If you’re committing to a period of volunteering overseas then a degree of culture shock is inevitable, particularly the first time you do it. I’ve blogged previously about this, and in so doing it was quite rightly pointed out to me that, once your placement is over and you return home, reverse culture shock is very much a concern too.
I can confirm that it does happen. I remember when I returned from my first major volunteering stint, teaching for four weeks at a School in Kampala in Uganda. The first couple of weeks were a rather discombobulating experience. I found myself being taken aback by how people would prioritise trivial things such as the clothes they wore, and aghast at everyday things such as how casually food was wasted. My friends remarked on how distracted and ‘not there’ I seemed, and no wonder – my head was still very much in Uganda, with its beautiful landscapes and warm, uncomplaining people.
One particular incident, on the train from the airport to my flat near Central London, summed it all up for me. As we pulled in to the station, a stressed-looking businessman on the platform threw a bit of a tantrum when he saw that our carriage was full. In Uganda, I thought to myself, people are crammed in to undersized minibuses like sardines and the bus goes when it goes. Here, if the vehicle is a too full for your liking, you know another one will be along in a minute. To me, his behaviour just didn’t make sense.
So it is undoubtedly difficult to reintegrate yourself back in to your home life, but do it you must. With that in mind, here a few tips to help combat reverse culture shock:
- Don’t wallow! Tempting as it may be to stay at home and avoid contact with your friends and family because they ‘won’t understand’ your experience, get out there and catch up with them. They WILL want to hear about your trip, but be sure to listen to what they have to fill you in on while you’ve been away. Never make the mistake of assuming that what you’ve been through is more important! Talking over seemingly trivial things is the first step to readjustment.
- Be sure to get the contact details of your fellow volunteers before you come home, and stay in touch with them. They’re the ones who’ll know what you’re feeling, remember, and it’s a good way to share in jokes (I remember someone posting a picture on my Facebook page of a Carlsberg beer post-Uganda, saying ‘how nice it is to have non-African beer again!’) from your shared time abroad, to put a smile on your face.
- Take the time to enjoy reacquainting yourself with those creature comforts. How nice is it to have a hot shower, be able to drink tap water, and have Netflix at your fingertips? They’ll feel like luxuries and you should savour them…
- If you have gone with an organisation, check to see if they have a debriefing program or similar for when you get home. It’s a great way to be able to talk about your experience with someone who knows what it’s all about. As well as the obvious plus of it getting things off your chest, it will provide you with the chance to take stock and positively reflect on your experience, as opposed to simply missing it.
It does get easier with time, and as with culture shock, the first time is the most difficult. Ultimately, it’s good to see it as part of the process – dealing with it helps you become more mature and less judgemental of others, much like volunteering in the first place does. Perhaps most of all, you’ll learn to never take the wonderful experiencing that is travel volunteering for granted again!