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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?

 

6 Comments

  1. Lydia Evdoxiadi

    Dear Anca,

    I am happy to read this post, I consult in relocation and I see this reverse cultural shock quite a bit.

    Relocating back home after evolving as a person abroad for years is a confusing and often confronting experience! Things just don’t look right and feeling like a foreigner is a huge stage in re-integration.

    I work with people every day who relocate back home, often due to financial difficulties and what really helps them is to join expats at your home country which come from the countries you enjoyed living at the most.

    We never loose the multiple roots we have accumulated and all these identities are huge wealth.

    Reply
  2. Anca

    Thanks for your comment, Lydia.

    IMO what you suggest could be a solution, however just for a short period of time. Expats come and go, they don’t stay enough in one place to build long lasting friendships, and even if they do, these cases are rare.

    What I was talking about – the lack of moral values in Romania, (respect for each other being the top one) – is a problem rooted in a mindset that would take a few generations from now on to change. And only if there’s willingness for this to be done.

    With no role models that the younger generation could look up to and follow, it would be hard to see a societal change that Romania is in dire need of.

    Reply
  3. Lydia Evdoxiadi

    Dear Anca,

    When I was writing Relocate Smart, I ran a huge survey with loads of feedback and did a lot of interviews to see why some people were Relocating Smart, while others were going at loss and kept relocating over and over again.

    It is really a social phenomenon, and I get a rain of questions about this, so I published this article, just some days ago
    If I may, I post a short link here
    http://www.relocatesmart.co/entry/relocation-calculator-relocate-smart-and-stay-out-of-debt
    Not only relocating all the time is strenuous, it is also VERY EXPENSIVE!!! It can amount in its totals for families with dependents, to 3 monthly wages – a total budget breaker.

    The main reason I found in the survey and in the rain of emails, which I wish I had the time to answer all day long, is that people do not have very clear goals set up. Why are they relocating, what are they expecting and by when? Are the most critical questions.

    On the contrary, people who relocate for longer periods with clear targets and solid plans, do EXTREMELY WELL and actually build fortunes! Seriously, relocation is a major life-decisions which merits attention and thorough research.

    I also found that Relocating too often is very prejudicial to women because over 70% are asked to leave their jobs with nothing or little equivalent on the other side.

    In Relocate Smart I juxtapose the good moves which consider and work like calculators for the benefit of every family member and the more hasty ones and how these can be avoided.

    Then I over did it, but I am happy I could provide this for the readers and clients, I did an in-depth study on the ELITE RELOCATION GROUP. These are the people who make it and usually relocate for a period of 5-12 years. They do extremely well and most of the times, both parties have steady jobs, even if the earnings is actually totally unequal. What helps maintain the balance is that the party that earns less, still earns and has a lot of fulfillment from side activities and is usually the person who leads the relocation process.

    All this said, and thank you for bearing with me, Relocation is fun, amazing and can bring a lot of zest in a relationship and our own individual well-being. It is a group sport and should be implemented as such.

    Should readers be more interested in learning how to relocate smart, based on real stories of sweet clients, surveys and the facts and goals that should drive relocation, I published Relocate Smart in March of 2013 and it is an aid to many. The feedback I get on the daily basis feeds our articles and forthcoming material. I crafted an entire Relocation Calculator to weigh goals, money, health and well-being.

    I know I could go on and on and on Anca, I just know and see in the daily basis that this service material is helping people and it is the biggest satisfaction I get to know that singles, families, job seekers finally have some data, ideas, strategies and guides to get it right!

    Thank you for allowing this long post, I am so passionate about sharing our work and bringing huge impact in the lives of every single person!

    Just in case you are interested I am also maintaining a website about Relocation at

    http://relocatesmart.co/”

    Reply
  4. Lydia Evdoxiadi

    Anca, I tried to seperate the questions above. I think the question in Romania might be larger than Romania. So many changes have come, the finances are struggling and the moral decay is increasing as people do not have the resources or perhaps the love and guidance to work through the pressures.

    Yet it is important to note that even if things are deteriorating in the Western World, Anca and dear readers, the Western World still detains the top 10% of global wealth.

    Clients from the U.S. are always worried about the real estate scams, about having to move, leave their homes and look for a new life. Retirees are headed abroad to make their paychecks feel real every day. No matter what is going on, We belong to the 10% of the richest citizens of the world.

    At the forefront of constant change and development, at the speeds we see right now, we do face some moral decay. We also benefit from Basic Human Rights, such as freedom of speech, freedom of assembly that others are persecuted for on the daily basis.

    Romania, just like every country, see my home-country Greece, are facing the challenge of cleaning up their countries from corruption and establishing true leaders which will bring people and nations forward.

    Though some of our readers might not be religious, I find this biblical verse so true to what is going on.
    ‘Sin must reach its maturity’ I really see Anca change, it takes a few generations, and we are growing out of negative patterns and all these old-world crooks are like the dinosaurs, unsustainable, over-greed and beginning to starve!

    Best regards and keep up this quality blog!!!

    Reply
  5. Anca

    Hi Lydia,

    I have to admit, when I planned to write this post, I was afraid it might not resonate with our audience (very few Romanians or expats who lived in Romania read our blog).

    It was a good experiment nonetheless and an extremely personal one for me.

    I’m glad it sparked the conversation though. I really appreciate your insight as a relocation expert and, especially, as someone whose country is currently going through a certain degree of uncertainty.

    Let’s hope for the best for both our countries! I love Greece and I cherish the time I spent there many years ago when I visited Athens and a few islands.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts and for reading Move Me Abroad. 🙂

    Reply
  6. Al Bryant

    Hi Anna

    First of all, I really like your site. Loads of great info.

    I had a similar experience to you although haven’t suffered quite as much reverse culture shock.

    I relocated to Spain in 2012 with my wife and daughter and pretty much everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. We ended up returning to the UK after 6 months feeling totally deflated and as if we had failed.

    For me though, I was relieved to get back and I’m still reasonably happy to be in the UK.

    What I would say though is that I know I want to try relocating again in the future, but this time with better planning and a back up plan (or get out of jail free card as I like to call it).

    I don’t necessarily dislike my home country, or miss the country I relocated to. I moss the adventure, the thrill and the independence of making such a big change.

    Now I’m off to read some more posts.

    All the best
    Al

    Reply

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