Thursday, August 12, 2010

Reverse Culture Shock

Living abroad for four years, my "real" life has been on pause, and I feel like I've been living in some fantasy world called Africa and China. I am disconnected from the "real" world. It is like being a time traveler and jumping four years into the future. One wouldn't think the world would have changed much in four years but it has. I've been on pause, and everyone else has been on fast forward. Or maybe I am the one who has changed. Everything is fascinating, but I feel somehow out of place. I can make tons of observations and comparisons between this world and the world I've been living in, but it isn't the obvious physical or subtle differences between African, Chinese, and American culture, customs, traditions, and cities that make me feel out of place. It is the fact that I am American and somehow don't fit in America.

For example, at a coffee shop I listen to the small talk of the regulars with the baristas and feel like a fly on the wall who just wants to be swatted, remembering when I used to be a regular. Or on Greenlake, watching people play Frisbee, volleyball, participate in boot camp, I feel like an out of place foreigner remembering when I used to do sprints and pushups. Or when I am walking and a guy slows down, tries to make eye contact, and I feel the energy of someone wanting to chat, instead of feeling complimented, I put my pretend wedding ring back on my ring finger, disliking the pick up culture that I remember from undergrad or going to Freaknik in Atlanta.

How do I explain what I am feeling?

I am not talking about missing China or Africa either. I don't feel a homesickness for those countries, nor do I wish that at this very moment I was just back in my Chinese hometown. I like America. I've been enjoying all that America offers. But my heart, my eyes, my ears, my head, just feel weird, feel sad, feel depressed? Something is weighing me down, and I can't put my finger on it. This one month home leave is neither heaven nor hell more like purgatory, a holding place until I get back to my Chinese life where for the next year I will be preparing for the next big adventure.

I've been looking up web articles about reverse culture shock and think fluff... more fluff... too obvious, not the answers or solutions I am looking for. Jwong's college course science paper, "There and Back Again... Re-Entering Reality," though is one of the more interesting explanations.

"This definition of post-travel-abroad depression, whether it is an equivalent to reverse culture shock or not, is a clear indication that significant alterations in depression-related chemicals in the brain occur as a result of neuromodulatory alterations in behavior... Feeling an overwhelming sense of discomfort with reality seems to make sense in relation to the idea that these students no longer possess a clear sense of normalcy in their lives. An interesting reflection on the topic of drastic environmental changes and disconnect between reality and one’s expectations is the concept of solastalgia. Coined by an Australian philosopher, Glenn Albrecht, the recently formulated term defines a form of depression or homesickness that combines the concepts of nostalgia, solace, and desolation (Skatssoon). Albrecht uses this term to explain the sometimes overwhelming sense of distress over a loss of “community” or “endemic sense of place” as a result of environmental change; however, these same emotions and the depression caused by imagining a lack of control over one’s destiny are emotions and brain patterns that can also be associated with the concept of re-entry shock after being abroad."

1 comment:

alison said...

Been back for a year now, and I think it took until May for me to realize that I am not still in China. Not my immediate surroundings of course, but my way of thinking and expectations. Guess I'm a slow learner. Time to re-integrate: 10 months.