My Most Memorable Journeys #5: reverse culture shock

Has home ever felt more foreign to you than the far-flung place you’ve returned from?

I know that feeling well.

In my twenties, I spent three years living in Japan. It was an amazing experience (you can read all about it here) that made me feel like I had climbed a mountain.

Now, heading home, I was skiing down the other side, expecting an easy ride all the way.

How wrong I was.

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Going to Japan, to live and work, I had expected culture shock. I had to learn a new language, and adapt to living in a country so different from my own, with alien customs and confusing social norms.

It came in waves; high, euphoric days of joy, followed by lows of deep, dark dismay.

Preparing to return to the UK, triumphant, I read about reverse culture shock. My idea to prevent the whole thing was this: I decided to have a three day layover in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Y’know, like a handy buffer zone, to ease my journey from East to West. A cunning plan, no?

I thought this would somehow prevent any possibility of reverse culture shock from effecting me.

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So, I packed up my Japanese life into two suitcases, and flew over to Kuala Lumpur. I spent a few days exploring the city, feeling like a lost expat, trying to cling on to some life that never existed. I felt disconnected from everything; cut off now from Japan, but not yet home, wandering around in this other place where I didn’t belong. Needless to say, KL failed to flush Japan out of my system.

On my last day in KL, I found a Japanese department store. I bought handfuls of imported Japanese CDs, trying to cling on to something that was now out of reach.
The next day, I landed in London. Me and my two suitcases, full of Japanese mementos, memories and mountains of stuff. Stuff I intended to keep for the rest of my life, but would end up in the trash five years later. (Who says mementos are forever?)

After three years of living in rural Japan, I found the rush of British life too much. Too many English voices bombarded me. I was able to understand every single word that was being said, all around me, all the time, and it was frying my brain.

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I felt completely disoriented and overwhelmed by the supermarket. There was too much choice, and too many English words to read, everywhere. I was confronted by hundreds of magazines all shouting READ ME NOW.

In Japan, I had been able to ignore things I couldn’t read, but here there was no choice. I fled from the supermarket as soon as I could, without buying a single thing. Not even any of the food items I had spent the last three years craving.

The best thing about arriving home that day was falling asleep on my bed, at my parents’ house. When I awoke the next morning, the previous three years felt almost like a dream.

Here I was, back from where my journey had started. Everything here was the same as it always had been, but I had changed. I was different. Japan had changd me at every level, and at that time, I felt like I would never shake it off. I didn’t want to shake it off.

I woke up that first morning, opened my parents’ fridge, and ate trifle for breakfast.

It was delicious, and despite all the reverse culture shock, I knew I was home.

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Read more of my most memorable journeys here, here, here and here!

6 comments

  1. This is excellent. I can identify with many of the emotions and actions you describe: prolonging your return, feeling that your overseas experience was just a dream, feeling that nothing about home had changed, etc. I wonder if it was easier in the old days, with long ocean voyages separating countries, and celebrity status awaiting upon one’s return home.

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