Life in A Suitcase: Reverse Culture Shock (and Tips!)


After years of living overseas and international trips, I never anticipate myself to experience a culture shock when I return to Indonesia. A month prior to and several months upon my arrival in Indonesia were very difficult time for me, physically and emotionally. The feeling of excitement, sadness, longing, alienation, frustation, optimism, rejection, dissapointment was just bottled up and I could not express it without the fear of being called arrogant or not nationalistic… (and it exploded in a bad way).

Then I talked to some of comrades in several alumni projects and gatherings, and read articles about “Reverse Culture Shock”, and finally I can figure out what’s going on with me, how to cope with it, and that I am not alone.

Reverse Culture Shock / Coming Home Syndrome

Desa Cigadog, Kabupaten Garut. Credit to Intan W. Anugrah

Most resources (find some links below) say that reverse culture shock or coming home syndrome is experienced when returning to a place that one expects to be home but actually is no longer. It is more difficult to manage than outbound shock precisely because it is unexpected and unanticipated. Shaffira D. Gayatri, one of my best friend, alumni of University of Warwick in World Literature, had once showed me her work on the diaspora coming home, and their unique challenges and experiences in a place they called “home”.

Reverse culture shock is not uncommon among overseas students, diaspora, or employee from international assignments. Even in International Organizations and companies, they have trainings for the returnee and the family to help them adjust to the new environment.

My Experience: Redefining Home

I lived in Cirebon for 18 years and moved out to Depok for college. I can say it is my home town. Then, I spent 5 weeks in Muncie, Indiana, U.S. Then, I moved to Singapore for half a year, and I know all the SMRT lines like the back of my hand. Then I moved again to London for a full year with two-week overseas field work in Ethiopia and two digit trips to countries in Europe. And I feel like I know some place better than the other, even better than my “home town”.

London Southbank. credit to Nina Asterina

I miss every bits of mundane life in London like going to aisles of supermarket, navigating the best exit at the Kings Cross Station, or just sitting down at the less-beaten corner by the River Thames. I can look at the 100-year-old map of London, brushing to major tube lines, street and landmarks, and pinpoint the location of my previous flat, UCL, or the best location to pick up a plate of Rendang in Brick Lane, Whitechapel. Even I finally can relate to Adele’s “Hometown Glory” which basically is about London..

So no wonder why, no matter I miss “home” and all my beloved, I could not stop crying in my 16-flight from London-Amsterdam-Jakarta, which caused me major headache and jet lag, which I could not recover until 3 months later.

So back to the question, what is my home? Why home coming is really difficult?

I love Indonesia and values it upholds. Back in the UK, I wrote my dissertation about Indonesia’s housing policy, I contribute articles about overseas Indonesia for Good News from Indonesia. I make the best of my effort to make Indonesia proud.

However, coming home with a set of new eyes, assertiveness, and personalities, I felt like my idealized notion of Indonesia as my home country is somehow betrayed, and my new self did not feel quite fit. Both I, my friends, my family misunderstood each other. All of us have changed, even the environment has changed, over the time when I am not at home. We thought we can pick up where we left off, but the fact is we have to start over…to everything and accept that we all have changed.

How to Cope with Reverse Culture Shock

I could not say I finish coping with this, but I want to share things that help me go through this, which may be helpful to you:

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  • Connect with fellow returnee. It is easier to share express what you are undergoing with people with shared experiences. It can be through whatsapp chats, meet ups, aumni gatherings, or alumni projects. Ask for support, get inspired by their ways in dealing with culture shock, and just laugh over our confusing life 😀
  • Do not punish yourself for not being “accepted”. Blaming yourself for broken friendships and romantic relationships or being rejected by several jobs application upon our return is unhealthy and even make us question our decision to go at the first place. Remember times in the past we dreamt and fought to have this experience, remember the bittersweet things we have been through, and…
  • Accept your new lifestyle. Being flexible is something that help us adapt overseas, it also applies back home. I keep subscribing to British youtuber, eating less rice, and being critical and outspoken about (almost) anything. Just be yourself.
  • Express your voice. I find it really hard to express my thought and feelings with the fear of being called arrogant or snobby (even when I cannot say things in Bahasa Indonesia! like this 😀 ), because of which I experienced some trust issues. But not every person on this earth thinks that way, there will be people who will support us with open ears and honest interest. I share things in this blog, instagram, and occasional Facebook post…and was overwhelmed by how much people can relate to what I have been through.

