A Cheat Sheet for Beating Reverse Culture Shock

By | August 18, 2015

Two years ago, I said good-bye to Peace Corps Armenia, stepped foot on American soil for the first time in 27 months, hugged my family members, ate some greasy American food, and started my process of reintegration into American life.

How did it go, you ask?

I’ve detailed some of the process in my blog entries of the past two years, but wanted to give a full summation here, especially for those volunteers from Armenia who have just arrived home this summer. Maybe this will help you out a little bit as you go through your own reverse culture shock and readjustment process.

Month 1—Travel Month

My first month back in the U.S., I did a lot of traveling to see family and friends, and my brother got married. I saw my family in Michigan and Minnesota; flew to California and saw my friends in San Diego, had a reunion with my former Armenian site mate in Monterey, and attended a workshop in San Jose with my mom (while my sisters and grandma hung out and saw the sights); then flew back to Michigan for the wedding.

My sisters and I in San Jose. It was a lot of fun to have an all-girls trip!

My sisters and I in San Jose. It was a lot of fun to have an all-girls trip!

It was crazy, it was fun, it was amazing, to see everyone again, go shopping, eat out at restaurants, and speak English all the time. I was beyond happy. Reverse culture shock? Only in the best possible ways! I didn’t worry about the future; I lived wholly in the present, catching up on everything I had missed while I was gone.

Month 2—Crashing with Friends

I spent all of October living with my friends, Brian and Mitch, in Indianapolis. This was an ideal midway point for me, because it meant that I still had time to get my bearings, but I wasn’t living on my mom and dad’s couch feeling like a failed adult who has to live on her mom and dad’s couch.

Instead, I was with great friends, slowly learning to be social again in English and getting used to the American way of life.

Brian and Mitch show me the excitement of the library! It had been years since I had been in one.

Brian and Mitch show me the excitement of the library! It had been years since I had been in one.

According to one of my journal entries in mid-October:

I’ve been here for several weeks, going to coffee shops, going out with Brian and Mitch, meeting their friends, driving their cars, sleeping in their guest bedroom…

I am so grateful for this. It’s been peaceful. Relaxing. Really good for me. Just normal, day-to-day life.

But I knew I couldn’t live with them forever. As the time passed, I worried that if I stayed too much longer, this blissful time would shatter. I needed to forge my own life, independent of the comforting and sheltered nest I was currently living in.

So I got online, found an interesting-looking job, applied for it, had 2 interviews, accepted the job offer, and packed up my tiny suitcase to move to the west coast. (It really was that straight-forward.)

I was going to be a “Web Content Specialist” at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, where Laura, my former site mate from Armenia, was pursuing her master’s degree. (Remember back in Month 1 when I went to visit her?)

Month 3—Move to Monterey

November was fraught with anxiety, as I moved to Monterey, CA, and finally entered the “real” world of work. I think a lot of the things I faced are normal for anyone moving to a completely new place to start a new job. It was hard, figuring out where things were, how to get around, and how to make friends. Also, the cost of first months’ rent, security deposit, and all the rest, while waiting an extra long time for my first paycheck, was stressful.

But there were some added stressors, stemming from Peace Corps and my previous nomadic lifestyle. Perhaps this is when the real “reverse culture shock” started to set in. The following are some excerpts from my journal during November. I’m sorry to say, most are not very positive.

Think I’m a bit overwhelmed by being in a place I intend to stay. I’m already second-guessing myself, and I don’t start work until Monday. – Nov 1 (Immediately after my move to Monterey)

Excited to start making a paycheck. Real money, for a change. – Nov 2

I’m kind of sad today. Feeling defeated by America. I’m not supposed to feel defeated by America! – Nov 3

Felt so freaking lonely last night, even with a houseful of roommates. Just didn’t want to interact. Actually it was the most “Armenian” night I’ve had since leaving, where I watched several “How I Met Your Mother” episodes, and cried. Sucks big time. – Nov 7

I’m scared to get a car. Haven’t driven in so long. Why do I think it’s scary? I don’t even think driving is hard. – Nov 15

I’m so awkward in large groups. Just sitting and staring. Don’t know how to contribute to conversations. – Nov 28 (Thanksgiving Day)

Ate 2 pieces of pie for breakfast. Apple and pumpkin, which I made yesterday for Thanksgiving.  – Nov 29

Thanksgiving was nice, and I was grateful to my landlord for inviting me to partake with her and her daughters, but...there was also some awkwardness on my part!

