Navigating with a broken rudder- Reverse Culture Shock

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Before we became missionaries I heard lot about culture shock, the emotional roller coaster ride you take when you enter a new culture.  What I didn’t hear much about was reentry shock or reverse culture shock, the emotional roller coaster ride you take when you return to your native culture.  OK, so what I did hear about reentry shock made me roll my eyes.  I heard stories about missionaries having tearful break downs in the grocery store because they couldn’t decide which salad dressing to buy (Good grief, get a grip Woman!).  I heard of missionaries forgetting their English vocabulary (seriously?!).  I heard of missionaries hiding in their houses and not wanting to talk to people (don’t be such a party pooper).  I thought, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of.  Why would anyone have shock coming HOME to the culture you grew up in?  That’s ridiculous.”  I mocked.  Until it happened to me.

Coming back home from Mexico for the first time, reentry shock hit me hard.  And I was horrified that I had ever made fun of it before.  It’s real.  Oh, let me tell you, it’s real!  Now I was the missionary having a melt down in the grocery store… only it was over shredded wheat, not dressing… I remember the feeling of panic rising in my heart when I entered the cereal aisle.  Oh my Gosh!  There are 6 different flavors of shredded wheat- and I’ve never tried ANY of them!  How do I know which one I like?  In the end, I couldn’t commit to a new flavor.  I walked out with an ordinary box of mini wheats because it was the safe choice.

I also remember the first 5 times I entered Walmart and walked out again without buying a single thing.  Yes, I said FIVE TIMES.  I could feel my decision making brain cells starting to sizzle.  I felt a migraine coming on.  I was totally incapable of making so many decisions at once.  I was overwhelmed by my options.  Do you remember the first time being a parent and going to buy diapers?  Do you remember standing in the diaper aisle and reading every label, comparing prices, size of package, size of child, special features?  Remember how consuming and overwhelming that was because you didn’t know which was going to be the best bargain?  Then after a while you commit to a brand and it becomes your “go to” brand.  You can tell your husband, Pick up some diapers at the store, and he knows to get the red package or the package with the puppies on it.  You don’t have to think about that decision any more.

Well, coming back into America it was like my computer had crashed and the memory had been erased.  All my “favorites” had been erased, my cache had been emptied.  I had to start from scratch and rebuild my life.  There were a lot of tears in the first few months.  I remember half way through the grocery store putting my head down on my exhausted arms resting on the handle of the cart.  I said, “I just can’t make one more decision!  Why the heck is this store so big?”  I looked at my cart and I thought about unloading everything onto the conveyor belt at the check out, then bagging it all up, then loading it back into my cart, then loading it all into my car, then bringing it all into my house, then putting it all away in my kitchen.  I was seriously tempted to abandon my cart right then and there.  I was in a full fledged reentry shock episode.

Unfortunately it didn’t stop there, and it didn’t consume just me.  My entire household was in a state of emotional upheaval and I was navigating with a broken rudder.  Now I can look back on those first few months and laugh at having to read the instructions on the gas pump or standing too close to the lady in the line in front of me or accidentally kissing my friend’s husband on the check when I greeted him or throwing my toilet paper in the garbage can or whatever loco stuff I did.  I can blame it all on reentry shock… don’t YOU roll your eyes at me!

4 responses »

  1. Hi April,

    I love your post!! I just launched a digital magazine to help people deal with reverse culture shock! I returned from Costa Rica this past June after living there for a year and a half…it was one of the hardest times of my life. Feel free to check out my magazine at http://www.nativeforeignermag.com

    Also, I see that you and your family are now in Costa Rica…where exactly are you at? I’ll be returning there in another 3 weeks. I’m from Wisconsin, so I always love meeting other midwesterners!

    Let me know if you’d be interested in sharing your experience in one of our future issues!
    ~Pura Vida

    • Lindsay, what an interesting idea- a magazine about reverse culture shock. I checked out your link and it looks cool! I’d be happy to write something for you in the future. What were you doing in Costa Rica? (We are living in Curridabat, San Jose. If you’re ever in my neck of the woods just send me a message.)

  2. Hi April,

    Thanks for your response! If you want to email me at editor@nativeforeignermag.com, I can send you some additional information.

    I was in Samara, Costa Rica on the Pacific side. I was doing various things…teaching a little English and doing some freelance writing and graphic design. I absolutely fell in love with the people and the place, which is why I’m going back! If you’re ever in my area, please let me know. It’s a beautiful beach town!

  3. Funny, I felt this way just during Christmas and I was only there for a month! I love all the choices but hate all the decisions! Go figure!!!

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