When my husband and I decided to make the move to Munich, Germany both of our families were very concerned with how I would adjust. I was about 5 months pregnant, had an almost two year old, and was moving away from my home country after over 30 years of living there. Though my German husband and I had been together for seven years and we had been back and forth from the USA to Germany regularly, our families knew that this would be different for me. The one thing none of us expected was the transition and struggle my husband would go through returning to his home country after six years of living in the States.
“It’s just not the same”
When I said things like “We both are going through a stage of homesickness right now” I found that our German family and friends were sometimes in a bit of disbelief: “Really? He misses the States?”. Not realizing that my husband was struggling with the move made it harder for others to be sympathetic.
I wasn’t prepared for the identity crisis that my husband went through as he struggled to feel like he fit in to his own culture. Side by side, we have grieved the changes, shared what we miss, and laughed at the oddities of our new home country. As a counselor, I sought to better understand what was going on inside of him and figure out how I could help. I talked with German friends about their experiences with living in other countries and what their new normal was like returning home. Everyone knows the new expat needs support, but so does the individual returning to their country of origin. I asked the LMBB community for their experiences and was overwhelmed by thoughtful responses.
The return home
For those returning to their home country after a period of being away of 6 months or more, anxiety, depression, isolation, an identity crisis, and anger are common. It is quite the challenge when you feel excited to “go home” and see your family, friends, and visit your old hangouts but are later met with internal feelings of disconnect. For many, it takes time for these symptoms to go away and can leave one feeling quite restless.
I wasn’t German anymore, and didn’t even know anymore how the system works with regards to getting registered etc. — Stephanie
Finding support along the way
Support is crucial and tends to best come from those who have experienced reverse culture shock or who are familiar with it. Many shared that they were met by surprise or disbelief when they shared their struggle being back in their home country. When some shared the issues they had with customs and belief systems in their home country they were met with defensiveness from friends and family. This tended to increase the feelings of isolation.
…in a lot of cases, I just kind of felt like I didn’t fit in anymore. If I talked about things that were normal in expat life – like shopping for Chinese antiques or flying to another country for the weekend – I seemed stuck up or bragging sometimes. — Anne
Where is home?
One LMBB member shared that she felt like someone had pulled her up and cut off her roots when she moved back to her home country: after living in the UK for nine years, moving back to her home country felt like starting all over again. Hilde compared it to learning to ride a bike again. “You know how to cycle but the traffic rules have changed and maybe even the roads, here and there.” Some pointed out that where they feel like they became adults feels the most like home.
Those years you spend learning to be an adult, to have a job and through dating disasters are years where you build irreplaceable friendships. — Anne
Home is a complex topic for multinational, multicultural families, and you may find that you don’t share a single sense of ‘home’ – or you may have several: here, where you live; where your parents live; where you grew up; where you always holiday…
How to help
If, like me, you are watching your partner go through the challenges reverse culture shock brings, you’ll need to be supportive even as you yourself need support. Be patient. Try to be understanding. Reverse culture shock can be really hard to understand and sympathize with if you haven’t experienced it.
The best advice I can give is to try and keep them busy. Try and get them to focus on the positive things about their home country. Simply be there for them. — Christine
Be patient and encouraging. Arrange meet ups with other couples that might be going through the same thing. — Stephanie
Tips for surviving reverse culture shock
Whether you’re currently dealing with your own reverse culture shock or preparing for a move back to your home country, it’s worth understanding as much as you can about the process. You may feel alone and isolated, but even those feelings are very normal.
- Know that it will be hard for you as well as your family.
- Educate yourself about reverse culture shock so you know what to expect.
- Remember why you moved back and celebrate the things you do enjoy about your country.
- Find support in others who are understanding. Lean on them during the challenges that come.
- Be aware that some will not want to hear about your stories living overseas.
- Keep busy with hobbies (new and old), social dates, and exploring your home country again.
- Be willing to admit to yourself and your close support that you are struggling. Hiding it will only make it worse.
- Patience is crucial during this time.
- Remember you probably didn’t like everything in the previous country you lived in so it is to be expected that you will not like everything in your home country.
- You have changed – don’t expect that others have stayed the same.
- Go meet new people! You have invaluable experiences that others will want to hear about and more than likely you’ll find new people who have their own cool stories to share too!
Remind yourself why it was worth it
All the LMBB members I spoke to found their experience living abroad invaluable, and most people look back on their experiences abroad and find real, tangible benefits as well as emotional and cultural lessons learned. If you’re struggling, it may be worth making a list of why your time abroad was worthwhile – and why it’s so great to be home. Here are just a few of the benefits LMBB members shared:
I’d say living abroad for 11 years has made me more tolerant and appreciate other opinions / outlooks. You just understand a lot more where some people are coming from. — Stephanie
I am a better mother because of this journey. — Carolyn
I don’t take things for granted that my home country offers. — Victoria
It changes your perceptions a bit to live in another country where you are always seen as a foreigner and where you struggle with language and trying to get things done on a daily basis. It makes me more empathetic. — Anne
I no longer feel that Marmite, English sausages and Cadburys are crucial to my well-being. In fact, I cannot imagine a life without Breze for feeding to teething children in a pushchair, or any other of the myriad little things that our family life incorporates from our cultures (European, British, German, Bavarian, Italian…) on a daily basis. — Alison
As these women have learned, you can overcome reverse culture shock through finding support in groups like Little Munich Black Book, learning to enjoy your home country again with new eyes, and embracing what you have experienced in all of the places you have lived. I know now how to be a better support to my husband and to help others see that what he is going through is normal. If you are going through reverse culture shock, reach out to us! Join the LMBB Facebook group: we’re a group of international women who would love to hear your stories.
Written for: Little Munich Black Book