As we stepped off the plane, back on British soil for the first time in six months, but feeling like it was the first time we’d been back in about two years, I felt a mix of emotions wash over me. Excitement to see family and friends, bewilderment at being back home after so long, and complete and utter exhaustion after 24 hours worth of flights and a 15 hour layover in Singapore. But it didn’t matter – I was finally home!
This post is about how I’ve been feeling since we landed in London on Christmas Eve.
Truth be told, before we got back from New Zealand, James and I hadn’t actually been away from home for that long. We came back to the UK for just over a week in June, after a quick trip to Ayutthaya in Thailand. We saw one of my close friends get married, and I visited my sister in Spain before flying back out to NZ. But the trip home was way too short – I barely had time to catch up with family, let alone with friends, before I found myself jet-lagged at my desk questioning whether or not the trip was worth it (of course it was worth it, but you know what I mean).
I always find it rather bizarre when you’re abroad and you start speaking to others who are abroad too. I have had conversations where I have come away feeling like it’s almost a competition of who has been away from home the longest: who has endured the worst homesickness, who has missed the most birthdays or Christmases, who is the most “nomadic” and the most comfortable with being away.
It shouldn’t have to feel like a competition – and really, it isn’t – I guess it just depends on the types of people you meet and what stage of life they’re in. In New Zealand, we met a lot of older people, who had come overseas looking to settle down rather than just to travel for a few weeks, and so for those people it didn’t matter to them how long they had been away. Comparatively, in Asia, I found that we met a lot of travellers who, perhaps a little overwhelmed with how many places they were ticking off their bucket-list or with how many other travellers they were meeting, felt the need to reassure us that they were the better, more experienced traveller because they had been away from home longer than we had – and no, of course they weren’t missing home, not one bit. (Perhaps they didn’t mean to come across this way, but that’s what it felt like to me).
I am not the first to admit that I do occasionally feel homesick when I’m away, and I wrote a whole post about it here, during a particularly bad bout of it in mid-2015. But I do not and will not ever believe that feeling homesick is wrong.
So when we stepped off the plane in London on Christmas Eve, I felt quite overwhelmed. I was really sad to leave New Zealand after living there for 19 months, but I felt a wave of relief when I saw my family at the gate in the airport. Christmas Day was a whirl of family, food and that hilarious game where you have to put the mouthpiece in and try to say the phrases written on the cards. I woke very early on Christmas morning, still adjusting from NZ time (GMT +13), and consequently I was in bed by 9pm.
Then the sickness struck
Perhaps it was because I had gone from summer to winter in the space of one day; perhaps it was because I caught something from a passenger on the plane. I got ill. A cough, swollen glands – my usual ridiculous illness that seems to strike me down at least twice a year. Before I knew it, I was bed-bound on antibiotics for New Year, and had to cancel my plans to visit an old friend in the Netherlands.
I’ll give you a bit of background on my plans before I got sick: My flight was booked from London to Rotterdam on the 30th December, where I’d stay for four nights with my best friends (who I hadn’t seen in six months). I would then fly from Rotterdam to Riga, where I was planning on meeting my sister for a couple of days before flying back to London together. Of course, it’s actually more financially friendly not to bother changing a Ryanair flight what with the additional fees you have to pay, so I just booked a new one, from London to Riga, and let my seats on the flights to Rotterdam and from Rotterdam to Riga go empty.
Riga was a whirl of fun. The first day my throat was sore, but not too sore. The second it was blizzardy but I felt okay. By the third day, my glands had swollen to the size of golf balls and we spent the day trying to hide indoors to escape the minus 12 degree celsius temperature. Not an ideal time to be feeling under the weather.
But, Riga was a chance to properly catch up with my sister, after so many things have happened in the last 18 months. It’s strange when you initially see someone you haven’t seen in a long time. You’re all full of small talk and broad questions and vague answers. It’s not until you spend a decent amount of time with them that you begin to remember snippets of information, irrelevant memories that you decide to share, and gradually you begin to properly catch up on all the goings-on in your time spent apart. It was wonderful to hear my sister’s stories of her studies in Canada and Mexico and of her time spent as a language assistant in Spain. And it was great to share my memories from New Zealand with her as well. It’s funny how much there is to tell. You don’t realise it at first.
After the flight home from hell with, who would have guessed, a screaming baby in the seat in front of me, I then spent a few days spent in bed, dosed up on drugs and tried to recover. James was away on a skiing holiday and my family were all back to work/school, and I was bored and lonely. And when you’re bored or ill, you tend to start doing that thing where you think about stuff.
I had got back from being away, and even though I knew what to expect, I found it very hard to adjust.
