Reverse culture shock from long-term travel is the real deal… one I’m grappling with right now.
“You’ve got to get out of here. This is not normal.”
June’s tone was serious. English traveler, friend, and long time blog follower, June was riding with me in a car past burning mounds of trash along a Bangladeshi highway. She paused conversation to snap photos of the spectacle; I apathetically scrolled through my Instagram messages. Documentation complete, June returned to the issue at hand.
“I’ve traveled the world like you for years. Trust me. You’ve got to get out of these countries every once in a while, or else you’ll forget where you come from. You cannot let this become normal for you.” Scavenging people poking through the trash whizzed by the window.
Typical cocky twenty-something, I mentally scoffed. I am a cultural chameleon! An exception! Adapting to my environment is my forte and I will be fine!
… but since that moment, I couldn’t stop thinking about what she said.
F*cked up normalcy
The thing is, I think June was right. What has become “normal” to me?
Trash mounds crawling with pigs or stray dogs or people or licking flames are no surprise. Walkways coated in waste do not phase me; I simply join the crowds trudging beaten paths through stinking urban swamps.
Normal is public spaces overflowing with men… and only men. Missing women are in “their place” at home, hidden away behind car windows and rickshaw panels, or swathed in fabric to “protect” them from the crowds of men. Men are my only conversation partners; men are often the only ones I can meet. Some days it upsets me, most days I accept my fate.
My religious views (… or lack thereof) are like a dirty secret, a burden only to be shared with a very select few on the ground. The idea of telling someone my true beliefs makes me uncomfortable; they might interpret my beliefs as a betrayal of theirs, and act upon it.
Rearranging on buses and taxis and trains to ensure women can sit next to me is instinctive. I feel conscious walking around with only male friends for company. Without realizing it, I’ve adapted to cultural norms put in place to keep boys and girls far from each other in the name of modesty and decency… even though I believe in the exact opposite.
So what isn’t normal then?
These days, something as simple as a woman smoking a cigarette or walking alone is exciting to me. Young boys and girls hanging out and flirting, even in the dark of night in the most secluded places, seems like the sexual revolution of the 60s. Places qualify as delightfully clean if the pieces of trash on the ground can be counted on my fingers. Working women in any public-facing field are a noteworthy occurrence.
Realizing my standards had shifted was uncomfortable enough. Then I was thrown into the deep end.
Lost in Latin America
The shock hit me when I flew from Islamabad, Pakistan, to Manaus, Brazil.
Before getting on the plane, I was in a conservative country of strict social constructs. Where men rule the streets and women stay at home. Where I was once offered a sheet to shield my body from prying eyes before heading out for the evening. Where walking around on my own as a woman is often a spectacle, rather than a norm.
Several flights later, I was in a state capital where gangs of both boys and girls hang out in parks smoking cigarettes together at night, and couples hold hands while walking the streets in broad daylight. Where God is present, but isn’t the sole motivator of law and actions.
A friend told me about his homosexuality loud and proud in public without issue. Not a single long stare punctured my time wandering through Manaus’ streets on my own.
Two weeks after that, I landed in Cartagena, Colombia.
In Cartagena’s old city, historic buildings are preserved with care, and city streets lined with dustbins are cleaned each day. Street dogs were few and not rotting to death; horses with gleaming coats drew polished carriages. Girls in clothes tight enough to burst drove by on their own motorbikes.
One warm Cartagena evening, I shared kisses and cheap beer in a public square with a Colombian boy I’d met. No bystander so much as batted an eyelid.
I eventually pulled away in shock. “One month ago I would never have gotten away with this,” I breathed, half exhilarated, half confused. “I can’t believe this is happening.”
He laughed and we carried on. Alcohol and warm weather dulled my turbulent thoughts, but I still peered out of the corner of my eye to make sure no scowling aunties or perverted men were watching. They weren’t.
As my hangover dissipated and my head cleared the next morning, I probed the muddled emotions in my mind:
Shock. Everything and everyone on the streets around me felt so foreign, so surreal, so… sexual. Like I dropped straight into a film… or a porn.
Shame. Guilt niggled in my mind when I thought about how “immodest” I was the previous evening. The confusion intensified when I realized I shouldn’t feel that way in the first place.
Confusion. Despite the culture being relatively similar to my own, I felt like a lost outsider looking in…. so where was my place, then?
Too fitting to be foreign, too foreign to be fitting
“Place” can be mental as well as physical. A space, a culture, an ideology you feel comfortable with, that feels normal to you.
The thing is, over the last 2+ years my perception of what is “normal” has clearly distorted.
During those two plus years, I spent a total of almost 1.5 years traveling through conservative South Asia—particularly India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh—and began to feel very at home in the region despite its frustrations. What caused my cultural shift?
After pondering for a long while, I realized it’s because everywhere I go in Asia, my dark hair and melanin get me mistaken for a local. And I think salwar kameez is the greatest clothing ever.
