Coping With Culture Shock

Africa, Caribbean, Leaving & Coming Home, South Africa, Working Abroad — By on March 31, 2010 at 10:29 pm

Arriving back in America after spending time abroad is difficult no matter where you’re coming from. Re-integrating back into society, and back into your everyday life, can range from depressing to shocking – or even completely comfortable depending on where you’re coming from and what your experiences there were like.

The hardest transition I ever had was when I returned from Cuba. I spent five days in Boston visiting friends but was literally too culture shocked to even engage with them. I had re-entered America, with its constant stimulation, after living for three months in a country without cell phones, television, advertising, shopping or anything approximating “normal” food. I had missed three months of American pop culture – the music, the TV shows, the movies – and felt completely lost. I had left a country where people lived on less than 20 dollars a month and entered one where most people – myself included – can easily spend that in an hour at a bar or restaurant. I felt physically nauseated by the excess and couldn’t go the mall or a restaurant without thinking of the people I left behind and the dramatically different way that they lived. One thing that also contributed to the shock was that the plane flight between Havana and Miami is only half an hour, so there was really no time to adjust to the fact that I would be entering a different world shortly.

After fleeing Boston a day early I arrived at my parent’s house in Vermont, where I spent days in pajamas with unwashed hair (think Johnny Depp from The Secret Window), drinking wine to calm the “pena” (in Spanish this mean “guilt” or just generally bad feelings) and ignoring my cell phone. This, ladies, was culture shock at its most extreme, or at least the most extreme I’ve experienced it. It was a long time before I could even buy coffee again without thinking about how much two dollars means to people there, and I still don’t shop or generally spend money the way I used to. Sometimes, in situations like these, I think you just have to ride it out.

Adjusting from South Africa this year was different for several reasons. Working as a journalist in South Africa (Cape Town especially) can often feel like living in Europe, as the city center is modern and beautiful, and working in Africa. I reported on issues common in African countries, such as AIDS, poverty and protests, and worked in the surrounding townships where millions live in shacks, but the harsh realities of the country weren’t so much a part of my social and personal life as they were in Cuba.

What was difficult was coming back to the United States and learning to be happy and fulfilled as a normal college student. I had been traveling for a year, and not just traveling but doing some of the best writing and work of my life. I had started learning photography, an entirely new and fascinating skill. After the initial thrill of re-connecting with my friends and visiting my old haunts I began to feel restless. I didn’t feel challenged or inspired on a daily basis anymore. There was really no compelling reason to get up in the morning; Boston was cold and gray and I didn’t have interesting work to do anymore. Whatever you want to call it, I was googling plane tickets to far away destinations even though I didn’t have the time or money for a trip, and that’s not a good sign. I think many people feel this way upon returning from a trip. Your everyday life loses some of its luster after you experience other ways of living and looking at the world. Everyday life can’t always be an adventure, and traveling pretty much always is, even when you don’t want it to be.

I think the best advice I can give to travel junkies returning home is to appreciate what you have. The first night I came back from Cuba my best friend from the last five years stayed up talking, eating chocolate and drinking wine with me until six am because I couldn’t sleep, even though she had class at eight. When I was hiding in Vermont my best friend from childhood dragged me to visit her at college because she was worried I was going crazy at home by myself. My friends from Boston put up with me regaling them with tale after tale of the good, the bad and the ugly times in Africa, Latin America and Europe, even if I’m telling them the same story for the second (or third) time. And most amazingly of all, no matter how many times I leave or for how long, they are always there when I come home, never begrudging me my adventures or for leaving them behind. No matter how many countries I go to, no matter how many people I meet, my life-long friendships will always be the greatest fulfillment of all.

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    1 Comment

  • Joya says:

    Thanks for writing this article. I definitely felt culture shock when I came home. I went to this street festival filled with yuppy 20-somethings and it felt weird not being surrounded by a diverse group of people in Greece or Spain or Ireland or wherever I was. I too get depressed sometimes doing the same thing everyday now, work, gym, home that it makes me long for another trip but I’m so confused and conflicted as to what to do. A lot of my friends don’t live in the same city as me so that adds to me wanting to go back to traveling so I’m trying to give myself time to sort myself out and take a shorter trip in the meantime.