You’ve been lucky enough to venture off into a new culture, and experience that culture with such depth that your home has become a distant memory. Without even realizing it, your life has changed drastically. You’ve become accustomed to this new environment and all the social norms that come with it. That is until you return home. You step off that plane, and hardly anything has changed around you, yet everything has changed for yourself. People can’t see these changes on you; your clothes might be different, and hair might be longer, but these changes are within you and are not easily explainable, let alone identifiable. It is painfully lonely and isolating. The experiences you’ve had come crashing down on you as you try to shift back to your old routine in your home culture. This, is culture shock. I believe its harder coming home than it is going to a live in a new culture. When you travel to somewhere foreign, you’re expecting to feel like an outsider, to feel out of place and know that you are going to need to work to fit in and get used to the lifestyle. When you return home, you are expecting to feel comfort, ease and welcome; yet sometimes, you end up feeling like an outsider in a place that you’ve lived the majority of your life. And that, is unimaginably difficult.
I didn’t think it was possible to experience culture shock as badly as I had when returning home from Kenya. I mean, I was gone without interaction from the outside world for almost a month. No electricity, no running water, no paved roads or listening to the radio or shaving your legs, or talking to family or friends. The plane ride home wasn’t too bad. But, that makes sense. Before boarding the plane you’re prepared for the anxiety of leaving and returning home. However, nothing prepares you for the loneliness of returning home after that. I remember sleeping through my last flight and when I woke up the seatbelt signs were on, we were preparing for landing and I really had to pee. I had to pee so badly that’s all I thought about for the 20 minutes it took for us to land. Not the fact that after almost 50 hours of travel I would be home, or that I would be seeing my family after not talking to them for almost a month, nope, all I thought about was how annoyingly tiny my bladder was. When I finally got off the plane, I saw my sister and my mom who were waiting for me at the airport. I gave them a quick hug excited to see them and then I rushed to the bathroom; and they got frustrated with me. “-Why didn’t you go on the plane?” “-Let’s go, we’ve been waiting!” No electricity, no running water, no contact with the outside world. I hadn’t prepared for the fact that I was back in Canada, back home, and back to regular life – all I had thought about was my stupid bladder. My mind was racing and my heart was beating quicker and quicker as we sped down the smooth trans Canada highway. I am in a car. I am in a car. “So, how was your trip?” I am in a car. My mind couldn’t wrap itself around the fact that I was in a car, let alone answer such a complicated question about how my trip was. I was part of this wildly different culture, where I was living in a tent, peeing in a hole, showering with a bucket, and witnessing heartbreaking poverty daily. How do you explain an experience so foreign to people, without damaging your own treasured memories?
Culture shock is not something you can be prepared for, and I think that’s why it exists. Our brains are trying to process so much information as you’re doing everything possible not to have an existential crisis. I spent my time with kids who would walk barefoot for miles to get muddy and unsanitary water to bathe, drink, and cook. And then I return home, where not only can I turn on a faucet and get fresh water, or shower whenever and for however long I want, but I also work as a lifeguard and watch people PLAY in clean water. For the most part I blocked those two months after returning home out of my memory. It was lonely, and difficult and I was expected to chat about the cool experiences I had with anyone who had heard I was gone. I was expected to fit right back into society. The best advice I have been able to give myself is to stay busy until it passes, because it will, it always does. One day, you’ll wake up and your routine will feel natural, and the memories you had from your experience in a foreign culture will be just that; memories.
I thought that coming home from France would be easier. Coming home from Kenya, I felt guilty. Thunder Bay was this exceptional place where I was living in palace of privileges. My life was this incredibly, unbelievable, extraordinary thing and I could not for the life of my shed that guilt. Coming home from France, I saw Thunder Bay in a different, almost opposite way. It was chains holding me down. It was cold, isolated, with limited opportunities, judgement, racism, and negativity. (Ironic, I know.) I realized how incredible life was in Lyon when I was living there, and I was grateful for it every day. But comparatively speaking, the profoundness of my life there did not impact me until I returned to Thunder Bay. I changed what I wore, how I spoke, what I talked about, and what I did leisurely. There was also extreme guilt that came from this. When I would want to talk to someone about the culture shock I was experiencing, I would hate myself a little bit. Because I was essentially complaining about “how awful” I felt living in Thunder Bay after having this incredible life in France, like- how self-righteous could I really be? I would rightfully feel bad about feeling alone and isolated when my prior experiences have taught me that Thunder Bay is a place full of privilege; not chains holding me down. Yet, I couldn’t shake that weight; I felt captured. Even more so when I couldn’t express it without feeling shameful. Culture shock won again. I did what I do best, I kept busy. And now, three months after being home, I’ve adjusted back to a routine where I can wear sweatpants out in public, and grab a double double at Tim Hortons.
I guess, my advice for anyone struggling with culture shock – wether feeling guilty, isolated, lonely, or all of the above and more, just remember it’s part of the experience and that it will pass. The world is so complex and beautiful. This won’t be the last time we feel like this, because there are so many cultures to discover and live. Feeling displaced after becoming a part of another culture is natural, and slowly, you will find your way back. I have travelled to many places, and the two hardest times I’ve experienced culture shock, were the two times where I really didn’t want to come back. I resisted and resented my own culture after finding shelter, home, and belonging in another part of the world. There is something beautiful about that, that I was able to feel home and comfort in multiple cultures, nationalities and places worldwide.
“You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart always will be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.”
― Miriam Adeney
“You get a strange feeling when you’re about to leave a place, I told him, like you’ll not only miss the people you love but you’ll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, because you’ll never be this way ever again.”
― Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran