All of us expats living in China experience a similar reaction upon returning to our home country, whether we are returning for a short visit or permanently.
First, you land at the airport. Your home country feels so warm, so comfortable, so familiar. Everyone understands you, and you understand them. Your family and friends greet you, you pig out on your favorite foods, you feel that indescribable sense of security, and you savor the sweet scent of home.
When you walk around your hometown, nobody gawks at you, or whispers about you, or takes pictures of you in public.
Everyone simply treats you as you are, and how you should be.
You instantly feel like the missing piece of an unsolved puzzle. You fit in seamlessly, and your home feels warm, like a long-lost friend.
But soon thereafter, you begin to experience something strange.
You feel out of place, like a fish out of water.
When you first arrived, everyone asked questions about your experiences in China. They seemed intrigued by your exciting life abroad. However, after a few days, they give an annoyed look anytime you preface a sentence with, “Well, in China…”
They don’t seem to understand what you’ve experienced abroad. Perhaps you picked up some strange mannerisms, such as giving the “hang loose sign” every time you say the number six, bowing your head a little bit when you meet someone, or mixing Chinese phrases into the English conversation.
You may even try to buy something with WeChat pay.
But it’s not just you that has changed. Your family, friends, and homeland all cast a different shadow from what you remember. You notice things about your compatriots and your homeland you never noticed before. First you notice the good, and then you notice the bad.
You struggle to keep up with the fresh lingo, the latest gossip, and all that has changed.
And you remember feeling this way only once before…when you first came to China. It’s the same feeling of cultural alienation that you felt in the new land – after of course, you went through the honeymoon stage.
The term “reverse culture shock” begins with “reverse” for a reason, of course.
It’s a culmination of the same feelings you felt abroad, but somehow intensified and expedited.
Remember when you first came to China? Remember how excited you felt towards the new country? The people, the places, the food captivated you. However, after a few months you felt like a misfit, you longed for home, and wondered how you could possible adapt to this strange land.
Personally, I always use the same analogy to describe the sensation of returning home after being in China. It’s like being a fish that spent its entire life swimming through a stream of water. Then one day, a fisherman lures you out of the water, grips you in his hand, inspects you, and throws you back in the water.
Upon returning to the water you notice, for the first time, that the water exists. You notice the refraction of the light, and the ecosystem around you.
Returning home is much the same way. When you return home, you notice certain idiosyncrasies of your respective culture. You notice the good, the bad, and the ugly. And after a while, you readjust.
The best piece of advice I can give anyone returning home for the holidays – especially if this is your first time returning home – is to mentally prepare yourself. A lot of things will be different about your home, and a lot of things will be different about yourself.
People are going to be curious about your life abroad. Answer their questions, but don’t overshare. Be selective about how much you share.
Also, if you feel disconnected from new lingo, styles, and pop culture, just be honest! Ask questions, and explain that you’ve been away for a while. No one will judge you.
Most of all, always remain positive and focus on the best aspects of your time with your family and friends!