When you set off on your gap year and travel somewhere alien and exotic for the first time, every backpacker experiences that initial assault on the senses known as culture shock. Sights, sounds and smells are all new to you, the food is different, paradigms, cultures and norms are completely alien and sometimes bewildering and the language barrier can often leave you feeling overwhelmed. At least at first, anyway. When it does hit you culture shock can hit you hard, almost like a baseball bat to the face, especially if you go somewhere that is completely outside of your comfort zone. It never lasts long of course, just long enough for you to settle in and acclimatise to your new surroundings, and many travellers end up loving the exact things that were so bewildering at first exactly because they are so different to what they are used to.
But what happens when your gap year is over? What happens when you get on that flight back home and have to prepare for life back in the real world again? What most guidebooks and most travellers won’t tell you, what you can’t expect and prepare for, is the complete reversal of that feeling when you return home from a long trip known as reverse culture shock.
‘Reverse culture shock is the psychological punch to the gut you feel when you return to normality, when you come back down to earth with a bang and return home’.
For many backpackers, especially for those who have been on the road for a long time, reverse culture shock is much more than missing your carefree life of travelling and it can go far beyond getting used to bad weather again or trying not to haggle at the local supermarket at the extortionate price of a pint of milk, it doesn’t matter how much you insist that price would get you a beach hut on a tropical island somewhere. Reverse culture shock can be a significant psychological and emotional event as you try to deal with feelings of being alienated from the place you once called home, of no longer fitting in and of trying to become comfortable with how the person you have become can interact with a once familiar environment. For some long term travellers and serial expats, this disjointed, detached state can lead to feeling like you never quite belong anywhere anymore.
In many ways this can be a stressful and traumatic time for many travellers. Similar in principle – if not as intense or potentially damaging – as the PTSD felt by soldiers returning to civilian life or a sudden onset depression. Backpacking around the world can profoundly change the way you think about the world and yourself, it can change your paradigms and beliefs and in effect make you a different person. This is not a bad thing, but these changes can make it hard to interact with your old life.
‘Nothing changes except you’.
You may have changed profoundly but people you may once have been very close to are exactly the same, those inane, endless conversations about reality TV or who is sleeping with who just seem – pointless. The sheer, dull normality of routine becomes mind numbing. Nothing changes except you. A once familiar environment stops being familiar and comforting and instead becomes claustrophobic and estranged. You can feel isolated and alone.
And then of course there is the newly instilled constant wanderlust to deal with.
So what do you do? How do you deal with reverse culture shock when you have to return to a normal, stereotypical 9 – 5 drudgery and noone around you seems to understand what you are going through?
Be prepared for it.
A big part of dealing with reverse culture shock is understanding how it will affect you. You will learn very quickly when you get back home that this huge, life changing event that has profoundly affected your life and who you are means absolutely sod all to anyone else. You will find that while you are away life simply carried on as normal and nothing really changed. It is a huge anticlimax. Even your closest friends and family really won’t give a proverbial, and you can find your round the world adventures being dismissed as ‘skiving off on a long holiday’. Unless it somehow affects them and their immediate bubble of existence, people just don’t care. Your life simply doesn’t matter to them.
That’s a hard, bitter pill to swallow sometimes, but it’s one that you do have to swallow. Just don’t take it personally. Most people are in general introvertly focused on their own immediate lives and anything outside of that doesn’t matter much. It can hurt, it can feel like your life means nothing to those that you thought cared about you. It isn’t like that of course, you have just changed. Your personality, your paradigms, your innate being is intricately connected to the experiences you have had on your travels now, and your old friends or family have no understanding or connection with that. They are still stuck in the tiny bubble of existence you used to be in.
So don’t go banging on about your gap year or your time in Timbuktu or Swaziland like Uncle Albert on a war story marathon, at best you will bore people and they will get fed up with you, at worst you may even bring out some resentment or jealousy. But at the same time don’t completely deny it either. It is who you are now and you shouldn’t deny who you are just because others can’t understand or relate to you.
Some of you may have that rare friend or family member who genuinely does care about your travels and your personal journey, and if you do then hang onto them like the rare jewel that they are. For the rest of you, you may simply have to accept that you have outgrown your life and your old friends. You are not the same person anymore, but they are, and a healthy part of getting past reverse culture shock is realising that some people are part of your history, but aren’t necessarily part of your future.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t still be friends of course – and noone can ever get rid of family – it simply means that your relationship with them will evolve and change as life dictates it must. You can still have old friends and be close with family, and the best thing is you can spend some quality time reconnecting with the friends and family that really do matter.
Yes you will lose friends along the way, but you will form deeper, stronger bonds with those you choose to make the effort to reconnect with too. Those are the friends who will be there no matter who you change and evolve into, and that is a wonderful thing to discover, just accept that there is a part of you, a part of your life that isn’t a good fit with that old part anymore, and you have to decide which part will dictate who you will become in the future.
The good news is this amazing new person that you have become will have a wealth of new friends to share your thoughts and experiences with too. You will have met plenty of people on the road, other travellers who have gone through the same experiences as you, who are feeling the exact same things with you. One of the best things about travelling is the range of amazing new people you meet, from all races, creeds, religions and social and cultural backgrounds, and how travelling brings you all together, how the gypsy blood and nomadic soul binds you. You may not be together at the moment, but there are kindred spirits out there. Once you get your head around that, life doesn’t seem as lonely anymore.
