Reverse Culture Shock – Three Teachers Struggle to Adjust

After three years of living and working in South Korea, I have attended my fair share of farewell dinners and I’ve kept in touch with most of my close friends who have said goodbye and returned to their homelands. A major issue I’ve found among the returnees has been the ever persistent and unexpected ‘reverse cultural shock’ they experience. Such online magazines as have written about the phenomenon of reverse cultural shock which is basically, the difficult time expats have, trying to adjust back into their old lives after being abroad. As someone who grew up a little nomadic (and still yet to return home) I have yet to experience this myself. But I’ve been fascinated witnessing the stages of reverse cultural shock and I feel that I may have some remedies in mind for those of us who may one day soon, return home. However, first and foremost I’d like to share some of the struggles my dear friends have faced trying to assimilate into their old homes.

Karla, the Flip Flopper

A year ago one of my close friends who I met in Korea finished her two years of teaching and flew back home. Home was Canada, and she was “ready to leave”. For some of us in Korea, we know it’s just not for us. Whether it be the cultural differences, the job, the tiny apartment or just missing family – South Korea can very much be a temporary place in one’s mind and finishing the contract is like a finish line of a marathon we might have wanted to do at first but halfway through regretted signing up for. And there’s nothing wrong with that. My philosophy has become, once you are overwhelmed with negative thoughts, you need to go. Karla, was very much struggling to stay positive and started to count down to her final days. After a much needed vacation in a few South Asian nations on her way home, she landed safely in Canada and moved back in with her family. The reverse cultural shock soon found its way into Karla’s mind. The once always frustrating job and students were suddenly missed immensely by Karla and the country she cursed for not being open minded enough, good at service and intolerant to foreigners was now the nation Karla wished she had never left. All the complaints about South Korea and her small town were a thing of the past and our Kakao Talk messages consisted of Karla’s rants about her new life at home. It was perplexing to me, that almost overnight Karla had gone from Canada’s biggest cheerleader and one of Korea’s harshest critics – to almost complete opposite.  Even during the Olympic Games in Rio, she posted well wishes to both Canada and Korea. Good luck to Korea? I was speechless. Karla had spent her final months complaining about everything from the food to the bus drivers and now, she was hoping they won gold? That’s when I really started to see and understand better the concept of reverse cultural shock.

Karla however, is a perfect example of the ‘grass isn’t always greener on the other side’ however, in this case, I would amend the phrase to ‘the grass isn’t always greener on the other side after you visited the other side and came back to the original grass’. That’s a mouthful, sorry. Karla was quite a typical candidate for the South Korean English program. She was a young university graduate with only a few years work experience and she’d almost never travelled away from home and furthermore, had never escaped the watchful eye of her parents. Growing up in a strict household meant that when Karla landed in Korea, ready to live on her own and have full freedom as an adult she was in for a world of change and growth. It’s a great experience for any young person, especially those who haven’t ‘left the nest’ as you definitely learn new skills and independence. But, and this is a gigantic but, I think you will find it far more excruciating than others to return home and live back with the ‘rents compared to others who have travelled and/or have lived on their own. I feel that Karla’s reverse cultural shock was far stronger than average because of her lack of experience abroad and being away from her strict mom and dad. Moreover, the lack of jobs in Canada also made for harder time settling back home. “The hardest part about returning home from Korea has been: not being able to find employment. The Canadian job market is beyond tough right now.”

I felt for her and understood her struggle. It was definitely a path I would have taken myself, as going home to family is logical and her hopefulness to get another teaching job like in Korea, also made sense to me. It just didn’t pan out the way we all thought it would.

After a month which seemed to feel like a century to Karla, she fully doubted her decision to leave Korea and today is looking at coming back. An absolute turn around that I never expected. I wish her the best of luck and hope that she’ll never have the same experience in the future. This is why I feel leaving your parent’s house is necessary to developing as a successful adult, and gaining much needed independence. “The thing I miss most about my life in Korea is having my own space…I also miss financial freedom…money is essential for daily survival.”

