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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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