More please!

For additional support and resources, you can check some interesting articles and podcasts regarding reverse culture shock:

If you find this article helpful, please share! Thank you, Cheers 😀

 

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17 thoughts on “Life in A Suitcase: Reverse Culture Shock (and Tips!)”

  1. Quite interesting and educative…I can relate to some aspects of it…good job and keep up the hard work.

    Blessings!
    Gilbert

  2. When you travel more often, the sense of home is so much more real and you will never confuse. I can relate to your feeling of coming home, I experienced that after finishing my master abroad, but only for a short while. Upon returning, I did few trips abroad for work, some for quite a long time. And there is no shock anymore. In the end, it’s just yourself but moving to different places. your sense of who you are is established and you will not experience culture shock anymore. Like, you will never get confuse about your new surrounding anymore, because you are who you are no matter where you are. So do more trips, don’t settle, you will discover the new you, the citizen of the world (holding Indonesian passport)

    1. Thank you for the helpful insight! Yes, I feel like by keep moving and being a traveller at heart keeps me easier to adapt to anything.
      But the notion of home is never confusing, it is just changed. I can humbly say that London or Singapore is my home too, so is Cirebon. And it doesn’t make me less nationalistic or anything. Thank you for sharing your stories!

  3. Hi mbak!
    Inspirational bgt blognya, tp ada satu hal yang bikin aku shock, job rejection?! What on earth is going on?? I bet they didn’t even realise what they do! They just deny a potentional asthonishing worker, what a huge mistake! I can’t imagine what am gonna do when I get back, those expectation were blown away!! But believe me mbak! That is just God’s way to give you a better one!! Good luck mbak!! I am sure you can achieve every dream that you are created!! You are a great person!!

    1. Halo Syaravinalubis, iyak some of my applications were rejected. It is just tricky, karena pengalaman, knowledge, sama skillset indah unik, jadi jobnya juga unik. And yes, indeed God has a plan, Alhamdulillah sekarang Indah bisa berkarya di grup Detik.com as an editor for their media monitoring consultant. Ga nyangka haha

      1. Wah keren! Tuh kan, you proved it yourself, insya Allah, God has set what is best and way more better for you! Detik.com is a massive media company!! Sekali lagi Congratulations ya mbak ;D

  4. I experienced this last year after studying in Germany. I cried a lot when I was back home. like really. a lot a lot. I feel like I’m betraying my own roots, my own country, but somehow I didnt quite fit in anymore. Nobody understands why. I don’t even understand why and refused to talk about it. I was trying to cope by not talking about it (.. but crying when I’m alone :p)
    …but that what makes me study harder and Thank God I found a way to get myself back here in Germany 🙂 – still loving Indonesian though, like always.
    Your article is awesome. I am not alone afterall. esp on the point “trying to speak our mind without being too arogant”.

    Cheers,
    Hyacintha

    1. Hi Hyacintha… i know rightttt… sometimes everythings seems…not right. And crying is a way to express that we just dont know what to do amid our confusion and frustation. Good for you that you finally find your way back to peace, some people say that we have to just keep moving. And it doesn’t make us less Indonesian for sure!

  5. dulu kirain emang gw yang lebay dan agak sombong.. tapi ternyata banyak juga yang ngrasain hal yang sama yah.. galau pol pas pertama pulang hehe.. and I just realize that it has its own name.. reverse culture shock.. its been 3 years, finally bisa lebih move on… meski rasa kangen selalu muncul out of nowhere :’)

    1. Iyak, kita akan sering nyalahin diri sendiri malah menarik diri dari conversation (or society in general!) karena kita ga paham sama apa yang kita alami (apalagi orang yang sangat2 mudah misunderstand). Yes, bahkan kalo lagi kangen Singapur (padahal dari 2011 lalu), I can remember the taste of water from the breeze by the Marina Bay, or the unique smell of Orchard MRT Station when you alight from the train.. It comes out of nowhere.

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