Karla’s experience is definitely a cautionary tale to those in Korea who may hate it but also forget the independence and freedom they may have first acquired from being in Korea.

Emily’s Close Call

Another close friend of mine had a very different time leaving Korea yet, a very similar experience to Karla once she returned home. In Korea, she had a blast but after a year she knew it was time to get back home and back to her career. Once arriving home, her family embraced her and she was high on life and thankful to the year she spent abroad. She missed Korea but had a healthy realization that it was meant to be a yearlong stay and nothing more. Emily was positive and kept in touch with family while abroad. In fact, it was odd to spend a weekend with her without saying hi to her mother, who would be on video-call and they would update each other on the events of the day. She was obviously closely connected to her family back home but unlike Karla, Emily had some experience living alone and independently before her big move. After a couple months back home with her tightknit fam, she called me one morning – her night time and was visibly upset. I worried immediately that she was in danger as I had never seen her so upset and the first few minutes of the call she was so upset that she was inaudible and I wondered about what emergency number I was supposed to call. After calming her down, and with her reassurance that she wasn’t in any danger or in need of medical attention, she simply revealed to me that she was deeply depressed with her current situation; returning home and not feeling like she fit in. I could understand her woes. We talked it out and she explained just how difficult it was to come back into a home she once knew so well, with people she shared so much with before her travels and how everything had changed. It was hard to come back and act as if her year abroad hadn’t made things different and that to simply continue where she left off was no longer an option.

Emily’s experience, although at first shocking, was also incredibly understandable after she expressed her feelings of being surrounded by the people she loved most but simultaneously feeling so alone. When one leaves home and travels to a foreign land to live and become a member of a new culture and society – you expect that once you return the world you once inhabited would have changed and developed like you did while away. That just isn’t the case. Yes, new buildings and roads may have been built in your absence and new babies, friends and family members could be added to your social circles. But, we must remind ourselves, that the changes we experience as an individual going to an entirely new country and culture is nothing as dramatic as a few changes within the same nation with the same culture and same society. Even I find when I visit my homeland how surprising it is that so many things haven’t changed and I feel that even family and friends haven’t changed as I would have expected them too. It’s not necessarily a bad thing or a good thing; it’s just how it is.

Venessa’s Loss of Home Sweet Home

A final story I’d like to share would perhaps be the most bittersweet. A friend of mine who I met early in my time in Korea left not long after I had settled. She was bright and bubbly and had been in Korea for almost half a dozen years, but with an unexpected pregnancy decided it would be best to return home. She was positive about her move and I agreed being close to family during her 9 months was a great idea. Shortly after she arrived home she like Karla and Emily, felt the same emptiness that reverse culture shock causes. She and I would video chat and although her cheeriness hadn’t dulled too obviously, I could tell she felt a pang whenever I complained about Korea and told her she was lucky to be home. One night, my afternoon, she snapped at me and told me I was being ungrateful for the opportunity of working in Korea – no matter what annoying colleague I was stuck with, it was still better than being back home with no chance of escaping “meddling family and friends.” I was taken aback at her tone and harsh words. I felt it was best I apologized, instead of argue. I knew she was under a lot of stress, thinking of her pregnancy and her future and my little problems at work weren’t very relevant. After a minute of quiet in the call she apologized for snapping but also explained to me just how lost she was feeling in the once so comforting household she always felt was ‘home sweet home.’ “As cliché as it sounds, this was that – home sweet home. Now, it’s all random, foreign and empty to me… I feel no relationship in this place and time. I feel lost in my own house.”

Venessa, Karla and Emily all had very different experiences, timelines and relationships with their time in South Korea. They left with different situations and outlooks about their time overseas but they all ended up feeling the similar discomfort, trying to readjust to their old lives. It is all very interesting but also important to note, that when you are planning to travel or furthermore, when you are planning to leave your ‘temporary’ home abroad – think of the reverse cultural shock you may encounter. It’s just as hard if not harder than its more famous sibling; cultural shock.


*Names have been changed for privacy.