One week ago I was living in my sarong and floating in still cerulean water. I was swimming in waterfalls and driving a motorbike through rice fields and pepper farms.
I was tasting bizarre tropical fruits and eating street food for $1.
I was befriending other writers, artists, wanderers, healers, tuk tuk drivers, and even an American Vietnam War Vet reincarnated as a three-year-old Cambodian boy.
I was in a world of color and intensity.
I was in Southeast Asia.
Bundled in a sweater and socks on the sofa on a gray day in Seattle, I can’t seem to grasp why I decided to come home.
Living nomadically for the last two and a half years, this is my sixth time back to the city where I spent over half of my life.
This is my sixth time couch surfing with friends and family. My sixth time adjusting to cold weather and English speaking store clerks and clean, paved, empty streets.
My sixth time not relating to the conversations the lifestyles the mentalities of my peers. My sixth time being the Debbie Downer who constantly compares the aquarium to the barrier reef in Belize. The Pacific Northwest pebbles to the South Pacific white sand. The wind and rain to breezy Caribbean mornings and tropical Thai monsoons.
This is my sixth time experiencing reverse culture shock.
You might think that it would get easier. In theory I should feel more prepared and develop more realistic expectations over time.
Exactly the opposite transpires.
The more times I leave, the greater the shock I experience from the differences between my “home” and what I now consider “the real world.” No amount of preparation or lack of expectations seems to soften this thud.
Each time I feel less connected to my culture. I feel out of place. I become more certain that I don’t want to live in this world.
Each time I return I speak to people who sound unhappy and stuck in their professions, in their relationships, in their lives. On the road every day feels like a lifetime, yet in this world nothing ever seems to change.
Each time no one seems particularly interested in where I have been or what I experienced. They nod along through my stories, offering “sounds like you had a great time.” They remain understandably too preoccupied with their “real” lives to hear about my “fantasy” one.
Each time I become more protective of my personal growth, afraid to let in the messages and patterns I worked so hard to deprogram. I shut down when I witness my friends, my parents, my culture, behave in ways that explain why I used to be a laundry list of things I never wanted to be.
More than anything this is the hardest part of coming home.
Not the cold weather or the sticker shock or sleeping on a sofa or having seemingly meaningless conversations.
The hardest part of coming home is seeing a side of myself in others that I never wanted to look at.
On the road I can be anyone I want to be. I can reinvent myself every moment if I wish. Each jungle path or expansive rice field or cluttered market remains untouched by memories of my past.
On the road I am easy going, I am fearless, I am strong, I am healthy, I am happy.
But in these familiar neighborhoods with familiar faces I’m reminded of who I was before I left to travel. A woman I now view as inflexible and overly attached who never exercised and cried herself to sleep most nights.
That scares me more than hiking in the jungle with wild pumas or riding in rickety sailboats in open water or driving a scooter down winding gravel roads.
I’m scared that by simply being in her former surroundings and engaging in her former relationships I will easily slip into her old familiar ways. Being in Seattle reminds me that as much as I don’t want to be her, she will always be part of me.
This reminder makes me wants to pack up and leave the moment I return home.
So I find myself today in Seattle with a choice. I can catch the next flight to anywhere or I can allow the lessons I am meant to learn in this moment seep in. Perhaps here I will not learn a foreign language or exotic cooking skills or how to breathe underwater, but I can certainly learn something about compassion towards my “non-nomadic” former self.
After all, she is the one who paved the way for me to be the person who I am today.
She is the one who booked that flight, packed up everything she owned, handed over her keys, and headed off into the unknown.
The sooner I learn to love and accept her, the sooner I can learn to love and accept the fact that at least in some ways, this place will always be my home.
What is the hardest part about coming home for YOU?