Thanksgiving was nice, and I was grateful to my landlord for inviting me to partake with her and her daughters, but…there was also some awkwardness on my part!

Month 4—The Holidays

The feelings of discontent continued into December. Journal excerpts:

Trying to figure out how to have a life here. Still don’t know.

I’ve been feeling very unsettled and angry lately. I’m overwhelmed and underwhelmed simultaneously by life in America. I still have a lot of free time on my hands. There is so much to do, but I don’t know how to fit it into a normal schedule.

Then I made a list of things that were driving me crazy to think about. There were 43 items on that list! Looking back, I am astounded at all the anxieties that were crowding my mind!

I went back to Michigan for Christmas in late December, and had a wonderful time, going to Christmas parties and seeing friends and relatives. But it was also weird; I was taken aback at how I felt about finally being home for Christmas. Overall, though, I was happy to be home for the holidays and to celebrate in ways that felt totally normal and comfortable to me. Christmas with a huge family is a lot of fun! Plus, I was able to go snowboarding, which I absolutely love and hadn’t done in many years.

One of my favorite parts of being home was going snowboarding with my dad at Mount Bohemia!

One of my favorite parts of being home was going snowboarding with my dad at Mount Bohemia!

Month 5—January Gloom

It’s never a good sign when I look back at my journal entries and see that an entire month has gone by without me writing. January was one such month for me. I felt so low that I didn’t even feel like writing to get it off my chest.

Part of the problem was the let-down after the holidays—going back to a place that I still wasn’t used to and leaving behind all the familiar faces I craved. January also meant that most of the people I had met in the past 2 months were out of town for the winter break, so I didn’t even have many kind-of familiar faces to greet me upon my return.

I recall feeling that familiar winter chill settle deep in my bones, even living in sunny central California. I recall holing up in my room a lot and taking a lot of solo walks on the beach, trying to lighten my mood.

I took a lot of walks on the beach. Beautiful though it was, it often emphasized my loneliness.

I took a lot of walks on the beach. Beautiful though it was, it often emphasized my loneliness.

One bright spot for me was apartment hunting, because come February, I was going to move into a new apartment with Laura, my former site mate in Armenia. There were other bright spots, too, but they were fleeting, and often overshadowed by deep discontent and confusion at the direction my life was taking.

This was probably the apex of my sadness post-Peace Corps. From here on out, though, things started getting better. Thank goodness!

Month 6 and Beyond

I moved into an apartment with Laura, which was awesome. I attended another workshop, called “Smart Success,” which was awesome. My brother got married. I had a birthday (which I love). I got a promotion at work. I started dating. All awesome stuff!

So in summary, the first month was amazing, the next few months (in hindsight) were pretty bad, and after month 6, things turned around (mostly) and I started feeling normal again.

How do you beat reverse culture shock? {A Cheat Sheet}

  1. Hang out with supportive friends and family who can remind you why you are amazing even though you are acting weird.
  2. Find things with which to stay busy and take your mind off the fact that you’re feeling a bit screwed up.
  3. Give it lots of time. Be gentle on yourself. Eventually all will go back to “normal.” (If it doesn’t feel normal yet, give it more time.)

As always the most important bit of advice I can give—which becomes even more poignant after a transformative experience like serving as a Peace Corps volunteer—is,

Be Unique, Be Authentic, and Be Yourself.


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