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cultural transitionsMany know the phrase ‘culture shock’ and some may know the term ‘reverse culture shock’. The first term is often used to describe the disequilibrium experienced when one travels to or lives in another country and the second term is used to describe the surprise/discomfort people can feel when they return from a long trip or living abroad.  The discomfort felt can be magnified by an initial feeling of excitement and joy at entering a new culture and then returning to one’s culture of origin. The ‘honeymoon’ period builds up our expectations and obscures any problems on entry/re-entry, creating a double whammy effect once one starts living an ordinary life. For people in another culture, this often is experienced as a period of confusion and attempts to fit in. If this is successful, there is a period of time that things will run smoothly, however, eventually it is common to eventually feel more critical about the new culture, focusing only on the negative. This period is a new area of challenge that is often overcome by those who stay in the culture for longer, reaching a point where they can gracefully accept all the pros and all the cons.  Reverse culture is often thought of, by those who haven’t experienced it, as an easier process, but it is usually more difficult. The expectations (for a happy return to reunite with friends and family) are greater and these expectations often obscure how much one has changed during one’s sojourn to another land, and, if the sojourn has been lengthy, how much the home culture has changed.

I have experienced both periods of discomfort many times and finally feel that I am now through the latest transition (re-entry to my home culture in 2021).

It was a great shock to me to have the feelings I had and there were many levels to the experience: I had returned to Canada after 15 years away.  I had returned to Nova Scotia after 30 years away, and I had returned to school full-time after 17 years.  Additionally, I was making a new career for myself and a close family member was seriously ill. There were days that were unbearably hard: sadness, anger, confusion, hopelessness; and there were days that were lived in a daze—everything felt so surreal.  I began to think that my years away had masked a previously undiagnosed mental illness and that I needed medication, at the very least for anxiety.  I thought we had made a big mistake returning and feared that it would be one we always regretted.  I reminisced and talked endlessly about Japan (everything was better there and so much easier!).  I knew friends and family could only stand so much of my talking about it, and tried to control myself, but it was so hard not to talk about your last fifteen years—imagine yourself having the last 15 years of your life a forbidden topic—but really, most people have very little interest in things that they cannot relate to, so it was natural for others to not want to hear about my memories.

I thought I would always feel like I was on vacation in Canada, but after a while, it began to feel like home again. Now, when I think of Japan, it is with warm regard, but the memories are gently fading.  Life here feels really good.  I love being around family again and building a lasting community is a lot easier than building one as an expatriate.  I feel more involved with life here: knowing I can vote, knowing all the laws (and knowing I’ll be seen as equal before the justice system).  Knowing the language is a big plus too.  These are all things you can come to take for granted if you haven’t lived abroad for an extended time.

life transitionsDue to my close experience with this type of transition, I did some research on all forms of culture shock and discovered that it was not just extended travel and living abroad that brings on this type of reaction.  We can experience this shock when we make small ‘c’ cultural changes; for example, transitioning from one marital state to another (being married/getting divorce for example).  Life transitions like leaving university and beginning a career; retiring, or having children grow up and leave the ‘nest’ also bring well-known stressors.  Some lessor known transitions that can be jarring are leaving cloistered life and living independently from a religious order; or, finishing a prison sentence and returning to society outside the prison walls.

Whatever your life experience, I’m sure life transitions are something you know well, but I hope this article has shed some light on the reverse element of transitions.  You may be unprepared for something you’re transitioning back to because you think you’re returning to the familiar but you’re really not.

Knowing how to manage the transitions is the key to a good life.  If you find you’re experiencing more stress from a recent transition than is comfortable (you might feel disconnected, you might feel sad, you might find yourself eating more or less, sleeping less, or using substances more), consider reaching out to a therapist to talk about what’s happening.

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