Surviving reverse culture shock: Two years on

Two years ago my husband and I boarded a one-way flight to Hong Kong, en-route home to Australia. Little did I know that the return to our homeland would be exponentially harder than our initial move to the other side of the globe 10 years prior.

I read an article published in The Sydney Morning Herald last year that touched so accurately on this phenomenon. Namely, that it’s not moving abroad that’s the hard part, but coming home.

No one talks about this. You just assume you will slot back into the hole you left when you went away. But then you discover you’ve changed – you’re not the shape you used to be, and you don’t fit back into that hole anymore. Maybe you don’t fit at all.

Feeling completely alone and like a fish out of water in a place that is so familiar to you is a bizarre thing. It’s like you’re in a parallel universe where everything looks the same as you’re used to but you have zero idea how to get anything done. You don’t even know how to get a train ticket, or how the banking system works.

You speak the language, in fact, you sound exactly the same as the person staring back at you from across the counter. But they just look at you blankly while you repeat for the tenth time today that you’ve been living overseas for 10 years and have no idea how anything works in this country anymore.

Instead of the excitement you felt at learning all of these things when you initially moved overseas, you now have that sinking feeling of having gone backwards in life.

The excitement of seeing family and friends wanes as you realise everyone’s moved on – including yourself – and that you must learn how to fit back in again – to routines, social circles and inside jokes. Your old life is the ghost that walks behind you giving you a niggling feeling of discomfort that never seems to relent.

All of the above was true for me, and more. But now looking back after two years most of the scars have faded and it’s hard to remember just how hard those first few months were.

You idealise your life overseas less and less, but like a break-up you didn’t want, you’ve had to force yourself to get over it. That time in your life is long gone, and you slowly start noticing all the positive things about home.

You get the hang of the trains, the banks, and even make the odd comment about how great the customer service is here compared to overseas.

They say ‘time heals all wounds’, but I’m not sure I agree. Time allows you time to constantly remind yourself of all the reasons you left X to move to Y, but it’s hard to not wonder ‘what if?’ about the life you left behind. You tell yourself that life wouldn’t be the same if you were to go back, and some days you believe it.

One thing I know – reverse culture shock is real. It’s freaking hard, but if you’re going through it know you’re not alone. It will get better, and life will take on a new normal – one that can be just as exciting and fulfilling as you had overseas.

You’ll have good days and bad days, but you will feel ‘normal’ again – whatever that means. I do, and I was still begging to move back after three months at home.

Having circumstances that prohibit you going back (like having a baby!) help exponentially with moving on, so if you can back yourself into metaphorical corner somehow, I highly recommend it.

Either way, it will get easier, if you can help it along the way. Plan trips. Meet new people. Explore.

You’ll see that one life may have ended but a whole new exciting one has just opened up in its place. It might not feel possible now, but from someone who’s been there, it is.

Now all you need to do is get out there and enjoy it.