What happens when home is no longer home?
Most travellers are familiar with culture shock. The feeling of disorientation, loneliness or depression accompanying a sudden shift from one culture to another, when you’re thrown into an unfamiliar environment and a new way of life.
But what if the unfamiliar environment is your home town; the place you grew up, the place you’re supposed to feel at home?
Reverse culture shock is a sense of rootlessness, restlessness, boredom or depression experienced upon your return home. It’s reverse homesickness – feeling homesick for the country you left behind. Many people feel alienated and develop a new dislike for aspects of their home city.
After living in Berlin for four-and-a-half–years, this is how Kalinda Atkinson felt upon her return to Sydney.
The nostalgia she’d previously felt for Sydney was replaced by nostalgia for Berlin. She missed her life in Berlin and found that she resented a lot of things about Sydney that had never bothered her before: its lack of culture, its superficiality, and the lack of curiosity of those around her.
“I’ve mostly struggled with my identity,” says Kalinda. “How do I fit into a place that feels so estranged, but not in a new, exciting way?”
Upon returning from Los Angeles, Alice Belton found she constantly compared her life in Sydney to her life in the states. “I thought people in LA were more friendly and more approachable than in Sydney,” says Alice. “In Sydney, everyone’s in their own cliques and you can’t really branch out from that.”
“I was depressed,” says Alice. “I’d been in Los Angeles for a few months and felt like I was finally settling in, but then I was just sort of sucked out of that world back to my old life and old habits; going back to the same job and seeing the same people.”
Others find that the life they come back to is not necessarily the same life they left behind. Things change, people move away and friendship groups scatter. At the same time, the sense of novelty and adventure that comes with travel and living overseas is gone. Time abroad allows you to see your home country and culture with a new set of eyes, often highlighting its flaws.
“I had trouble accepting that I wasn’t having an adventure anymore and that things had to get back to ‘normal’,” says Varsha Rajasekhar, who lived in the Netherlands for more than a year. “I couldn’t adjust to Sydney’s pace again and to the difference in attitude of the people. I felt like I fit in better in the Netherlands.”
In his book, The Art of Travel, philosopher Alain de Botton also writes of his affinity with the Netherlands. “We may value foreign elements not only because they are new, but because they seem to accord more faithfully with our identity and commitments than anything our homeland could provide,” he writes. “My enthusiasms in Amsterdam were connected to my dissatisfactions with my own country, with its lack of modernity and aesthetic simplicity, with its resistance to urban life and its net-curtained mentality.”
“The pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel to. If only we could apply a travelling mindset to our own locales, we might find these places becoming no less interesting than the high mountain passes and butterfly-filled jungles of Humboldt’s South America.”
So how do you adapt to life at home again after an extensive amount of time abroad?
“I’ve had to let go of my time in Berlin, and I’m focusing on exploring Sydney in the same way I once explored Berlin,” says Kalinda. “I’m trying out new suburbs, restaurants and bars. It’s the only way. Life will never be the same so you may as well embrace a new path.”
Varsha agrees. “I learned to see the beauty of Sydney when I was trying to get myself out of the slump. Sydney is beautiful. I love the weather and the opportunities that are available to people here, but I do miss the carefree attitude that is Holland.” – Victoria Kerridge