On Reverse Culture Shock and Readjusting

Home home home! It has been wonderful. I spent two full weeks with family and friends catching up on all the things I’ve missed and just spending time relaxing with them. It’s been marvelous and everything I’ve hoped for. They have been thoughtful, understanding, loving, and supportive of my experience, and I’m truly lucky. But…

I still miss St. Petersburg. A lot. In fact:

25 Things I Already Miss About St. Petersburg

  1. Efficient public transportation (aka: not driving in snow)
  2. Almette Cheese Spread
  3. Borsch
  4. Let’s just say all Russian food because it was delicious. Mmmmm, all healthy and organic.
  5. Счастье Кафе
  6. Produktis on every corner. (Little grocery stores)
  7. Bread trucks
  8. Hot chocolate that is literally just a melted candy bar. (If you want the American form of Hot Chocolate, ask for Hot Cocoa aka: Какао.)
  9. Boyarskiy shots
  10. Cheap books
  11. Easy access to ZARA stores
  12. Пышки
  13. The city’s beauty (I find I am missing this the most.)
  14. My razgavor professor. She was exceptional.
  15. Marshrutkas
  16. Easy access to Georgian cuisine
  17. Russian culture – ballets, museums, operas…
  18. Hearing Russian spoken and reading in cyrillic 24/7
  19. Not always understanding what everyone is saying around you. Sometimes, it is nice to be blissfully unaware.
  20. How kind Russian people are. They are far more willing to go out of their way to help someone than Americans are.
  21. Being pale is considered to be attractive and normal over there!
  22. Banyas
  23. How classy people looked. I was amazed at just how sloppy most Americans dress. Sweatpants will never be acceptable in public ever again.
  24. Russian frankness
  25. The wonderful friends that I had to leave behind.

There are, however, many things I appreciate more now that I have returned home, such as: water pressure in the showers, large towels that cover your entire body, drinking tap water and getting water for free in restaurants/bars, not needing to use a converter for everything, high sanitary standards, and an efficient post office/mail delivery service (just for starters). A pet peeve of mine at my host’s, particularly since I grew up in the dairy state of Wisconsin, was that she would leave cheese sitting open in the refrigerator, which caused it to get hard and stale within a day or so.

As a Sconnie, that is just sinful.

But I must warn anyone returning back from a long trip abroad: reverse culture shock is very real. (Heads up, this post is about to get serious. I’m going to be completely honest about everything and I encourage anyone who has experienced reverse culture shock to leave me a message with their thoughts on how they went through it and moved passed it.) There are exceptions, I’m sure, and everyone suffers from it under varying degrees but it exists. And from what I’ve gathered through other friends, reverse cultures shock is even worse than the original. The best explanation I can give is one I read on a fellow tumblr site.

“Why is reverse culture shock worse? Well, unfortunately, I do not have an exact answer for this, but my guess would be something along these lines:  When you go abroad, everything is new and different and exciting.  People understand that this is strange to you.  It’s not like that back home.  You may have been off changing, but you’ll find that the people back home have been living more or less the same life.  And their idea of you, who you are, has remained more or less the same as well.  They’re going to be expecting the you that left so long ago, but you’re not going to fit into that box anymore.”

I’ve read that there are two periods of it: the first was the clear shock stage right after getting off the plane, while the second took place 6-8 months after returning home. I have only experienced the first so far, so I can give my personal account of that.

The first is when the really obvious differences are going to be confusing and probably bug the crap out of you. I had expected the jet lag struggle (it’s very real), the readjusting to processed foods (I threw up for the first 3-5 days. Spicy foods in particular, until my stomach finally accepted it.), and the peculiar mannerisms from strangers. I was not expecting to find myself growing annoyed with people who were close to me. Friends, family, neighbors… It wasn’t their fault – they hadn’t changed, I had – but there it was. I found myself grinding my teeth when I was constantly interrupted in the middle of a sentence (Americans are notorious for this). I found that I would personally get hurt feelings when friends and family would ask “How was Russia?” but only cared to listen for the first 3-5 minutes before they grew bored with the topic.  To me, it came off so insincere a question that I stopped bothering to answer it with more than a, “Great! Hard to sum it up in just a few sentences.” I’d wait to see if that actually cared to ask more. Some people did. See, in America, questions such as, “How are you?” or “How was ____?” are normally asked as a greeting rather than actually wishing for a long-winded response. I had grown used to the Russian approach to this question, however, which was a you-better-sit-down-because-you’re-going-to-be-here-for-a-while sort of thing. I had forgotten that not everyone wanted to listen to my adventure, and sometimes that was hard to swallow. It was okay, they were entitled to that, but that didn’t mean it didn’t sting a little. Things such as foot/shoe etiquette (which is very different in Russia from America, where feet are considered generally cleanish rather than Untouchables), the appropriateness of kissing friends in greeting, hearing “This is completely unacceptable.” in a Starbucks line, mean-muggging anyone who is whistling indoors, and forgetting the English equivalent for the word I wanted to say would would frustrate me more than I had planned. Stereotypical comments such as, “Are you a communist now?” or “How’s our little Russian spy?” or “God, I hope our country never turns out like that.” – usually meant in good humor – would cause me to roll my eyes and get defensive. There were a lot of things that Americans could learn from Russians, just as there were a lot of things Russians could take note on from Americans. We both have things we could work on, but, in my mind, who were they to judge this other culture when they hadn’t had the experience that I had? What I realized was that there are going to be some common misconceptions about the place you were, so it may be a good idea to prepare short answers to frequently asked questions. This way you won’t be caught off guard when people ask you questions that may sound ignorant (“Does everyone drink vodka for breakfast, lunch, and dinner”) or somewhat offensive. I had read an article before I had left about trying to refrain from saying, “Well, when I lived ______” or “Well, over in ________ …” so as not to come off as “pretentious” or that I was “bragging”, so I tried to keep silent about my experience unless someone asked. Don’t get me wrong, I understand why it could get a little annoying to hear “When I was in Russia…” over and over. I mean, I was only there for four months right? How could I not just snap back into my American life like the flip of a light-switch? But it’s the truth. A lot happens in four months, in both the US and Russia. I found that not sharing my trip, more than anything, was the most frustrating because I couldn’t relate to anything that had gone on in the past few months in the United States. I hadn’t been here. 

