How to handle reverse culture shock

Photos by Emilie Vinson.

A few months ago, I traveled to India for 10 days to write a story for Cru’s magazine, Worldwide Challenge.

I met Aaron and Glory, parents to 36 orphaned children, 14 who are HIV positive.

As frequently happens when a person steps into new cultures, the trip was nothing like I had ever experienced. The colors, the smells, the sounds – everything was new.

Some of it amazed me. The family I got to know and write about was incredible. I fell in love with the children I spent time with.

And some of it was shocking. A little beggar boy sidled up to me on our first day in the country. He had black pants, much too short, no shirt, no shoes, and I’ve never seen a child’s eyes so sad. He was one of many. It broke my heart that I couldn’t fix this – that I couldn’t pick him up and take him home with me.

When I returned from India, I waited for life to return to normal. For a few weeks, I dreamed about orphans at night, but I got over jet lag, wrote Aaron and Glory’s story for the magazine, and tried to regain my normal routine.

Yet something still felt out of place. I felt out of place.

While I was home with family for Christmas, my mom asked me to help her organize the kitchen, and that was when it finally started to make sense.

“There are 7 spatulas here,” I said quietly after we’d emptied a drawer.

“Yes,” she said, organizing the utensils we’d just taken out.

I felt like I was dying inside. 7 spatulas. While Glory cooks meals for 36 in a kitchen the size of our bathroom.

I completely missed the fact that the spatulas were used for different things, and that they were necessary for when our whole family was over for a meal.

It was the excess.

After seeing people live with nothing, the excess I saw everywhere was painful.

What feelings are normal?

It turns out many of the emotions I experienced are normal during the process of re-entry to one’s own culture. A few of the more common emotions people going through re-entry experience are:

Feelings of disgust about flaws in your country’s culture. I found myself repulsed by the excess I saw everywhere when I returned home, along with the focus on entertainment and comfort that is so common in my home country.

Feelings of frustration, anger and disorientation. Though my trip was relatively short, I came home angered by the disparity I saw between how people around me viewed poverty, and the poverty I had witnessed in India. I could not reconcile seeing a child bowing at my feet asking for money or food with the reality that I can call a pizza place by my house and ask them to deliver food to my door anytime I want.

Feelings of loneliness or isolation. Unless I was speaking to someone who had a travel experience similar to mine, I frequently felt I couldn’t verbalize how the trip had changed me in a way that made sense to them. Or, they might understand why I felt emotional about the trip a week or 2 after I returned, but they couldn’t understand why elements of it still upset me 2 months later.

After acknowledging some of the difficult emotions that surface during the transition home, the next step is to begin to figure out how God is calling us to live in light of the experience He’s allowed us to have. Here are 8 questions that can be helpful in moving forward:

  1. Why did God bring me on this trip? You carry your unique story and life experiences everywhere you go. What was God’s purpose in adding this experience to your story?
     
  2. Can I re-prioritize my budget so that I spend less and give more? What areas of your budget could be tightened? Maybe it would be helpful to make a meal plan in order to spend less on groceries, or to choose to cut down on impulse buying.
     
  3. What am I learning about myself through this trip? Has this trip challenged ideas or beliefs you’ve held? How has it revealed desires God has placed in your heart that you didn’t know you had?
     
  4. What am I learning about God through this trip? How were you surprised by God on this trip? How has it shown you new aspects of God’s character?
     
  5. How has this trip changed me? What differences do you see in yourself since returning home? What issues do you think about differently because of your experience?
     
  6. Am I going to the dark places, bringing light and hope to the least and the lost? Who has God called you to bring the gospel to? How can you continue to do that now that you’ve returned home?
     
  7. Now that I’m aware of life in another culture (including physical needs, spiritual climate, etc.), what am I accountable to do something about? Abolitionist William Wilberforce said, “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.” In light of your trip, what are the issues you will no longer choose to look away from?
     
  8. How does my experience impact my way of living now, particularly my attitudes toward money and possessions? How will your life look different because of this trip? In what ways will it change your lifestyle?

Through a lot of processing questions like these with friends, a lot of wrestling with God over what He wanted me to do, and a lot of journaling, I began to take some steps forward.

What is God calling you to do with your experience?

Go on another mission trip?

Help the poor in your own community?

Start living missionally?


Where have you traveled? What helped when you came back?