Volunteering – Dealing With Reverse Culture Shock

Volunteering – Dealing With Reverse Culture Shock

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.

20160715_143823One 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.

20160401_184846It isn’t always easy to return to a place like this…

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.

971430_10151645104771723_1769933194_nIt 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!

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18 Comments

  • Sanne - Spend Life Traveling

    November 2, 2016 at 12:10 pm Reply

    I loved reading your article because I can so relate to this. I have moved back several times after extended stays abroad (either for volunteering or for paid jobs) and it hasn’t always been easy and sometimes took me a long time to readjust to “normal life”. In fact, I just flew home (Holland) yesterday after spending a few months living in the USA and already know that it will take me some time to get used to life here again, to stop comparing and to feel at home again…

    • Joe

      November 2, 2016 at 7:19 pm Reply

      Hi Sanne – sounds like you’re a proper volunteering/working abroad veteran! It does get easier, but yeah, it still is a weird experience each time…Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  • Marlene Marques

    November 2, 2016 at 9:29 pm Reply

    Hi! Congratulation for the article! I’ve never volunteered abroad and can only imagine being back after months dealing with a totally different culture. But, you are right, we tend to give priority to a lot of things that we shouldn’t and really don’t give value to such precious ones like food or water. Traveling and working abroad makes you reconnect, don’t you think?

    • Joe

      November 3, 2016 at 7:35 am Reply

      Thanks Marlene, and yes, I absolutely agree that working/volunteering abroad does help us reconnect with our inner core values, which is what makes it such a valuable experience 🙂

  • Christine K

    November 2, 2016 at 11:49 pm Reply

    This is a very good topic to discuss because many people experience these feelings. I met some English teachers in Thailand who were finishing up their teaching contracts and were excited to return to the U.S. but dreaded the reintroduction. They had experienced the discomfort and withdrawal on previous occasions. Nice post.
    Christine K recently posted…Build a Fabulous Train Vacation with Any of These 5 Discounted Rail PassesMy Profile

    • Joe

      November 3, 2016 at 7:36 am Reply

      Thanks Christine. If they had been in this situation before, then hopefully they found it a little easier to reintegrate themselves back in to their home country 🙂

  • Linda Fasteson

    November 4, 2016 at 4:18 pm Reply

    Traveling certainly brings a new perspective and travel volunteering takes it to another level. Thanks for sharing your wonderful story.

    • Joe

      November 4, 2016 at 4:34 pm Reply

      Thanks; it’s true that you do learn a lot about yourself from volunteering, as much when you come back as when you’re out there!

  • Jaynie Wall

    November 4, 2016 at 6:36 pm Reply

    I believe everyone should have a volunteer experience like this. I did some medical work in Haiti and it really made me look at things differently back home. Thank you for sharing your perspective.

    • Joe

      November 4, 2016 at 7:27 pm Reply

      Yes, I agree, or at least all those who are able to anyway – not everyone is fortunate enough to be in a position to commit to it, of course, but yes, if more travellers would do something like this it would make such a difference in so many ways. Sounds like your Haiti experience stayed with you; look forward to hearing about it some time 🙂

  • Emily

    November 4, 2016 at 9:41 pm Reply

    I haven’t volunteered abroad but I did live abroad for a year and even within a similar culture there were things to get used to both when I first moved away, and then when I returned to the UK. I imagine that working in a very different culture where daily priorities are so different really opens your eyes.
    Emily recently posted…Nikko: A Glimpse into the World of the ShogunsMy Profile

    • Joe

      November 4, 2016 at 10:05 pm Reply

      Indeed it does, but it’s true that living abroad for a sustained period of time is not without its challenges – not least when you return home! Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  • Lewi

    November 5, 2016 at 12:46 am Reply

    Ive always wanted to volunteer because of the benefits you’re offering others. Might be time to start looking again. Thanks

    • Joe

      November 5, 2016 at 8:03 am Reply

      I definitely do recommend it – hope you find something that works for you 🙂

  • Maria

    November 6, 2016 at 11:03 pm Reply

    I know what you have experienced and you know, a part of it will be with you forever. Sometimes, in the middle of some trouble is like if I move a step back and look at things from that different reality and by rearranging my priorities is so easy to un-stress. Great post and lovely photos. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    • Joe

      November 7, 2016 at 7:34 am Reply

      Thanks 🙂 It’s not easy to take a step back and rearrange priorities, of course, but that’s what it’s ultimately all about at the end of the day – you learn so much about yourself in the process too!

  • Kassie

    November 7, 2016 at 4:12 pm Reply

    Reverse culture shock is so real and in my experience always hits me harder than regular culture shock. I get home and I always find myself struggling with caring about a lot of the things those around me do. But like you said, it gets better with time and these are great tips!

    • Joe

      November 7, 2016 at 7:24 pm Reply

      Thanks Kassie 🙂 I still experience it too, and no matter how many times you experience it and get used to mitigating it, it’s still there. I suppose coming to accept that it will happen is half the battle!

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