Coming Home to Culture Shock

What is going on? Coming home to New Zealand should be a wonderful experience, right? We missed our friends and family until it ached. We yearned for good sushi and a mouthwatering leg of New Zealand lamb.

It was amazing to see everyone again and tell them everything and look at all the familiar roadscapes. Soon, it started to get hard. Not surprising, we had been travelling for a year; no work, husband and I together, everything new and interesting. After a little while, friends started getting sick of talking about our travels and we realized we had changed a little bit and New Zealand had not. It was not that we were better, just that we had slightly changed shape, like a puzzle piece that no longer fits. People clucked and sighed, "back to reality". A quick search shows this is a phenomenon called reverse culture shock.

Reverse Culture Shock

Who knew this even existed? I certainly didn't until after I got back. With the growing contingent of 'digital nomads' and mobile workers, this will be an important issue. 

Culture shock is the anxiety of not knowing the social norms in a new place. Reverse culture shock is similar but relating to re-adjustment. It turns out that there is a wealth of information on reverse culture shock for returning expats. The high of the adventure over, the stress of setting up life all over again sets in. An article by Gaw (2000) states some of the reported re-adjustment problems. Problems are more severe the more trips away, the longer the stay, the less of a support network back home and if return was involuntary (ie due to visa requirements).

New Zealand ferns - Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

There was the added tension of returning to a damaged city. Christchurch was shaken by a series of huge earthquakes in 2010 and 2011. It is still in the process of being fixed up and rebuilt. There are some wonderful new places that have emerged from the rubble, but when we came back in 2015, not much had changed from a year earlier. Returning to the city also brought back the memories and anxieties of the quakes that we had escaped from in France.

We have settled back into a life in New Zealand, a different life from the one we left. Relatives were born and grew up while we were away. Friends grew closer or grew apart. We have moved house, schools and jobs. If we ever talk about all the challenges we faced while we were away, people ask us if we would go back. We are happy but if we won the lottery tomorrow, we wouldn't hesitate in going back.

I think the upshot of all of this is that our trip ignited a spark that we cannot quench by staying still. If the 'travel bug' is a burning curiosity for understanding new perspectives, for finding beauty in difference, then we well and truly have it.

So which place do you like best? 

This is an impossible question to answer. It is like asking, do you want to eat at your local Indian or at a steak house? The two countries are so completely different. There are good things and bad things about both places. Choosing which place to live in would depend on family circumstances at the time.

France has cheaper food and better service.

New Zealand has fresh ingredients and restaurants which open early making going out with kids easier.

France is a great base to travel from with regions that each have their own personalities.

New Zealand is a beautiful country to explore with natural attractions in close proximity.

France has free schooling, with more emphasis on the arts.

New Zealand has more progressive learning styles, more natural schoolyards.

Some other interesting French differences we noticed:

At a house we rented in the South of France, I asked the owners if we had to mow the lawns as the grass was about a foot tall. We were going to be living there for two months over spring. I was told they usually don't worry about it. I must have looked shocked because their next comment was "Ah, you are like the British". Really? Is it that weird that I like a neatly trimmed lawn? 

The above leads nicely onto speaking one's mind : Europeans in general seem more able to express their opinions without couching them in "I'm sorry but.." "I was going to say...". Quite redundant stuff. I didn't realize how much we use them in English until I was groping for a translation that doesn't exist or would sound painfully awkward. If it sounds too braggy, the French probably just wouldn't say it, unless they knew you really well.

We used online house-sharing apps to book accommodation which means using someone's house while they are away on business or for leisure. We never knew what we were going to get. Some had no parking space close by. Some houses had only enough hot water for one shower. Some had no toaster, washing machine or freezer. One that shall remain nameless was below road level and infested with rodents. In short, what is "fully equipped" and "family friendly" for one family is inadequate for another. One thing is absolutely certain though, every place in France has a great coffee machine.

In France, the 'monokini' is generally accepted on beaches everywhere as well as on TV and in carnivals. The women just cannot have a tog mark so they will sunbathe topless for hours. While this doesn't offend me, it is hard to reconcile with the fact that women don't breastfeed in public a lot. Is this due to some other factor?

Also see my recent post on Lessons Learned from Living in France

**Note: I started this post when we came back to New Zealand but I was too 'reverse culture shocked' to finish it until now! **

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