Reverse Culture Shock and How You Can Deal with it

When it hit me that I’d be going home a few weeks back, I panicked. I was convinced that if I just kept traveling, all my experiences would remain ‘real’ and wouldn’t succumb to fading in the dusty box of surreal memories in my mind.

Turns out that was the least of my problems. I didn’t understand reverse culture shock, and it snuck up behind me and struck me upside the head.

Police Officer at Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, Israel - YourLocalKat
Not remembering a bomb threat in Jerusalem was the least of my worries

The Symptoms

I’ve come back, but I’ve yet to find the feeling of ‘home.’

My relationships, held strong over time by skype and email, feel oddly distant face to face. I want to share what I’ve experienced but there’s so much that can never fully be conveyed, and I find myself missing the company of those I met during my journey: they barely know me and yet somehow know me better than anyone else.

And there’s an odd sense of duality: I look like everyone and talk like everyone but somehow feel like a foreigner. It’s like I’ve lived a whole other life and I’m not quite sure what to do with this whole other person that came back from the east.

Maybe I’m not sure what to do with the one that stayed here.

The ‘me’ that came back.

Reverse Culture Shock

After a bit of research and talking to people, I found that reverse culture shock is actually quite common.

It strikes when someone comes back ‘home’ after getting accustomed to a different culture, and shows up as loneliness, frustration or a general feeling of disconnect between the re-entrant and their surroundings.

But with people describing it as a “misalignment,” saying that everything is “almost right,”  and that “everything feels familiar, yet different,” they’re clearly not just talking about cultural differences – this unplaceable disconnect is a result of the change that happens within the re-entrant: everything is the same and yet somehow different because it is the re-enterant’s view that is different.

“Up” I hope.

How To Deal With It

You might get distracted and barely notice it, or feel odd and out of place for a few weeks, or maybe end up shutting out the world completely. Either way, whether your return home is temporary or permanent, dealing with the shock of being back can be difficult. Here are some things I’ve been doing that you can do to make the transition easier:

Exchange Experiences

While you were living your travels, your close ones were living their home lives, and it’s important to realize all the changes that have taken place, whether internal or external. Sharing some of the experiences you’ve gone through, and asking them about the goings-on at home will give everyone a chance to know where the other party is coming from.

Connect & Reconnect

Keep up with the friends you met while on the road – they know you at your most recent and can often be the ones that know the ‘changed you’ best. Maintaining those connections can help you readjust and prevent you from getting lost in the ho-hum of everyday life.

On that note, start making new memories with the people that you’ve just come back to! Getting stuck reminiscing only about memories of by-gone travel adventures will make everyone miserable.

Pho Bo Breakfast in Phu Quoc, Vietnam - YourLocalKat
Pho Bo Breakfast in Phu Quoc, Vietnam

Integrate the Changes

Maybe you make having noodles for breakfast the new ‘it’ thing.  Maybe you keep up with your French. Maybe you decorate your digs with Moroccan patterns, start going for runs in the morning, or stop trying to control everything (so much easier to ‘let go’ on the road).

Regardless, combining aspects of your travels that you enjoyed or that specifically became a part of you will make being back less of a terrifying, ‘boring’ option, and more an exciting opportunity. Make your travels keep on giving!

Play Tourist at Home

I’m always shocked at how little people tour around their own countries or cities. *cough* Guilty. *cough* But ‘traveling’ around your home town and to nearby cities is an easy way to keep up the adventure, and can make ‘home’ less of an ‘end’ and more of another destination where you happen to be spending time. There’s a good chance tourists come to your town for something – check it out! Alternatively, go where tourists don’t go. Oooh, now we’re talking.

Give it a Moment

My mom keeps saying, “You were so ‘go-with-the-flow’ and accepting on your travels – Accept this now, and that it’ll pass.” It’s probably good advice. So accept it, don’t push it. Find a place where you feel comfortable while you ‘deal’ with it – eventually you will readjust, reassimilate, reintegrate anew.

And if all else fails:

Travel

Ever Seen Fresh Rice Noodles Being Made?

