Many of my friends warned me that reverse culture shock (confusion resulting from going back to your own culture) would be worse than culture shock itself. One friend said “when you go to a new culture, you have an open mind, ready to take in the new culture. You don’t expect it to make sense to you.” However, when you go home, you expect to feel a certain way, to fit in. You expect it to make sense. So, if home culture doesn’t make sense, either due to a change in one’s self or one’s perceptions, that can be disconcerting. At least, that was my theory.
I’m still processing my departure from India and my re-introduction to the western world. Three months is not that long to be away, but its by far the longest i’ve ever spent away from the culture I have grown up with. From reading other fellows blogs, I had some things I was expecting- to be confused by the supermarkets, the spacious and uncrowded streets, the level of comfort. And while I did spend a bit of time marveling at the emptiness of London streets and my first real hot shower in three months was one of the most beautiful experiences in the world, I would say I transitioned back to the western conceptions of space and comfort quickly and with ease. I concluded that my reverse culture shock was minimal, and I almost felt disappointed in myself at how easy it was to readjust. Had I learned nothing from India? Did I really let it in the way I thought I did? Am I completely unchanged?
I woke up my fourth day post-India feeling strange and sad. I began to feel grumpy and lonely, even though I was with my best friend in my favorite city. I felt far away from what I was doing, unable to access the emotions that were natural to me a week ago. I blamed it on jet lag initially, then on my cell phone next (I always blame the technology. But I think now its a different sort of culture shock than I was expecting, one that is harder to spot because it masquerades as the usual feelings of being down and tired. I’ve spent some time trying to pinpoint exactly what about coming home has made me feel farther away from my own emotions. I think the biggest thing is a sort of existential loneliness. In india it felt like people were always talking to each other and me. Even when neither of us spoke a lick of the others language, people would come up and communicate with their hands or through touch. People were comfortable and interested in my life, and each others. While I know that this experience is influenced by my identity as a white foreigner, I did see many examples of people communicating with each other- asking for help or fighting or just saying hi. In London, the only times I would talk to strangers was during a capitalistic exchange of money for goods. People don’t even really speak to each other when one person is in the way, a sort of politeness. I felt strange and sad that now that I was surrounded with people who could speak my language, people were no longer interested in talking.
The effects of this are more drastic than many westerners believe, is my guess. Theres a feeling of togetherness that either arises from or allows the amount of conversation that occurs between strangers in India that does not involve money. You feel a part of something larger, a mass of humans on the bus is a collective energy instead of a collection of individual energies, if that makes any sense. The focus is less on the individual and more on the group- it seems easier to get lost in the crowd. In London, on the tube, it felt like each person was in their own world, minding their own business. I didn’t feel a part of something bigger, I didn’t feel connected with these people who were sharing the same space as I, who were breathing my air. That’s something I didn’t expect to hurt, but it did. I felt (and still feel) a sort of loneliness that has nothing to do with how many friends I’m with. Public space is just something I move through, rather than a group of people that I can fold myself into (to some degree). Its a loneliness that arises from our individualistic society, I think, from conceiving of ourselves as our own selves first and foremost, then part of groups or family units second. At its worst, its an overindulgence in ego that cuts us off from everyone, even the people we love.
I woke up another morning, now in my new house in Ann Arbor, and the first words in my head were ” I feel empty like a snail shell.” Heavy handed and odd metaphor aside, this was a feeling I was dreading to a certain extent, though I have friends who have had similar experiences. I felt like there was nothing here for me in America, that my real life was back in India and that this world of cell phones and avocado toast is the dream. I catch myself making plans as I fall asleep, what state i’m going to visit next, who I’m going to meet up with. Its a scary feeling, that the life i’m returning to, the one I’ve committed myself to for at least the next 9 months, doesn’t feel real. That feeling faded as the day went on, but I still wonder whether it is lying under all the day to day problems I have to face, like moving and writing this blog and buying school books. I worry that if I sit down and give myself the time, I’ll find that feeling undercutting everything i’m experiencing right now.
This is a pretty depressing blog, and I don’t want to suggest that everything is all bad. I’ve reconnected with some amazing people, i’m excited to be a student again, and I love my new bed. I know from my travelling that I am strong enough to manage and move through these emotions in productive and interesting ways. I worry that I need a fair amount of time and physical and mental space to process this reverse culture shock, but I have committed to putting my mental health first. These feelings are a gift in some way, allowing me to explore the culture I have always taken for granted and struggled to see because I grew up within its confines, both an interesting intellectual exercise and an opportunity to explore what I want out of culture. What I accept and what I do not accept as truths. India was an incredible journey, and I can’t wait to incorporate the joy and confidence I found there into my “regular” life.