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On Re-Entry and Reverse Culture Shock: Returning to the USA After 3.5 Years Abroad

It's 7am and the sun is rising. There's a heavenly glow spread upon the rock cliffs that overlook the Gulf of Thailand. I scaled that jagged scarp last night just to get here. Waves crash and a hazy vapor of saltwater rises from the water. The blurry-eyed party-goers sway their bodies in unison; deep house music has been pulsating throughout the entire island for a solid 18 hours now.

The sun is isolated in a cloudless sky. It welcomes us to the day yet, still, nobody has slept. We're on a secluded island where, at this hour of the morning, nothing else in the world matters. Looking out over the deck, with a beer in my hand, the mist casts a euphoric haze over the broad blue sea. It feels like a dream. In front of me, underwear-clad twenty-somethings, who have obviously given up on inhibitions, splash each other like children. Their faces are a mirror for complete abandon. This is the best time of their life.

Hell, at this very moment, in this place, at this time, it's the best time of mine.

Koh Rong, Cambodia

Koh Rong, Cambodia

The song changes on my iPod and my mind snaps back to reality so hard it makes my heart sink. It's January. I'm in North Carolina. It's two degrees outside and I can barely move my toes. What is this place? Why am I here?

The trees have lost their luster and the mountains here look sad. Overweight bearded men in flannel flock to Walmart for rifles and fishing bait. My whole body yearns for the tropical rainforests of Vietnam. I want to go swimming in the waterfalls of Laos and get lost in the streets of Hong Kong. Why aren't I speaking Chinese to the waiters anymore?

In fact, where are all the Asian people?

My return to the United States, after almost four years abroad, hit me harder than I thought it would. I pictured myself in John Paul II's papal robe, kissing the ground of my motherland. I would raise my arms towards the sky and shed a tear of joy. I would be home.

In reality, my return consisted of a failed attempt at connecting to wifi and an uninspiring ride on the New York subway. The flickering yellow lights could barely illuminate the bad graffiti scribbled across the faded walls.


Traditional Chinese architecture in Xi'an, China

Traditional Chinese architecture in Xi'an, China

After 13 months in Asia, I think it would be fair to say that my perspective has changed. I've been hiking in the mountains of Southwestern China. I've been skinny dipping in the phosphorescent waters of Cambodia. I've tripped on mushrooms in Thailand. I have run with elephants and been attacked by monkeys. I have been eating the most delicious bowls of noodles for 400 days straight.

Hell, I've been living out of a backpack for 45 months.

My reality has become so vastly different to everyone else's, I'm not even sure people will understand me when I speak. I want to talk about Buddhism. Can we discuss cultural differences? Let's talk about love and life-changing experiences. Let's talk about changing the world!

Or we could talk about the color of your nails.

My desire to conversate over frivolous matters has been abandoned and the scope of my life has been minimized; I can't even fathom the idea of owning more than what I can fit in my bag yet, somehow, my sister has managed to fill an entire apartment. What necessity is there for so much stuff?

I went out for dinner with a friend and fellow traveler recently who so kindly paid the price of my meal. In traveling for four years I've learned to value my dollar and be frugal. It came as a shock when I didn't have to work hard for that plate of food and then appreciate every bite.

And walking into a supermarket, I can barely handle a simple decision like which of the 14 brands of lunch meat I should buy. Asia doesn't have these choices. There is milk. There is bread. There is toothpaste. You simply buy the thing that you need. Last week, I almost had a panic attack in the shampoo aisle of a BI-LO. I just want the one that cleans my hair!

I have changed immensely since I left home four years ago, but somehow, nobody seems to notice. The things that matter about a person, on a real world, global scale, mean nothing in the comfort of your steady job and comfortable home.

I have literally hitch-hiked half-way across a country because I had no other way to get there.

And the things that matter in the comfort of your steady job and comfortable home mean nothing on a real world, global scale. Really, I'm sorry that a can of cherry cola ruined your rug, but what about the Philippines?

Hot air ballooning over Vang Vieng, Laos

Hot air ballooning over Vang Vieng, Laos

Perhaps this is a necessity. Just like too much work is a bad thing, is there also something as too much travel? I hadn't expected reverse culture shock to hit me quite like this. I've seen remote parts of the world and hustled and haggled my way through them. What difficulties could I possibly face in returning home?

Like all things in life, finding a balance is essential. Maybe now is just my time to sit back and reflect on how awesome the rest of the world really is.

Have you ever gone through reverse culture shock? What was your experience like? Tell us about it in the comments below!

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