“You are running away again.”
“What’s wrong with your own country?”
“You should face your problems. This is escapism.”
“This is a phase. You’ll grow out of it.”
“Welcome back. How was it?”
I’ve heard these phrases a thousand times. I squeeze my eyes shut, but the words and sentiments are still there, waiting as I exit the airport. As a student of anthropology, I am well aware of the signs and symptoms of culture shock. But I am also aware of something else—re-entry shock.
Re-entry shock is the secret storm no one talks about when returning from a profound, life-altering journey. It is the tension between a familiar past and a different self. I’ve found it in unexpected corners.
After living in Hawaii, I found re-entry shock lurking in the desert mountainscape and in the dry air of Utah.
“This place is ugly,” I told my dad on the drive back from the airport. “I can’t believe I used to think this place was green.”
It took months for me to regain my footing, to remember that different places have different beauty, and to acknowledge that both experiences at home and abroad could be equally meaningful.
After living in Ghana, I experienced re-entry shock when my sister casually mentioned throwing a bag of old clothes into the dumpster instead of taking them to Goodwill. I sobbed for an hour on the back porch, picturing the village children I’d played soccer with just days earlier, who wore the same tattered shirts every day. I felt like a fraud. How dare I return to a past life with dishwashers and cars and hamburgers around the corner for a dollar?
After living with refugees in India, re-entry shock met me everywhere. I found it glaring in the fluorescent lights as I walked through wide grocery store aisles. I tasted it in my harsh judgments of Black Friday Christmas shoppers with their lists of electronics as they camped outside Best Buy.
I found re-entry shock in the rubble of a breakup and on every house with a flag waving out front. “Do they know about the world outside?” I judged. “Do they know the real story about Vietnam? Do they know about Tibet and the partition of India? Do they know genocide is still happening?” I cringed. “If so, why didn’t anyone warn me? Why didn’t anyone warn me before I saw the bullet holes and met the victims myself?”
After my year-long trip around the world, I decided to better anticipate re-entry shock. During the last month of my journey, I walked the 500-mile Camino de Santiago. I took a page of my journal and jotted down a list of goals as I walked: “Maintain a healthy work/life balance…keep walking…remember my worth is not the sum of my accomplishments…take mini adventures…” and so on.
That paper paved a safe path for me to walk back home. The return home, after all, has always been a part of any good travel narrative.
The biggest lie re-entry shock tells is that it is impossible to be happy at home and that the lessons we learned are not something we can hold onto. When I returned home after a year, I was pleasantly surprised. I moved into an apartment without regrets. I looked for a job without resentment and picked back up with important relationships.
I answered the well-meaning “How was it?” and “What was your favorite part?” questions in stride and talked more openly about my travels to help others understand what I’d experienced. I explained why travel is an important part of me and not a phase or some method of escape. With a little reframing (of myself and others), I found the new self and the old stomping grounds were compatible.
And maybe they always were.
Photo published with copyright permission.