I’ve been back in Canada for two months now after living away for more than three years in a completely different culture. During my first few weeks back it was like being a fish out of water flopping on ice after getting off at the wrong bus stop.
When I first arrived in Korea I was mind blown and clearly out of place. Nothing was familiar other than the typical American franchises which were still displayed with what looked like alien letters to me. It was great. It was exciting. Everything was new. Exploring the districts was always an adventure. I would look down an alley full of lights and shops and want to go down every street. I didn’t mind getting lost. It was one of the best parts because you find all sort of new things you might not have found so easily. You are okay with taking things slow to figure out where everything is. Like learning to drive, you take it slow in the beginning, then the more you drive the faster you’ll be able to go. Hopefully responsibly. This was always my approach also when visiting new cities.
Now imagine where you live right now. You know where every shop is, you know where the best deals, coffee shops, routes, and shortcuts are. You have a routine and are generally comfortable. Think how you would feel if you forgot all of that and your home became foreign to you and you are no longer comfortable being on the move. It’s like learning to ride a bike all over again. It can be very frustrating. This is what I felt like being back in Toronto. I had to continuously double-check directions and as sure as I would be of where I was going I still made wrong turns. Walking into a coffee shop was a shock to me at first like “Oh yeah! You speak English here”! Obviously, I know they speak English, but I became so conditioned to being spoken to in Korean that it made me feel awkward. Learning to ride a bike again was just the very tip of the iceberg.
Being an expat is a special type of lifestyle. You live a particular way that you wouldn’t in your home country and that soon becomes the norm. The way you think and approach situations are different and you tend to adjust to whatever the laws of the land are. At first, it is weird and is no doubt hard to adjust. The way culture shock works is that it hits you in stages.
Stage 1: Honeymoon Phase: You love everything and how different it is. This lasts up to 6 months.
Stage 2: Irritability and Hostility: All the subtle cultural differences start to get to you. “Why do they do this? Why do they say that? At home, we do it like this”. In my experience, this will go on for another 6 months before you enter the next stage.
Stage 3: Gradual Adjustment: Everything starts to settle and make sense. You begin to understand where your place is.
Stage 4: Adaptation and Biculturalism: You feel totally normal and nearly integrated. For me, this is where I could use Korean in nearly any situation I needed it, I could read the social and cultural cues better and get with the program. I assimilated, being able to be a part of one culture and still acknowledge mine.
I struggled a bit here because now I had to balance between being a West Indian-Canadian in Korea. Tri-Cultural? More on that another time.
Finally, Stage 5: Re-entry shock: Reverse culture shock is a bitch and that is what this article was meant to be about. me returning to Toronto and readjusting. I changed a lot. The way I think, the way I respond and behave in social situations. I was still me, but different.
Certain things did not matter to me as much as they did before, but they still did to a lot of my friends. My social circle as an expat was a very different vibe than my social circle in Toronto and especially so amongst my West Indian circle. In comes that awkward feeling (As if I wasn’t awkward enough, to begin with).
I found myself interested in only certain conversations, small talk isn’t my thing either. Even though you know this, experiencing it really resonates. When you leave home to go abroad, life doesn’t really pause and wait for you. I missed a lot of pivotal moments in my friends and family’s lives. I was not a part of their growth and they were not part of mine as much as I thought. It is not that we grew apart, but just like I had to re-learn my way around the city, I had to re-learn my friends and family. 3 years is a long time to be away. Even with Facebook and Instagram, there is a lot that isn’t shared. Take the time difference into account, it is pretty difficult to stay in touch. Broad stroking, many people who do not make an effort to assimilate to the new culture they are living in usually are stuck in the irritation and hostility stage of culture shock and yearn to go back home and the re-entry stage is much easier. Those are the ones who do experience a new way of life, but not as deeply. Instead, they would put the extra time on Skype and are missing home a lot more and so are closer in touch with their life back home.
So, after two months, I think I’m finally getting out of the reverse culture shock and am used to being back home again. Some things are still difficult to deal with but with time I won’t feel like such an alien. But in today’s world where mobility will soon be seen as a way to survive, I think it is something we all need to learn to cope with.
Now enjoy this photo of me sitting awkwardly somewhere in Seoul 🙂