Dear Reverse Culture Shock,
I have not enjoyed spending time with you. You are a sneaky thief. Beyond that, your identity is ambiguous. You have made moving back to my passport country horrible.
I’m never sure whether I should call you Reverse Culture Shock or Re-entry. And if Re-entry, how do I spell it? People can’t agree if it’s Re-entry or Reentry.
Even though I have had many dealings with you, I still don’t know what to call you. That says something about your nature. You’re elusive, invisible.
I wish you were more like your brother Culture Shock. Although also unpleasant, I appreciate that he is obnoxious. Like you, he steals, but in a more obvious way.
Or why can’t you be like your namesake Spacecraft Re-entry? He is loud. Everyone knows he is the most dangerous part of a space journey. Getting back into Earth’s atmosphere is a vulnerable time, and it can be disastrous if is not done carefully.
You are not obvious or loud; you hide away like an afterthought, silently stealing from me.
You stole my house, my job, my friends — lots of tangible things like that but also my skills and identity. You turned me into an incompetent invisible immigrant. On the outside, I look like a normal Australian, but I don’t know how to do anything. At least in Asia, my white skin announces that I will need help talking or eating.
You stole my ability to do things people expect me to be capable of doing. I look like everyone else, so drivers assume I will know how to cross the road. People in the supermarket expect me to be able to buy a box of breakfast cereal.
You stole my ability to do things I expect myself to be capable of doing. I’ve lived here before, so I assume I know how to do all those simple things. Like feed myself and take part in conversations. Like buy and wear shoes after wearing flip-flops for many years.
You stole my ability to be settled in like people seem to expect. “Have you settled in yet?” It sounds like a perfectly reasonable question to ask. But it sometimes sounds like, “You should feel settled now that you have been back for almost a year.”
You stole my ability to sleep as much as I need. Every little thing takes so much more effort, so I’m extra tired. But the bed is too soft, there is no hugging pillow, and it’s so cold I need to use a blanket. I even need to relearn how to sleep.
You stole my ability to have fun and relax. In a new environment, my hobbies and habits that kept me sane can’t happen. So not only do you create extra stress and work for me, but you also take away my ways to cope with stress.
You stole my ability to understand that I’m in pain. Until I met you, I felt like I was at home, but you took that and replaced it with sadness too big see. Homelessness is the air I’m breathing, but I can’t see that air.
It feels like confusion and helplessness.
It feels like a problem I need to fix as soon as possible.
It feels like if I only relearn how to live in Australia, I will be able to function as a normal person.
You make those feelings so overwhelming that I can’t see what is really going on. And if I can’t understand I’m in pain, how can I start processing it? You can’t heal from something unless you know it’s there. In fact, sometimes the simple act of naming emotions is healing, but you stole even that.
It’s going to end up pushed aside, out of sight, out of mind. Like a bacteria in the permafrost, it will end up frozen and inactive. The unnamed and unacknowledged pain could stay dormant until the next heat wave. When the permafrost melts, the bacteria can start causing destruction again. Not only did you create loss, but you also stole the ability to cope with it.
I can’t blame you entirely – pain in general is hard to deal with. We prefer to find the silver linings and write gratitude lists. Even people in visible pain are sometimes met with, “At least it’s not as bad as it could be.”
Perhaps it is hard to see another’s pain, especially if we haven’t processed our own. Or perhaps because it is uncomfortable to see someone in pain ,we try to sweep it away. It’s more convenient to say some “comforting words” than listen to another person scream and cry for five hours.
So Reentry, my inability to process pain is not all your fault. But if you weren’t so invisible, there would be more chance of acknowledgment. That might not sound like much, but it actually goes a long way. In fact, you can’t get anywhere without it.
But you stole my ability to do almost everything, including explaining to people that I don’t know how to do anything. If only I could wear “Learners” plates everywhere so people would know.
This letter is too short to tell you all the reasons I’m not fond of you. But I hope it gives you a glimpse of some of what you have done to me.
This letter has no power to stop you from silently stealing from me and your other victims. But what I hope this letter can do is to bring you out of hiding. If you were visible, your victims would have more chance to give their pain space to breathe.
Katherine’s childhood church in Australia launched her on a trajectory to Asia. After a decade of preparation she landed in Cambodia and married a local Bible teacher. She wrote this letter as a response to two years of re-entry and reverse culture shock in 2011 and 2012.