Check out my blog post: How to Transition Into Your Real Life After Travel
This. This is exactly what I always try to explain to my family and friends- it’s not them, it’s not even Canada, it’s just the feeling that maybe my free-spirited, carefree nomadic self is just make-believe. That I one was caught up in all the stresses of everyday life, that I saw more negative than positive, and that I could easily slip and become that person again. And I hate her. But maybe you’re right, maybe I should embrace her. After all, as you said.. She is the one who bought that plane ticket. 😀
Hi Nikita, yes I completely understand. It’s not easy but the best thing that we can do is shine compassion on ourselves in all stages and in turn we can feel compassion towards all of the people we meet.
It’s so difficult to come home. The biggest challenge I found was that I had changed, but my friends and family of course expected me to be the person I had been before I left. And I struggled myself with how I fit back into my old life. I expected them to be the same, but also to have changed.
It’s taken a long time to get settled back home, but I’m glad I’ve done it and reconciled ‘home me’ and ‘travel me’, and I’m happier for it.
Hi Gemma, thank you for sharing. Do you mind telling us some practices you implemented that helped you settle back in and accept these difference sides of yourself?
Nice to read your take. I don’t find it hard to return home. In fact, I love returning home. I am a kind of a traveler who enjoys being on the road with strangers, yet leave a part of me at home with my people. Yes, I must admit that i love being perceived in a different way when I am traveling – people don’t know the real me. They just know a woman who loves to travel.
Thanks for sharing Renuka 🙂
This is so powerful, and so spot on. I’m at home for the longest stretch so far in the last three years (also in Washington) but it’s only briefly, and I take enormous solace in that qualifier “briefly.” I’ve been told by family members that I’m more opinionated than they remember me before I left, but it comes across as an insult when in fact, to me, that just means I’ve discovered who I am and am more confident in what I believe. And occasionally I find myself wanting others to have changed in the same ways I have, to be more open to new experiences and ideas, and subsequently frustrated when I realize they have not. But how could they? If you never leave your comfort zone, you never grow.
I’m hoping to make peace with the former me without actually letting her back in. There’s a reason I left her behind all those years ago, and I’d like to be done with that chapter of my life.
Yes, I completely know what you mean about not letting those old habits creep back in. It’s very easy to revert back to past behavior when we’re in old environments and old relationships. I haven’t figured this one out yet, but I know it’s about building our sense of security as much as possible so that we don’t feel weak or vulnerable to outside influences. Also forcing ourselves to maintain certain practices we established on the road even when we’re in this new environment.
The hardest part for me is definitely trying to explain my new life to people, and they couldn’t care less. Like hey, I’ve only been gone for a whole year, now it’s my turn to talk! I usually get a solid 5 minutes to talk about my life abroad before we move on. At least my parents are very patient and like listening to me!
Yep, I can totally relate. I try to remind myself that I was probably doing exactly the same thing years ago when friends returned from long trips. I suppose when you can’t directly relate something to your own life it’s easy to be disinterested. It’s a shame though.
Hi Camille! I can relate to all you wrote about. One big part of why i love traveling is that we can reinvent ourselves all the time. I love that. One of my friends said tho tht she thinks that many ppl love to travel because we dont have to confront ourselves because we can leave all the time if we dont like something or someone.. i dont know if i agree. I found traveling quite intense and confronting..
Do you think you will ever find a place to settle in again?
I think that I will find a place to settle when I decide that’s what I want. As much as I feel eager to get back to Southeast Asia and constantly move around, when I was there I often had burn out and knew I needed to stay in one place for a bit to recharge. I’ll be doing that for the next couple of months in Costa Rica, the one place I have considered “home”. Ideally I’d like to have home bases all over the world that I can go back to between travel stints.
As far as travel being a way to run away, I agree with both you and your friend. Travel can become a form of escape just like alcohol, TV, Facebook, and food. When you’re constantly moving the moment you feel uncomfortable. But at some point on the road (for me immediately) you realize that no matter where you go there you are and the problems you felt do not disappear. In that sense, yes, you’re completely right travel is very confronting. I’ve worked through personal struggles at an accelerated rate being abroad, but not all people choose to actually work through it.
