Reverse Culture Shock // What Is It & How To Deal With It

Surviving the Trials and Tribulations of Returning Home After China

So what exactly is reverse culture shock?

We’re all familiar with the concept of culture shock, right? The jolting feeling that drags you out the blissful honeymoon phase of being in China right into the ‘will I ever adapt to drinking hot water??’ nightmare of questioning everything. 

So how about going home – surely returning to the west would be nothing but plain sailing?

There’d certainly be no culinary shocks or confusing social behaviour to navigate.

Or at least, so most of us think.

Many people who have lived abroad return home and realize pretty quickly that things, well, just aren’t how they used to be.

All of a sudden, you realize hot water, breakfast baozi and bubble tea have become your home comforts.

Could it be… you have reverse culture shock?

In this article, I’ll talk about what exactly reverse culture shock is, how to deal with it and my own experience of reverse culture shock!

Reverse Culture Shock | Are Culture Shock & Reverse Culture Shock The Same?

Reverse Culture Shock | What is Reverse Culture Shock?

Reverse Culture Shock | How to Deal With it

Reverse Culture Shock | My China to USA Experience

Reverse Culture Shock | FAQ’s

This Mamahuhu video is a great take on reverse culture shock!

Are Culture Shock and Reverse Culture Shock the Same?

Yes and no.

Culture shock and reverse culture shock are similar in many ways.

Both involve a certain level of emotional and psychological adaptation to a change of environment. Equally, both take time to work through.

With both culture and reverse culture shock, you may feel as though you don’t quite fit in. Things might not make sense to you on a logical level and you might find yourself feeling frustrated or upset.

Even the staff at LTL have had their fair share of culture shock coming to China, whether it be Baijiu drinking culture or new dating norms.

However, they’re not totally the same.

First of all, culture shock is the feeling of disorientation as you adapt to a new environment, whilst reverse culture shock is the discomfort of readjusting to your native country.

Heading out to China soon?

Check out our article 12 Things I Wish I Knew Before Coming to China

Another key difference is that culture shock is generally a lot more widely acknowledged.

Before we go abroad, we’re often inundated with guides on adjusting to our new home. By the time we arrive, we’re well-warned and well-prepared.

Yet the return journey is often considered to be an exciting time full of seeing loved ones and basking in sweet familiarity of life at home.

This alone often makes reverse culture shock more difficult to deal with.

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Being a Chinese American in China 🇨🇳🇺🇸 Hannah’s Story in Shanghai

Being a Chinese American in China – What’s the Truth? My name is Hannah, and I lived in Shanghai for about 6 months, studying Chinese with LTL! While I’ve written lots of blog posts, this one is a little different,…

What is Reverse Culture Shock?

Reverse culture shock is the term given to describe feelings of disorientation, discomfort or frustration often experienced when returning to one’s native cultural environment.

Put simply, cultural quirks that once felt natural now feel odd, pointless or even annoying.

Here’s some of the common signs of reverse culture shock:

Shanghai-dumplings
Tell people about the best food in China – they respond with WTF is that ☹️
  • You may feel as though you don’t understand things at home, or people at home no longer understand you. The way in which you view the world has almost certainly changed through living in China. You might find that your way of seeing things is now vastly different to the people back home. This can result in feeling down, frustrated, bored, or alone.
  • You’re ‘homesick’ towards your adopted country. You miss the friends you made, places you visited, food you ate. Whilst it’s great to have some home comforts and see your loved ones again, you might find yourself suddenly craving the daily adventures of being abroad.
  • People don’t want to hear about China. Many people find that upon returning home, exciting tales of China life fall on uninterested ears. This isn’t your fault, more often than not, it’s because people around you find it difficult to relate.
  • Friends and family have moved on. The reverse may also be true – you might come back to find that people at home have changed and have experienced things you find it difficult to relate to. You’ve missed out on some of their important life events and you’re no longer sure where you fit in.
  • You’re feeling critical. Living abroad often results in us seeing hometowns or countries in a new light, one which isn’t particularly positive. You might even be judging wider society as a whole, such as how undervalued the education system is or how wasteful most people are.
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10 Must Try Shanghainese Foods 🍜 Your Complete Guide

Chinese food is so diverse that it’s really difficult to say what’s best, so we’ve diluted it down. Here are the top 10 best Shanghainese food dishes.

  • You’re unsure about how to use your new talents in the job market. It’s a little disconcerting to discover your hometown friends are fluent in taxes and progressing up their own career ladders, whilst you’re going to have to start from scratch with your skillset being primed for working abroad.
  • You blend in with the crowd and you don’t like it. Even when you’re living in a larger, more international city in China, you’re almost certainly going to stand out. Foreigner status (pretty much anywhere in the world) automatically makes you more interesting. Yet once you’re home, you find you’re just another person on the street.