As bad as I make it all sound, though, it really wasn’t. It’s more of an internal struggle where you have to watch what you say and think about how you’re going to approach a situation. Social interactions in America differ than in Russia. You have to remember that most people don’t mean to hurt your feelings or annoy you. It’s just happening because social interactions were not like this in your host country. So just recognize it for what it is and work through it. You’ll readjust before you know it.

The second phase that takes place a few months later is something that I’ve only read about. I’ll let you all know if I feel the same way come mid-June. As a fellow blogger wrote,

“This is a much deeper discomfort—the kind you might not be able to put your finger on for a while, a general antsy-ness, a feeling of distance or displacement.  You might find yourself lashing out against your native culture or attempting to recede into your adopted one.  Personally, I remember feelings of otherness, as if I had lost my own culture and my place in it but hadn’t fully integrated into the second.  I had nowhere.  No culture.  That was the worst.”

Let’s face it, it’s hard moving back home to your previous life after having such an adventure abroad. It seems a little anti-climatic after what you’ve just experienced. Basic things such as missing your old routine, FaceTiming friends who are still over there or abroad, accidentally forgetting words from your native language, reading about historical sights and tours that you missed, and feeling lost and out of sorts back home in your native country are normal. I’ve already slipped into using Russian on a day to day basis because I fear that I will forget it all now that I’m not constantly surrounded by my adoptive language. I once read that a second language is like a muscle that you must work constantly or it will atrophy. It’s made me paranoid.

My best advice is to plan in advance. Research the heck out of reverse culture shock. It sounds silly, but it helped me to move past it when I recognized what it was. Take lots of pictures and bring back mementos that mean something to you rather than those chintzy, cheap souvenirs that you could find on eBay. Don’t always take photos of buildings or artwork either. Take photos of your walk home from school or work, of your favorite restaurant and foods, of the people that you pass on the street. It will remind you of more than tourist attractions. Make sure to get addresses, phone numbers, emails, VK, and Facebook contact information from all your friends abroad too. Maybe even try to plan a trip to return for a visit, if you have the means! Save up and bring your family/friends with, so that you can share your experience with them. Another great way to share your trip with them, minus the non-stop commentary, is by cooking up some traditional dishes or watching a movie you enjoyed abroad. I know I’m going to attempt making borsch for my family and khatchipurri for my roommate. (Pictures to come on the result.)

At the same time, don’t compare and contrast your home with your host country. Just like your own country can frustrate you at times, your host country isn’t without its problems. Each has their positives and negatives, and it can be easy to forget that once you’ve returned home. It’s okay to miss it, though. Even cry over it. I know I get teary-eyed when I think back to my life in Petersburg, and I haven’t even been gone long. Just try to remember that your responsibilities are now back in your native country. Embrace your study abroad experience, but don’t forget that your life is no longer there and you cannot live in the past. There are many wonderful things going on in your life here, and those are the things you need to focus on. In all reality, life has probably moved on without you being there and not everything will seem familiar. You will have to readapt to the positive and negative changes that occurred, but remember that, despite the sacrifices you made going abroad, it was definitely worth the experience.

Finally, and most importantly, don’t forget to remind your family that they were missed. Because they were. A lot. (Remember Thanksgiving? Yeah. You better shower them with love.) Make sure to ask about their lives and their semester, any new updates you missed while you were gone, and take notice of new furniture of decorations around the house. Your family will appreciate it, trust me. They missed you a lot, so be sure to give them the attention they deserve. If you’re like me, you may want to just block out an entire week or so before going off to see friends. Also, remember that not everyone has the opportunity to study abroad and factor this in to your conversation so that you sound appreciative about your experience, not snooty.

I hope this post didn’t come off as negative. It was merely to caution anyone who is going to go abroad for a while because this is a reality you’ll have to face upon returning. Honestly, my readjustment went great. Jet lag was gone in a week, I was eating Mexican food within five days, and I was falling into my American habits by the time New Years Eve came around. You should have seen my face when I saw my parents’ refrigerators.


100% accurate

I still have some bad Russian habits I’m trying to break, and some good ones I’m trying to keep. Time is the best cure. You just have to ride it all out until it takes hold.

Know what I found out helps a lot? Starting a blog.

Проживай каждый день будто последний. Наслаждайся каждым мигом, каждой секундой своего существования. Впитывай каждую каплю радости и счастья, улыбок и прикосновений. Занимайся тем, без чего жить не можешь. Люби безоглядно, обнимай крепче стали. Цени прошлое, смотри в настоящее. И будь счастлива. В конце концов ты этого достойна.

“Live each day like the last. Enjoy every moment, every second of its existence. Absorb every drop of joy and happiness, smiles and touches. Tend to those whom you cannot live without . Love recklessly, hug stronger than steel. Appreciate the past, look to the present. And be happy. After all, you deserve it.”

(And just in case this post was a little heavy, here is an image of Putin playing with balloon animals. Yes, you read that right.)

Well, everyone has a a hobby.