Passersby ask me questions in their language; faces screw up in confusion when I can’t respond. I slip into sights for local prices. Strangers ask me to translate their comments when I walk around with white travelers (when they don’t ignore me altogether). Locals are more comfortable speaking with me because my appearance is familiar, more approachable. Half of my followers seem to think I’m a desi girl from India or Pakistan.
(Assimilation has its setbacks. I’m often judged according to local standards; my actions earn plenty of scowls and disapproval from haughty aunties and uncles. I am not automatically granted the leeway or privileges white foreigners receive. Lecherous men also find me more approachable and appealing because I am their holy grail: the “loose” morals of an American combined with the looks of a desi girl. Sigh.)
In a way, I feel like I belong. More than I ever did in the overwhelmingly white suburban communities of my childhood, anyway.
Yet at the same time, I’m never going to be desi, never going to be a true part of any South Asian culture.
No matter what I wear, how I speak, the way I act, I will always be an outsider, an angrezi, a firangi. Once it’s known, people do not easily forget that I was born in the United States. I am introduced as American girl by friends and acquaintances on the good days, reminded that I am naught but a clueless outsider by people uncomfortable with my opinions on the bad days.
One of my feet is inside the desi door (shoe off, of course). The other has to wait on the outside—on the other side of the world—forever.
Caught between cultures
It’s not that I aspire to walk through this metaphorical door, to be accepted as local. But it feels like my body and mind have already passed through the doorframe, and I’m not sure if that’s where they should be.
Where does one draw the line between appreciating and adapting to a culture and standing back from it? What do you do when you’ve been away from home long enough that another culture is more comfortable than your own?
I don’t yet have an answer to the conundrum; I’m still coming to terms with the extent of it myself.
Now that I’m visiting my family at “home” the United States—simultaneously an epitome of West and a melting pot of people caught between cultures—those questions become even more muddled.
The United States has not been my home for more than five years. It feels more foreign than some of the places I’ve been… yet it still defines me as a person. Whether I like it or not.
Coming “home” requires me to confront this identity, to step through mental stages of reverse culture shock. Shock is necessary to come to terms with both what I’ve seen and who I’ve become through my travels… but it’s damned confusing sometimes.
Though I’m still sorting out my own mental mess, I want to share my experience with reverse culture shock with you now. Reverse culture shock is a very real side effect of travel that isn’t discussed enough… and not everyone realizes it exists.
Reverse culture shock is real
Reverse culture shock is often lost on others who have never been away long enough for home to feel foreign.
In my experience, people think I should be grateful to come back to a developed Western world, not confused by it. Plenty of you out there know the feeling; a handful already stepped forward to message me about your own confusing experiences coming home.
Returning “home” and realizing it’s uncomfortable foreign is perplexing enough as is. Not being able to express that sentiment without coming off as some preachy person who went and ~*found themselves*~ and/or became a Certifiable Saint after a week of volunteering in a developing country is even worse.
It’s tough. If people around you don’t understand—or realize the shock is real at all—you have to internalize your feelings, which is never a good thing.
For those struggling with reverse culture shock after long-term travel, there are a few things I’ve personally found helpful for managing it:
1. Don’t bother trying to share with people who don’t care.
It’ll just make you feel bad, and marginalize your internal struggle even more. Save your travel stories (and outsider observations about home) for people who will actually listen, care, and discuss with you.
2. Travel in your own home.
You’ve survived your explorations of foreign places or countries—what’s to stop you from doing the same on your own turf? Seek out some of the same experiences you do on the road. In my case, that means people watching, seeking delicious sugar-filled delights, and keeping an eye out for unusual or interesting experiences.
3. Fixate on the good things about coming home/back to your culture.
After initial weeks of dwelling and confusion, I’m trying to actively focus on the things I enjoy that I don’t have on the road: family time, healthy food (… in between unhealthy ice creams), actually good drinks, jogging without loitering men eye-raping my body.
Adaptation is a gradual process, and these things have been easing mine.
All in good time
Of course, they’re not a quick fix; shock takes time to fade. Around two months (!!!) have passed since I flew to Brazil and returned to the Western world, and I’m still finding my balance.
Tiny clothes are no longer shocking—booty shorts and joggers in sports bras being the exceptions—I’ve learned to ignore consumerist discussions, and I’ve mostly managed to tame my griping about how good life is for people in the US compared to people abroad.
Mega American supermarkets still unnerve me. Strolling down the prim river trail through Philadelphia filled with joggers in athletic clothes and hipster yuppie families was like exploring another planet. I instantly felt ashamed when a Bengali auntie in a sari gave me and my bare legs a withering look in a desi market last week.
As with everything in life, I know with time my mind will find its equilibrium. If I can adapt to one culture, I can transition “back” to another… and then adapt once more when I get back on the road.
Until then, I’ll continue on living as the outsider. I’m used to it—such is the life of a traveler.
Want more real talk from the road? Here’s what it was like to break up while traveling.