One of the thoughts that tends to go through my head when I’m feeling down or lonely is “What am I doing with my life?” I often find myself comparing my life, or at least, what I’m doing with it, to other people’s, which I know is a very silly thing to do but hey, it happens. Stupid thoughts go through my head, like, “Am I making the right choices in a) not having a career on track, b) not saving money to buy a house, c) not being around like, ever?”
Once I got over those questions and repeated to myself that, quite frankly, I should do whatever the fuck I want to do and not what society thinks I should do, my brain then moved onto the fact of the matter in hand: I’m back in England and it feels weird.
Because no-one can prepare you for how you’ll feel when you get back. I can’t even properly describe how it feels, but it’s just that something doesn’t feel quite right. And understandably everyone feels different things so I can only account for myself in saying this. It’s like I’m grieving for New Zealand, but I’m also excited for our future travel plans, and I’m also having to re-accustom to home comforts. Apparently, there is a thing called reverse culture shock, and I’m fairly sure
I’ve experienced I’m experiencing it.
It’s like motion-sickness
Your body is in one place but your mind is in another (or multiple places perhaps?). I know for sure my mind isn’t here. I’m back in the mountains in New Zealand, or embarking on my future travels to Asia, swimming in crystal clear waters, hiking in lush jungles, or marvelling at temples… The feeling of having empty days stretch ahead of me is so foreign after working in Wellington and filling my days off with trips around the city. The simplest responsibilities like remembering to empty the dishwasher or get the laundry out of the washing machine have become day-long tasks. There are so many things on my to-do list, but I’m struggling to tick even the simplest errands off.
You’re probably wondering why I haven’t got myself a job. Honestly? The stress and effort of trying to find something for the next couple of weeks or so really doesn’t feel worth it. Who wants to hire someone that is going to be leaving the country again in a couple of weeks’ time, and who, at the moment, can’t seem to get out of bed before 11am? I’m going to contact a few recruitment agencies, though I’m not holding out for anything, so I am hoping I can dedicate my time to working on Spin the Windrose.
Anyway, I Googled this so-called “Reverse Culture Shock” and apparently it’s an actual thing. Supposedly, lots of other people have felt it before. [YAY I’m not alone!] Here is some information from an article I found online:
“Expats returning home can expect their top re-entry challenges being:
- No one wants to listen
- You can’t explain
- Reverse homesickness
- Relationships have changed
- People see ‘wrong’ changes
- People misunderstand you
- Feelings of alienation
- Inability to apply new knowledge and skills
- Loss/compartmentalisation of experience
It makes sense
Whilst I can only relate to some of these pointers (I don’t really care if “no one wants to listen”, I’ll bloody well tell them all about my travels anyway), it’s good to know that what I’m feeling is not out of the ordinary. (Well. Not that much.) What I’m trying to say is that I guess it does make sense to be feeling this way. Even if I don’t know exactly what “this way” is.
It’s understandable that an expat returning home feels out of the loop and struggles to find where they fit into their “old” life. People always tell you that you’ll get back and nothing will have changed, but I don’t believe that’s entirely true. Without sounding like too much of a pompous twat, honestly, I am a very different person now to the person I was two years ago. I have different habits, different likes and dislikes, different opinions, now, to what I did before. And the same goes for my friends and family. Friends are moving in with their partners, buying houses and are focused on their careers. Before I left for New Zealand, we were fresh graduates and going out every weekend.
And of course, I have different memories of the past 18 months to what my friends and family will have. I haven’t been a part of anyone’s life in the UK for the last 18 months. Their memories don’t include me. So in some ways, it’s completely unrealistic to believe that I can waltz back into my old life and expect everything to just slot back into place like it was before I went travelling. Don’t get me wrong, my friends and family are still there and always will be, but it’s a funny feeling knowing you are no longer a key part of their day to day life.
But, I don’t believe that’s a bad thing. I am just realising that time doesn’t stop while you’re away. Life carries on and people’s lives will change as they grow, whether you are around or not.
Figuring it out
As I slowly re-adjust to being at home again, as I catch up with old friends, as I become accustomed to my new “routine” (or lack thereof), as I discover new things about familiar places and people, I must remind myself that, although this is the first, it won’t be the last time that I experience an uncomfortable feeling of “reverse culture shock”. In fact, this feeling is one that may become all-too familiar in the future. By the time I figure this out, I’ll be off travelling again. There is still so much more of the world I want to see, and I am not ready to settle down yet, so I realise that this strange, unexplainable feeling may be the price I have to pay for prioritising travel.
Have you ever experienced reverse culture shock?
Thanks for reading and happy travels,
P.S. This post is in no way meant to sound like I am ungrateful (please read this if you think I am) for how fortunate I am to be able to travel as much as I do. I just wanted to honestly share my views on how I’m feeling having returned home for an extended period of time after almost two years. I’ve made travel a priority in my life, so all my thoughts, money, everything, is orientated around where I’ll go next.
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