say. Or, “my stomach is still getting used to the food.” So easily written off. So frivolously downgraded.

And don’t even mention returning home, to a place we already know. There’s hardly a chance for contention.

At least, there wasn’t for me. After spending seven months abroad, I wasn’t ready for the rigid strangeness of it all. Streetlights telling me when to cross. Passer-bys rarely gifting me a glance, much less a smile. Everything seemed to be moving so fast, and yet it all felt so confined. And I felt confined inside of it.

Travel is a transformational process best characterized by opening ourselves up to staggering newness and then trying to flow with it as best we can.

We constantly meet so many personalities and encounter so many ways that are so completely and mind-bogglingly different than our own, that it’s natural to get swept into a paradigm of moment-seizing and transience. After all, this is the essence of travel.

And after living for so long in such perpetual flux, it’s not easy transitioning back to the comparatively stable life we lived before. It may look as it once did, but it just doesn’t feel the same. Something is different.

Remember, it’s not just a place that we’re transitioning back to, it’s a lifestyle. And we’ve changed.

Here are four of the most prominent things I confronted upon returning home after my time on the road, along with some humble suggestions on how to turn these obstacles into opportunities to integrate all that we’ve learned along the way.

1. I came back open to everything—people, experiences, strangers—and everything wasn’t necessarily open to me.

For me, this has been the hardest part. After making the shift from one reality to another, my interactions feel a bit, well, shallow. Not everyone understands where I’m coming from or what I’m about, and it’s hard to connect.

I’m realizing that most people back home simply aren’t on the same page with me on the things I’ve been so consciously engaged with, like meeting new people and trying weird things. They’ve been living among the people and things that, for the most part, they already know.

So where I’m inclined to seek out the new and adventurous, they’re more comfortable with sticking to the familiar routine. And that’s okay.

As long as we remain genuine and don’t let this seeming flatness bring us down, we’re bound to find the openness we seek. In fact, we’ll allow that openness to exist around us, because we’ll be bringing it into every encounter we have. Connection is a profound human desire, and all we can do is invite it in by being open to it should the opportunity come a-knockin’.

2. It feels like my stories only remind my friends of everything they haven’t gotten their shit together enough to do yet.

Sure, they’re interested at first, but then the wonder quickly fades. What’s with that? Aren’t they supposed to be happy for me?

Coming home, I soon realized there would always be some disconnect when trying to explain something so indescribable to people who simply haven’t had a similar experience. I would be sitting at the bar with people I’d been looking forward to seeing for so long, and it was pretty disheartening to see their faces turn from inquisitive to glazed-over in a matter of seconds.

Maybe they’re a bit jealous. Maybe they feel like like they don’t have it in them to do what I just did. Maybe they’re bored.

Again, the wavelengths are just different. But no matter how close we are or how unconsciously they shoot down my excitement, I never allow myself to be ashamed of the things I’ve worked so hard to seize in life.

As travelers, we must own our experiences—they make us richer people and show us sides of living that most will never have the fortune to see. Hopefully, if we can find a way to humbly emanate the beauty and perspective of all that we’ve come to understand, this will inspire others to seek some eye opening experiences of their own.

I’ve also found it helpful to go and talk to the friends of mine who have traveled, because remember that lack of words I was describing before? Well they always seem to understand.

Oh, and congrats. We’re officially interesting people.

3. My rhythm isn’t coming yet…

It’s been three weeks, why am I still off?

Coming back is often a much more difficult transition, as we finally have the time and comfort to get the complete rest our bodies have been putting off for so long. It took me almost a month to get to the point where I wasn’t waking up exhausted, having issues with my digestion, or trying to think through this thick hazy fog.

To move the process along, I found the best place to start is with my physical habits. These are often the most direct and tangible to fix. Have I been getting enough sleep on a regular schedule? How much water am I drinking? What about exercise? Am I waking up and falling asleep looking at my phone?

In other words, I pretend that my mom is talking in my ear, and I make sure I’m keeping myself physically on point.

Things might feel tiring for a while, and it can be easy to lose sight of why. Returning home is a physical adjustment just as much as it is emotional, mental or spiritual. Just remember: a healthy practice is a healthy mind.

(Not to be confused with…)

4. I am still moving at my own pace.

Since I’ve been home, it has been a major struggle to keep up. People are constantly on their phones, cramming so much into their days and talking about things I’ve been so removed from for so long.

I don’t want to be left behind, but I also don’t want to lose all the clarity I gained when I was away.

It’s hard to stay true to ourselves when everyone else is moving so fast. But then again, screw everyone else. There is only one pace we can move at, and that is our own.

Above all else, I’ve come to benefit the most from giving myself regular periods of quiet as often as possible. That is, I just remove myself whenever I start to feel overwhelmed. Whether it’s taking a walk, reading a book, meditating or even sitting in a park alone for a few minutes, I try to kick back and observe, while allowing myself the time to transition into this new (old) way of living.

A lot of it is simply being forgiving with myself when I am feeling tired, emotional or on a different wavelength than my friends or family. Sometimes your strongest card is simply to say “no.”

A lot of the difficulties we face in returning lay in assimilating what we’ve learned into a lifestyle we more or less already know. As travelers, we’ve changed. Because of this, things will just never look the same. But it pays to remember that this is why we left.

We went away in search of something we weren’t finding at home. Wisdom. Clarity. Adventure. Experience. And in so many ways we’ve found it.

So when we come back we’re in a strange position. We’re moving on this magnificently elevated wavelength, still vibing on all the highs we’ve gotten from our adventure, but most people just aren’t there with us. This disconnect, it can bring us down.

In the end, all we can do is continue to integrate these many insights into our lives as best we can, while trying to adjust to the new pace around us. Often, this might mean doing so passively, while simply allowing our experiences to soak in on their own.

Things tend to move fast here in the West, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But everyone could benefit from slowing down a bit at times. So why not show people what that’s about?

In other words, instead of forcing it, lead by example. If we stick to our pace, our pace will soon morph into our rhythm, which will eventually sync up with those around us. And once this happens, well I think everything will start to feel a lot less strange.



When In Nairobi Do as the Kenyans Do.


Author: Mathew Polowitz

Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Andrew Emerson/Flickr

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