I’ve been back in the US for about two months now, and as always, reverse culture shock is beginning to sink in. In many ways, reverse culture shock–culture shock that happens when you’ve returned to your home country–is often more difficult than the culture shock that you experience when you move to a foreign country. You expect, when traveling someplace new, for things to be different from what you’re used to. No one expects to find differences when they return to what used to be familiar, the place that for most of their lives was home.
I’ve navigated this issue several times now. The first time was the hardest. I had just returned–quite unwillingly–from living in France for a year. I’d felt more at home in Paris than I had anywhere else previously, and I felt that it was where I belonged. The art, the food, the culture all spoke to me. French felt like my mother tongue. I had adapted to France to thoroughly that people were shocked to find out I was American. France, from Paris to Saint Michel to Aix-en-Provence, welcomed me and made me feel that I was truly at home.
When I returned to the US, I felt that life was ending. Everything that I had grown to cherish over the past year was finished, and the shock manifested in unexpected ways. The cheese counter at the local grocery store made me want to cry. American English sounded harsh against my ears. I was despondent for a very long time, wishing more than anything that I could go back.
This time around, it’s a bit different. With France, I had fallen completely and unabashedly in love. With Egypt, I had a much more complex relationship. There were many things I loved–the monuments, the desert, the hospitality of the people. There were many things I hated–the traffic, the sexual harassment, the lack of trees, the fact that almost all of my hobbies in the US could be construed as scandalous in some way. With protests happening on a weekly basis, I was ready to leave when I finished my practicum–but I stayed until the last possible moment, all the same.
Here in the US, I’ve gone from Boston to Florida to DC in the space of the 2 months that I’ve been back. Each one of these places has its own distinct culture, which both heightens and mitigates the sense of culture shock, depending how comfortable I feel with each one. Boston feels the most like my natural habitat in the US, and so I felt the most at home there. But it was also the first place I returned to, so it’s where I felt the brunt of the disconnect between my life in Cairo–circumscribed by the ongoing revolutionary activity and cultural politics–and my life in the US. Florida, where I grew up, felt strange in the way of childhood homes.
Now that I’ve finally settled in DC, with plans to stay for at least the next year, the disconnect grows stronger. Instead of feeling that my circumstances are curtailed by protests and sexual politics, I feel that my circumstances are curtailed by the economy and the terrible job market. I no longer have to check twitter to make sure that there’s not a battle going on downtown before I go out, or brace myself for graphic sexual invitations every time I walk down the street. The direct threats to my physical well-being are much fewer and less apparent here. The main threats I feel now are far more nebulous: looming student loans, the grinding process of applying to jobs and the fear of never finding one, the feeling of stasis that comes from suddenly ceasing to move after such a long time away.
Having gone through reverse culture shock so many times, I now know how to handle it. Focus on the good things about whatever place you’re in–the friends and family you’ve returned to, the old haunts that you’ve missed. Try to find at least a few people who have been to the place you’ve returned from, so that you can share stories and reminisce. Look for a cafe or grocer that specializes in food from the region that you’ve just returned from. And throw yourself into your new location so that you experience it completely, like a new traveler in a new place for the first time. You’ll discover hidden treasures that you never knew about, and you’ll be able to preserve, for at least a while, the feeling of still being on the road.