Use some of the skills you learned.
Following your passions and learning or improving new skills is another huge benefit to taking a gap year and – forgive me for using a hackneyed cliché – finding yourself. But who says you have to stop when you get home?
It doesn’t matter what it is of course, whether you use some of the skills and knowledge gained on a cooking course to counteract the bland restaurant fare in your home town compared to the awesome street food in Panama or Thailand, or you turn that Tai Chi class in China into a full time hobby, using some of these skills and experiences to improve and better yourself when you get back home will help you cling onto a little bit of the life you were living on your travels and seriously help to deal with the onset of reverse culture shock.
You could even use your travels to help you to build a new life for yourself, one that suits your new supercharged backpacker persona. You can use the skills or volunteering experiences to get a promotion or a better career, for the creative souls out there you could even write a book or use your photos to create an online portfolio to sell? Maybe there is an artistic career ahead of you? Whatever it is, use your new skill sets to improve the life around you instead of trying to fit into an old one that no longer fits.
Grow and evolve.
In a way you have outgrown the tiny little bubble of existence that used to be your life. That comfort zone of your home, your job, your friends and your routine that you once surrounded yourself with now seems small and restrictive. You have grown and evolved. You are a different person to the one that used to fit into your old life. You have travelled around the world, experienced things that most people only ever dream of! You’ve climbed mountains, trekked jungles, seen wonders of the world and you have rocked them all! You’re a damn superhero! Just one trying to live a civilian life.
Travelling the world will have instilled in you a sense of freedom, a sense that the world is infinite and yet infinitely accessible at the same time, and trying to force yourself back into the same comfort zone that you festered in before you left for your gap year is like trying to shove a square peg into a round hole. It doesn’t fit.
And you won’t necessarily fit into your old life anymore either.
So don’t try and cling to the notion that just because you have returned to the place you once called home that you have to fit back into your old routine. You don’t. You’re bigger than that now, so create a new comfort zone, a new paradigm; one where you can deal with being home as just a place where you happen to be for the moment. You don’t have to fit back in, you don’t have to get straight back to the 9 – 5 and settle down with the mortgage and the kids. You can do whatever you damn well please with your life, and you can redefine a new comfort zone, a new way of thinking, that allows you to easily be back in the place you once called home for as long as you want or need to be there. You can still get a little reverse culture shock as you attempt to haggle over a pair of jeans on the high street, but if you embrace your gypsy blood and backpackers soul then you can return home and be completely content in your surroundings. Letting go of all that weight, all those societal expectations can be extremely liberating, and embracing the powerful new persona that has evolved from the ashes can be the most empowering thing you can ever do.
Remember you are not trapped.
A huge part of reverse culture shock is the sudden feeling of being trapped, of being restricted. Of having all that freedom and wonder that you enjoyed on your gap year suddenly taken away from you and the soul crushing feeling that it is over and now you have to return to normality.
It isn’t true. It’s an illusion created by those old doubts and fears that you used to have before you started travelling, and you are being sucked back into them again.
Taking a gap year or a backpacking trip doesn’t have to be a once in a lifetime thing, travelling the world is not a one off experience never to be repeated. Okay, so you may have to get back to normality and work for a little while, but what is stopping you from saving up for your next trip? What is stopping you from going on a series of weekend breaks, short holidays or snap years to appease that wanderlust in you just a little? Absolutely nothing!
Taking a day out or even a long weekend to a city or popular tourist attraction near you that you have never been too can be a really effective tool in beating reverse culture shock. Seeing parts of your own country through a travellers eyes can help you not only get a taste of that travelling freedom again, but also appreciate your own country a little more too!
I came back from my first backpacking trip and felt all these things and more. It was tough. I couldn’t settle, I couldn’t satiate that wanderlust inside me, it literally felt like the gypsy blood in me was boiling and the only way I could ease the fever was to get back on a plane. So I did. And I haven’t stopped since! Sure, I have periods back in England now to work and maintain my career but it isn’t somewhere I consider home, it is just somewhere I happen to be for the moment. Home to me is wherever the next plane takes me. This isn’t for everyone of course, eventually some people do want to settle down and have a family or do whatever it is that makes them happy, and that is great too; but until then, you don’t have to struggle with that sudden, crushing feeling of your travels being over. You can have the best of both worlds! And realising that makes the transition back to normality that little easier to bear.
It does get easier with time!
No matter how hard reverse culture shock hits you, how bad you feel on returning or what tools you use to help you along the way, reverse culture shock does get better! You will readjust to your new life eventually and you will learn to adapt your once familiar surroundings to fit in with your new travel enhanced alter ego.
So when you get back from your travels, take a little bit of time to acclimatise back into familiar surroundings and then go forth and create a new, better life for yourself. Use all the awesome experiences and adventures you gained on your travels to find your place in the world again, because no matter what path you choose after your round the world adventures one thing is absolutely certain; you and your life will be infinitely more awesome as a result!