How Safe Are You From Reverse Culture Shock?
“The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” – Maya Angelou
I stumbled upon this quote of the great Dr. Angelou a while back, and the moment I read it, it hit me like a ton of bricks. It reminded me of the time when I chose to return back to Romania after a 3-year work assignment in Belgium.
Despite living the expat life in the capital of Europe, I decided that ending my stay in Brussels after gaining some international experience would be the right thing to do. To my friends and acquaintances back home, it looked like earning my living overseas in the corporate world was all fine and dandy, at a time when Romania’s prospects to join the EU and NATO were a distant dream.
Yet I was unhappy. I was making a good living, I travelled quite a bit, I’ve met and worked with expats from just about every corner of the world – which I loved and always wanted – and yet I was never able to overcome the culture shock. My knowledge of French was minimal. I was homesick and unhappy with work. I had hardly any friends and the Belgian weather nearly drove me to depression.
If that’s what it was like to struggle with culture shock, I had no idea the worst was yet to come—reverse culture shock.
Before I made the decision to move back, I talked about it with my mom—my greatest confidante, my best friend and the person I trust with my life. Unlike many Romanian parents of her generation, she never insisted on having me around to become her caretaker as she would get older.
What she asked of me was merely to think twice. Knowing how much I was drawn to the western culture and mindset, she always encouraged me to take on a job offer abroad when the opportunity would present itself. And I took it when it did. First time on my own in a country where I didn’t know anybody. It was a test and a life lesson that I don’t regret I had to learn. It just made me get to know myself better.
In 2000 I packed my bags and landed back in Bucharest, shortly before Christmas. In all fairness, I was ecstatic of doing so. It was HOME! I had already bought my own flat a few months before, not too far from my parents, and now it was time to decorate and furnish it and move in. For good. That’s what I thought.
It never crossed my mind for one second that I wouldn’t resist too long living in that part of the world again. Let me tell you, before I start my rant, that I love my country. I was born and lived in Bucharest for nearly 30 years. But seeing my city over the past two decades overpopulated with narrow-minded, shallow and ignorant people showing off their wealth or blaming others for their lack of it, was more than I could take. Among others.
I began to gradually notice that something was really wrong:
1. Friends, co-workers and acquaintances would question my decision of coming back; if not verbally (eg. What the heck were you thinking? Are you out of your frickin’ mind?), their raised eyebrow said it all: you came back because you failed.
2. Interestingly enough, people with their lazy derriere glued on their comfy couch assumed I was either broke or loaded. Besides the fact that nothing could have been farther from the truth, neither way would have pleased them anyway.
3. Not keeping their promises has become an art that only my co-nationals could master. In fact, very few Romanians these days seem to know the very definition of a promise. Add to that also work done most of the time half-heartedly.
4. Then it was the rudeness and the visceral anger, something that clearly bothered me more than anything else. Being spoken to in a dejected tone on a daily basis was one of the many things I was supposed to adjust to back in my hometown.
5. People would stare at me. Judgmentally or with morbid curiosity. Last time I looked in the mirror I didn’t grow two heads. They were and still take the greatest interest in anything that’s shallow and easy. They would “dissect” the clothes you wear, the car you drive and, the worry of all worries, how much money you make. There’s so much superficiality that the people with substance become invisible.
6. Romanians have no respect for your “bubble.” 50 years of communism and another 20 something of chaos didn’t cure them of their annoying habit of pushing and poking you if you’re unfortunate enough to stay in a line. The more they can choke you with their presence and breathe down your neck, the better (for them). Or, they’d rather jump the queue. First come, first served? Maybe some place else. There’s no patience, no respect and no tolerance.
7. Romanians have opinions about *everything.* They know it all. They would never admit they aren’t knowledgeable about something in particular. “I don’t know” doesn’t exist in their vocabulary.
The list would be longer, and the more I’d add to it, the bitter I’d sound. Bottom line was, these things were still there before I moved to Belgium. But some of them have become more acute with time. And after having experienced normality for three years, I realized I was no longer the same person I used to be.
I’ve become aware of the huge discrepancy between my own values and those of my co-nationals. And without growing a thick skin, it was impossible for me to fit back in. So after four years I took another leap. I’ve got a job offer in Germany that I had no reason to turn down, packed my bags again and off I went. Here I am eight years later. And as I do go home 3-4 times a year, I can’t stop being surprised by the enormities I keep discovering in a morally, economically and politically sick society.
Do I ache for my home country? Frankly, not so much. I sure do miss my family, but there’s no longer the homesick I felt during my first time abroad on my own.
I certainly have grown a lot in the past decade. I realized I can’t find myself in a country with a value system completely turned upside down, where quality in people is no longer appreciated, but rather demolished.
Things need to change. Question is: will they ever?
How was your experience with reverse culture shock? What was the most difficult part you had to deal with moving back home?