All of this can feel like a lot to deal with.

How to Deal With Culture Shock

Don’t worry, just like regular culture shock, there’s an abundance of ways to deal with reverse culture shock too!

Here are our top tips:

  • Take advantage of that new zest for life living abroad gave you. Try out new hobbies or activities. You could even try being a tourist in your own country, who needs the Great Wall when you’ve got the Grand Canyon!
  • Find language classes that help you stay connected to the country you were living in, whether than be Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, or others! These will also help you connect with people who have shared similar experiences and will likely be more excited to swap stories with you.
  • Stay in touch with friends abroad. This will help you avoid that ‘was it all just a dream?!’ feeling. Social media can be a huge help for keeping in touch (think twice too about deleting WeChat when you come home)!
  • Send new friends postcards and little gifts from your home country. This is a great way to keep your friendships strong. Equally, don’t forget to throw yourself into your relationships at home too, balance is key.
  • Make new memories with friends and family at home. You might have missed out celebrating some birthdays, weddings or even pregnancies, but rather than focusing on this lost time, take your hometown bestie out for belated birthday drinks, or bring those new parents some food you tried in the country you lived in.
  • Hold off on the friendly fire. Whilst you might be thinking about how much better things were abroad – we’d recommend not sharing those opinions with friends and family. It’s totally normal to feel this way, though people at home might not want to hear these kind of comments and they might come off as a little judgmental or abrasive. Just as you accepted your new country – remember to be openminded about your own too!
  • Remember that your new skills are a strength. Cultural and linguistic knowledge are valued hugely by international companies. Living abroad will also show employers that you are independent, adaptable and willing to embrace a challenge. These advantages will be of enormous help in the job market.
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Study in China as an International Student 👩🏽‍🎓 Your Complete Guide (for 2022)

A how-to guide for studying in China as an international student, from why you should do your undergrad abroad, to writing your application.

My Own Experience of Reverse Culture Shock

When I flew to the US early in the summer of 2022, I strode off the plane with the confidence of a Brit in a fish and chip shop.

However, what I encountered in my first few days was a barrage of surprises as I came across a whole host of half-forgotten, previously-unnoticed social phenomena.

Below are my top 10 experiences of reverse culture shock:

Masks: to wear or to not wear?

Whilst living in China this year, COVID-19 was still at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Naturally, masks came along with that. 

Masks are needed for class, for work, for supermarkets, for the gym and even for walking in the park.

Things could not have been more different after touching down in the US.

Even before I had left the airport, bare, mask-less faces were everywhere. Granted, I arrived in Las Vegas where everyone just wants to relax and forget about the pandemics of the outer world, but still.

Since arriving in the US I’ve spent time in Baltimore and Philadelphia and the consensus is pretty clear: masks are out.

Portions and pizza-sized cookies

Now, this might feel like a cheap shot. But we need to discuss portion sizes in the US because they are HUGE.

As I wandered off the plane, bleary-eyed and jet-lagged, I was in desperate need of a coffee.

I ordered a large latte, expecting sizes to be ubiquitous across the Starbucks of the world. Then I received what can only be described as a small-to-medium swimming pool’s worth of coffee.

I ogled at my 31 ounce (!!!) iced latte and then noticed behind my gargantuan coffee was a row of cookies bigger than most pizzas I’d seen in China.

This is something I’ve still not fully adapted to. Side dishes and appetizers here are bigger than most mains I’ve ordered in China.

It’s definitely been hard not to feel judgmental about the amount of food waste and overconsumption.

Using English everywhere: 我听得懂!

Learning Chinese is my favourite thing to do.

I’ve relished living in a Chinese-speaking environment and am truly thankful for each day I was able to immerse myself in a language I love.

That being said, there’s been a surprising level of relief that came with returning to an anglophone environment.

When I mishear someone, there’s no longer a sudden flash of fear that my Chinese isn’t up to par.

I’ve even been able to (sorry America) eavesdrop on plenty of conversations around me and there’s definitely been a level of relief with no longer having to mentally rehearse daily interactions.

Though on the flip side, I also have to remember to not speak my mind too freely anymore because the people around me can definitely understand what I’m saying…

Taxes, taxes, taxes

In China (and literally every other country I’ve ever been to) the tax is included in the listed price.

Why? Because it just makes sense. When I’m out grabbing a sandwich, I’ve never wanted a BLT with a side of mental math.

If a see a special $1 menu, that’s exactly how much I’d like to be paying, not $1 plus tax.

Take note, America.

Hot Topic: 50 shades of curtains

I’m not sure exactly when I missed the memo, but an alarming majority of my friends now spend a significant amount of time talking about decorating their newly-bought homes.

I’ve sat through countless conversations about what colour curtains would most complement the furniture, or the pros and cons of installing different light fixtures.

I can definitely admit I’m just being bitter on this one.

