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Surviving reverse culture shock
Most people are aware of the dreaded phenomenon of culture shock, the slight or major tweaking of a way of thinking and acting due to interacting with another culture. What few realize is that there is a trend that is even worse and more mind-numbing: reverse culture shock. Reverse culture shock is worse because the “norm” has been disrupted. People experience growth while they are out of their native land. They understand change will happen, but the amount of change can be staggering. Think of it this way: If you have a baby brother, you see him every day and his changes are subtle. If the baby is your friends and they live on the opposite coast, the changes between yearly visits are drastic. “You know once you’ve been gone for so long that it’s going to be different,” second-year SIAS International University teacher Katie Mack said. “You know what you’ve experienced. You know you’ve changed.” Mack felt the full force of reverse culture shock during the 2006-07 winter break. Mack returned home to Shafter, Calif., after nearly a full year in Xinzheng, China. She knew it wouldn’t be an easy transition. Her first year in China, Mack returned home after only a few months. It was like “returning from college.” However, this time going home – after 11 months – was not going to be the same. She prepared herself by mentally going over what would be expected of her those first few days back in the United States: 70 people on Christmas Eve, 35 on Christmas. “The problem was I didn’t plan after that,” Mack said. “It felt a little awkward. I didn’t know what to do. It’s strange being in a place that you know but not having any responsibility.” It is possible to become a guest in your own home. Instead of being involved in preparations, you are encouraged to sit, rest, tell your stories. This is fine for awhile, but it can feel strange. While you’re adjusting to people speaking to you in your own language, it suddenly dawns on you that you are surrounded by familiar foods. Food that you have not eaten – or even allowed yourself to dream about – for months. “On Christmas day, it was cinnamon rolls,” Mack said. “I saw them in the corner and put some in the microwave. I took a bite, and it was, ‘Oh, I missed this.’ And I heated up four more.” In a very unscientific poll, United States citizens in China find themselves craving Mexican and Italian food most. Food selection can be limited in a foreign country and returning to the states can feel overwhelming, bordering on gluttony. Reverse culture shock is typically short-lived, maybe a week or two. It depends on your time out of country. There are things that can make it seem longer. Mack’s reverse culture shock was compounded by jet lag, which lasted nearly two weeks. After a couple of weeks at home, she headed north to visit friends. The travel helped alleviate her jet lag. During her two months home, Mack worked at a local school. Breaking out of an early rut and finding work that fits your new growth level will help thwart the shock. That and early preparation. “I wasn’t destined for failure,” Mack said. “I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. I was trying to be as realistic with myself as possible and figure out how to handle it. It was good to know that it’s OK to actually express your feelings and let others know how you’re feeling.” Reverse culture shock is real but by thinking ahead and sharing your feelings it doesn’t have to ruin your trip home. By Kim Orendor English website correspondent
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