Our tuk tuk driver had pulled over to the side of the road and was now staring back at us expectantly, waiting for an answer.

Because the last ten minutes of the ride had been spent much of the same way, but with questions more along the lines of “How do you put an elephant in the fridge?” I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.

Finally, Dan sputtered, “Uh…yeah? Well…no…”
“Do you want to?”
“What?”
And off we went down the streets of Battambang.

We pulled up to the back of a house where a woman sat on a bamboo deck amidst various bowls and baskets. She was repeatedly dipping her hands into a bowl of soapy water, pulling out wet white strings and folding them neatly into a banana leaf lining.

Woman folding rice noodles. Battambang, Cambodia - YourLocalKat
Woman folding rice noodles

What we were looking at was effectively a homespun noodle making factory, and as she and her husband silently continued to work, our tuk tuk driver ‘David’ explained to us the process of making fresh rice noodles.

The first step is to grind the rice into meal. Then you want to strain the meal, clean it, and put it into bags and compress it. The next step is to cook it, and once cooked, to pound the meal until it’s sticky. Then? Knead the meal by hand until it’s even stickier.

Rice into noodles.
Rice into noodles.

Strain the sticky meal through a press into the noodle ‘shape’ that we’re familiar with (above), and then hand wash the noodles – a process with multiple bowls with varying types (or levels perhaps) of soap. Finally, rinse the noodles one last time, and fold.

The couple that we were fortunate to see has been doing this for years (I can’t recall now but I would venture to guesstimate at at least two decades), and would originally go to the local market in Battambang to sell it.

Man cleaning rice noodles.
Man cleaning rice noodles.

However, the quality of their noodles was so consistently high, that eventually restaurants and other re-sellers (like street vendors) that had become loyal customers began coming to them directly.

They now no longer have to go to the market to sell their stock of noodles but receive daily orders which they fulfill without having to leave the house.

Rice noodles!
Rice noodles!

As they seem to supply most of the customers in the area, I’m not sure how they ever sleep – the couple can sell up to a 100 kilograms of rice noodles a day!

The Faces of Bayon, The Smile of Angkor

Arriving at the gates of Angkor Thom, one of the city temples in the Angkor Archaeological complex, was like something out of a movie, or better yet, something out of an adventure book I’d read as a child.

Entrance to Angkor Thom, Cambodia - YourLocalKatTo be completely honest, I had been sorely underwhelmed by my visit to Angkor Wat the day before; maybe it was my expectations for it, all the guidebooks swearing it’d be breathtaking, or its size, too large for me to grasp completely, but it just didn’t wow me the way everyone else seemed to be wowed. I knew I was looking at something special, big, important…it just wasn’t that special, big or important to me.

So I was stunned when I arrived at Bayon.

Bayon Temple

From far away, Bayon actually looks like a glorified heap of rubble; besides a few stone peaks reaching for the sky, the whole temple looks more disorderly than sacred, and the stone blocks scattered around the premises only add to its ‘accidentally left behind’ atmosphere.  The rubble of Bayon. Angkor Thom, Cambodia - YourLocalKatBut upon getting closer, something that resembles a face begins to peer from one of the towers. Soon, there is another, and then another, and all of a sudden the realization hits that there is much more to this temple than meets the eye.

History of Bayon

Bayon was built in the late 12th century for King Jayavarman VII as the official state temple of Angkor Thom, the capital of the Khmer Empire at the time. Situated smack in the middle of the “great walled city,” the Buddhist temple is said to be one of his greatest achievements.

Bas-relief at Bayon. Angkor Thom, Cambodia - YourLocalKatFollowing the architectural style of the temple-mountain, a representation of the sacred center of the universe Mount Meru, Bayon reaches over 40 meters high and expands its grandiosity over 10km2, its walls covered in a gallery of detailed bas-reliefs (shallow sculpted stone) that stretch for almost a kilometer, and depict historical battles, mythological events, and everyday life.

The Faces Of Bayon

A smile of Bayon

But it is perhaps the greatest attribution to Jayavarman VII that holds me where I stand in awe: from the 54 towers that look out onto the city materialize 216 smiling faces, watchful and reserved. It is breathtaking, bizarre, and almost otherworldly.