The instant I mention anything China-related, all eyes in the room immediately begin to glaze over. I’m very much jaded.

But seriously, 45 minutes on Nimbus Cloud vs Pebble Grey?

Tipping Culture

Tipping isn’t common in China. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever tipped in China.

That’s not to say I’m extremely stingy and/or hyper-critical of waitstaff. It’s actually because in China, tipping can be considered rude.

Meanwhile, in the US, workers in the service industry are often reliant on tips to make a living.

Having become accustomed to not tipping, it’s definitely hard to not want to scream at restaurant owners…

“Just pay your staff a fair wage!”

You get a meal! You get a meal! Everybody gets a meal!

In China, dining is a very social activity.

People dining together often order lots of small dishes and share them.

This means that dishes generally arrive when they’re ready, rather than all at the same time.

I was surprised to see this was also commonplace in Western-style restaurants where everyone had their own meal. I also found it a little frustrating, as there could be up to 10 minutes between the first and last dish arriving, meaning sometimes people had almost finished their food before others’ had even arrived.

However in the US, this hasn’t been an issue. Food has pretty much all arrived in-sync and there’s been no awkward waiting around or apologetic eating.

This is definitely a minor thing, but you never forget the feeling of near starvation as your friends are all digging in without you when your meal is the last to arrive.

Though I must admit, I do miss the watermelon that was often served after dinner in China!

Talking to strangers

Interactions with strangers have been vastly different in the US and China.

In China, I was asked the following questions countless times:

Can you speak Chinese?

Where are you from?

Do you teach English?

Can you teach my child/friend/brother/aunt/third-cousin English?

Whilst not a bad thing, these types of interactions were usually pretty predictable.

Since landing in the US, I’ve found strangers are willing to strike up conversations with me about the most random topics: fishing experiences, tennis tournaments and Johnny Depp.

Whilst I understand the questions I was asked in China naturally came from curiosity, I have myself enjoying the spontaneity of conversations here.

Even from my Uber drivers!

Being Anonymous

As you can probably tell by the nature of the questions I received in China, I stood out quite a bit.

Had I ever been on a most-wanted list, I’d have been pretty easy to track down.

My appearance often attracted more than curious stares and inquisitiveness, I also had my picture taken several times a week and was even spontaneously forced onto a stranger’s livestream a few times.

Yet walking amongst the tourists of Vegas, or through the bustling streets of Baltimore, I’m absolutely nobody, which is something I definitely have newfound appreciation for on bad hair and/or antisocial days.

Public transport: where art thou?

Living in China, I would almost always get the bus or subway to get from A to B.

Or maybe grab a Mobike if I was feeling adventurous or call a Didi if I was feeling lazy.

In short, I never drove. Nor did I ever feel the need.

In the US however, 76% of Americans still commute to work in their own car.

Taxis and Ubers are also significantly more expensive here than in China, whilst public transport feels less far-reaching and convenient.

If I were to stay in the US long-term, I’d find it hard to see a future in which I don’t have a car.

Again, this sounds minor, but car ownership had never crossed my mind in China and I can’t help but wonder how driving habits here are affecting the environment.

Reverse culture shock is a genuine thing and it’s something we all feel having spent a significant period of time away from our home countries.

We hope this guide has re-assured you somewhat. We all feel it, but it’s how we deal with it that counts.

Have you experienced reverse culture shock before?

Why not tell us about your experiences and feeling in the comments below?

Reverse Culture Shock // FAQ’s

What is reverse culture shock?

Reverse culture shock is the term given to describe feelings of disorientation, discomfort or frustration often experienced when returning to one’s native cultural environment.

Put simply, cultural quirks that once felt natural now feel odd, pointless or even annoying.

Is reverse culture shock the same as culture shock?

Yes and no.

Culture shock and reverse culture shock are similar in many ways.

Both involve a certain level of emotional and psychological adaptation to a change of environment. Equally, both take time to work through.

With both culture and reverse culture shock, you may feel as though you don’t quite fit in. Things might not make sense to you on a logical level and you might find yourself feeling frustrated or upset.

However, they’re not totally the same.

Culture shock is the feeling of disorientation as you adapt to a new environment, whilst reverse culture shock is the discomfort of readjusting to your native country.

How can I deal with reverse culture shock?

Here are some of our top tips:

– Take advantage of that new zest for life living abroad gave you

– Find language classes that help you stay connected

– Stay in touch with friends abroad

– Make new memories with friends and family at home

– Remember that your new skills are a strength

How can I study Chinese after returning back home?

The best way to learn Chinese back home is online with Flexi Classes.

This gives you 24/7 access to Mandarin lessons that are live and taught by native speaking teachers.

Aside from this make sure to keep Wechat on your phone and chat to Chinese friends as often as possible. Maybe even find some friends in your hometown who share the same passion for languages.

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