Reverse Culture Shock? Check.

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Take me back to the land where flip flops are mostly considered “bathroom” shoes, people chew mouth freshener and tobacco simultaneously, and cars, rickshaws, cows, and people all share the same dusty roads. Take me back to India. I’ve been back in the US for a week now, and right off the bat I was feeling the effects of reverse culture shock. You know culture shock, right? The disorientation that uncomfortably creeps up on you when visiting a foreign country that’s completely different than your home country? I’ve been feeling the reverse of that – discomfort and slight alienation upon arriving back in the US.

Am I being dramatic? I was just gone for a little over two months, and it flew by. But in my defense, I really went all-in this time in terms of immersing myself in the culture. Being of Indian origin and because it was my first time visiting after 8 years, I really wanted to make the most of this experience and learn more. I focused on improving my Hindi and acclimated to Indian culture very quickly and easily. After all, it’s in my blood.

I have felt reverse culture shock before when I returned from Southeast Asia a few years ago, but I feel it even more now. I have developed a newfound understanding of the way the other half lives. But I’m not talking about the rich; I’m referring to the way people live on the other side of the globe in countries less developed than my own. I now appreciate the simpler way of life and respect how hard people work while receiving so little in return. All of a sudden, things like spending $5 on coffee or $20 on a taxi ride seem preposterous. I keep thinking to myself, that money would take me so far in Asia!

Street kids playing cricket

Street kids playing cricket in Mumbai

I stayed with my cousin in New York after I landed, and for a little while I didn’t feel like going outside. I didn’t want New York to be a reality to me again. As much as I love the city and part of me misses living there, I just couldn’t face it. I felt that if I stayed inside and shut my eyes tightly, eventually I would be teleported back to India. When I finally did venture outside, everything in the city looked the same as when I left in April, but I perceived it so differently.

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When I see people wasting food, my heart breaks for those who would appreciate those leftovers in India. I wince thinking back on how many times I mindlessly spent on clothes that I only wore once. I feel pangs of guilt thinking of the homeless people I used to breeze by on my morning commute, remembering a little girl to whom I gave prasad (religious offering of food or sweets) outside the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi. Why didn’t I ever look twice at the homeless people here in America? The list goes on. In everyday American life, I keep seeing examples of things that would be better appreciated in India, but that are taken for granted in the US. I also see examples of struggle in America that I used to simply turn a blind eye to before I left for India. It saddens me how I never made some of these realizations before.

Varanasi sadhus

“So, how was your trip? I want to hear all about it.” Sigh. Reuniting with friends is more difficult than I thought it would be. I don’t know how to respond when my friends say this. What can I tell you about my experience in India, Nepal and the UAE for the last 9 weeks? I saw and did so much that I don’t know where to start. When I do share my travel stories, I sometimes can see the waning interest as I delve into the details. Life back home didn’t stop while I was gone; my friends have moved forward in their lives, and so have I. I don’t relate to people back home the way that I used to; I am not any better or worse than anyone, the mindset is just different. And that’s okay.

On a lighter note, friends and family keep telling me I look more natural and “earthy”. Wait…are you trying to tell me that I let myself go in India? I know that I very much settled into the backpacker mentality while traveling: fewer showers, more wears of my clothes in between washes. Many times on my trip when deciding what to wear for the day, I’d think that whatever I chose would get dirty anyway, so there’s no point in looking for something clean. I mean, come on; in the extreme heat, I had to let a few things fall by the wayside. And makeup? Forget it. It’s just going to sweat off anyway, and who wants raccoon eyes?! I have grown to be less focused on outward appearance and I’m much more confident in myself now. While at home, I’m finding a happy medium in between smelly backpacker and girly-girl. Still a backpacker at heart, I really can’t wait to get back to that travel mindset…although there are probably a few items of clothing I should incinerate after this trip!

Back after two months away!

Back after two months away!

As much as I do love my Connecticut hometown and my most recent home of New York, I don’t feel at “home” the way that I used to. I long for the excitement of exploring unchartered territory again, being able to call hostels and homestays my “home” and increasing the size of my “family” with new people I connect with. I loved India so much, and will never lose sight of the lessons this country has taught me.

7 Comments

  1. Aitor Artaiz
    June 26, 2014 / 4:18 pm

    I can understand your feeling. I think that after travelling this way the meaning of ‘home’ has changed for me. It’s not possible to explain this to my family and friends. Too many people, too different cultures, skies and dawn lights… After four days ‘at home’, surrounded by family and friends, smiling, talking, enjoying the summer time,… (however) I feel… I have to go out again.

    “What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing?- It’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye.”
    On the road,
    by Jack Kerouac

    • June 27, 2014 / 2:55 am

      Thanks so much for reading! I agree with you, it’s hard to explain to family and friends that “home” doesn’t feel the same anymore. I loved your Facebook post about how you didn’t want to come to India at first, but you grew to like the craziness of India, and that you have decided to enjoy every instance of your life. I feel the same way. See you in Spain! 🙂

  2. Raj
    June 30, 2014 / 2:13 am

    I thought of asking you the reason for quitting your lavish job for travelling the world. I have the answer from this post 🙂 You made a wise decision, what you have learnt or learning can’t be matched with the dollars you would have made on the job !

    • July 15, 2014 / 4:21 pm

      Thanks for reading, Raj! The memories and experiences I have from traveling are priceless! Any upcoming travel plans for you?

      • Raj
        July 16, 2014 / 11:16 am

        In the past 5 years I have traveled close to a dozen countries, some for work and some for pleasure. Now I’m in the pursuit of a lavish job 🙂 So, no upcoming travel plans probably for next 2 years 🙂

  3. July 11, 2014 / 1:34 am

    Yes, reverse culture shock is real. It’s even worse when you’ve been away longer. I had a really difficult time adjusting to life in the US after three and a half years away in China. Now that I’m traveling around again, I fear ever moving back.

    • July 15, 2014 / 4:26 pm

      Three and a half years away is a long time! I think I’ll feel the same way after I move to Madrid in the fall. I’m already planning where I want to go next year because I just don’t think I’ll want to come back permanently just yet. I love your Siem Reap pics, I absolutely loved exploring the temples when I was there. Looking forward to the updates on whether you decide to stay there!

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