Rumored by many to be more than just a coincidental resemblance to the king himself, they stand almost four meters tall, carefully observing as they blend in and out of the slabs of stone from which they themselves are assembled.

It is fitting: generally accepted as the embodiment of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, the faces exude compassion for their audience; as a representation of the king, they retain a sense of distance from it –

the wide forehead, broad nose, deep nostrils, almond eyes, and that smile, almost clown-like, upturned at the ends, is a graceful union between serenity and control.

The Smile of Angkor

Bayon is considered one of the most beautiful temples of Angkor, and I can see why – there is a magic in walking among the faces, as if each holds the secrets to a hidden past. But the temple itself is still shrouded in mystery, and that’s the most beautiful experience of them all: standing face to face with the enigmatic smile of Angkor, and letting Bayon slowly reveal itself.

Three in a row. Bayon, Angkor Thom, Cambodia - YourLocalKat

Photo of the Week: Battambang Bats

The dark gaping slit in the middle of the cliff that was supposed to be the bat cave didn’t look too promising.

And then dusk started approaching, and something inside the darkness began to stir.

Like clockwork, at 5:45, the fruit bats fluttering within shot out, quietly and daintily and soon you could see the dotted line snaking away into the sky for miles.  It was almost comprehensible, the sheer amount of bats overhead.

Bats flying off, Battambang, Cambodia - YourLocalKatEvery evening, the bats make their way towards the floating markets nearby where they feast on a banquet of mosquitoes, and there are so many of them that it takes about two hours for them all to fly out.

How many, you ask? Oh, about EIGHT MILLION :D.

———

The bat cave is at Phnom Sampeu, about 17 kilometers from the city center of Battambang, Cambodia, and the bats fly out everyday around dusk.

Off the Rails with Battambang’s Bamboo Train

Rickety Rails. Battambang Bamboo Train, Cambodia - YourLocalKat
Rickety Rails

It might not be far off the ground, or go upside down, but there’s really nothing quite as thrilling as feeling like you might fly off the rails when barreling forward at about 40 kilometers per hour with nothing holding you down.

Battambang’s Bamboo Train, or nori, was first built by the French in 1927, the rails running all the way to the Thailand border. Nowadays, while still occasionally used by locals to carry bigger loads from town to town, the train is mostly used by tourists who come to experience the one-of-a-kind ride.

But to call it a train is a bit of an overstatement really. The contraption consists of a platform constructed from sparse bamboo strips and what is possibly a tractor motor not actually attached to the wheels that it runs on.

There are no seat belts, or seats for that matter, and passengers sit on a straw mat placed at the front for comfort and stability.

The rails are appropriately rickety, thrown down and attached just haphazardly enough that the train jerks at each junction. They are bent, whether from heat, time, or construction, and add a bit of a rollercoaster swerve as you fly through, bushes and branches occasionally swatting at your limbs if you dare to extend them past the platform’s perimeter.Train motor. Battambang Bamboo Train, Cambodia - YourLocalKat

There’s only one set of rails so when two trains going in opposite directions meet, one group disembarks and the drivers disassemble the platform from the wheels, put it on the ground, remove the wheels from the tracks, push the other train through, and reassemble the first train back together.Taking the train off the tracks. Battambang Bamboo Train, Cambodia - YourLocalKatIt is a 20 minute ride to a tiny village where you’ll have ten minutes to buy a drink, a souvenir or visit a small rice factory guided by the adorable children for $1, and then you hop on and head back.Tour guide. Battambang Bamboo Train, Cambodia - YourLocalKatThe Bamboo train is definitely a tourist attraction, but is likely one of the most authentic ones in southeast Asia; unfortunately, with the reconstruction of Cambodia’s railway system, it might not be around in a couple of years. There’s really no danger of having an accident, or flying off for that matter, but rattling through the Cambodian countryside on a flimsy raft of bamboo is really a thrill you have to experience before it’s gone for good.

The Bamboo Train is a $6 tuk tuk ride from the center of Battambang. The train costs $5 per person and runs everyday during daylight hours.