Thanks for your comment Andrea 🙂
What is so interesting is I am reading this as I sit in my childhood bedroom visiting home with my son for the next 3 weeks after moving to Florida from Buffalo, NY. I quit my job and am building an internet business while my husband works a day job. My son is thriving there and so are we. And this post hit home. A lot. Great words. May we be grateful for the passion to take the leap and may our hearts be open enough to understand that we must respect that woman, all while looking forward to the exit. Thanks for sharing.
Thank you Heather 🙂
This is so refreshing to hear, because I can so easily relate. It is hard coming home, whether from travelling, or living in a different city… returning home to my small town, everything and everyone seems the same. Yet I am back, changed, and trying to find how to reconnect to the place. I often feel lost in my own head. However, leaving also gives you fresh eyes, and a new appreciation for home and the people who have shaped you. You just have to embrace it!
Absolutely, thank you for sharing your experience Danielle 🙂
Wonderfully well written post. I haven’t been home yet so I can’t say, but I can relate a bit. I feel almost an aversion to going home. I’m happy for my mother to come over and visit me, but if I go home I have this fear in the back of my head that I won’t ever get out again.
Yes Zoe I completely understand. I’ve had that fear many times, but I always leave after about a month. Have you considered going home with a ticket out already booked? Might ease some of your anxiety.
Loved this! How you manged to put in words everything that I feel about coming home and be so mature about the idea that sometimes you need to be “home” is beyond me. Well done! I could relate in every way. Fantastic article! I will have to check out your blog.
this also makes me okay about being in my home and situation FOR NOW!
Thank you so much Rebecca 🙂 You may also want to check out my article on transitioning when being “back home”.
A friend posted this on FB today and it brought me to tears. I know exactly what you mean. I haven’t traveled outside of the USA for a few years and I miss being overseas so much. It’s not that I don’t like it here but my view on life is so much more global than people here. I cherish all of my travel experiences because it brought me so much closer to people. It helped shatter any stereotypes or objections I may have had about “other” types of people that were taught to me from birth through main stream media in the USA. I really miss Asia and Africa the most. Thanks for putting into words what I could not.
Angie thank you for your comment, it means a lot that my writing touched you. I can only imagine how much you must miss it. May I ask, what is holding you back from being abroad now?
Camille! Thank you for writing this. I’ve so been there and have written several posts on reverse culture shock. All I can offer you is this: a listening ear and friendship because I live in Seattle too! Have you gotten involved in the travel blogging community there? It would help you out a lot. I am in Ecuador at the moment, but will be back in town at the end of July and no doubt in the exact same headspace you’re in now.
Looking forward to meeting you!
Hi Anita, no I have not gotten involved in any new communities in Seattle. I’ve heard the couchsurfing.org community here is also a good way to feel connected with my travel life. I’m off to Costa Rica in a week but I will likely be back in September and we will have to meet up! 🙂 Wishing you a good transition!
Sometimes when you travel the experience can feel so surreal as it is such a contrast to home, and its that unreal feeling which drives many people to travel and explore. Great post and stunning images by the way.
Thank you David, and I completely agree! Coming back is almost like waking up from a spectacular dream and it’s easy to wonder if any of it every even happened.
I am currently on a 2 year RTW trip and we celebrate our first year on the road this Sunday. Going home is something that I am afraid for, we actually are going back in August for a few weeks for best friends wedding…I know I am going to be in complete culture shock. Thanks for preparing me
Sure thing Hannah, let us know how it goes 🙂
Hey Camille, I could completely relate to your post! I just returned last week from spending two months in India. Two months may not seem like a long time away, but it completely changed my perspective. I’m also protective of my personal growth and don’t want to forget the experiences that shaped me throughout my trip. I love what you said about compassion toward your “non-nomadic” self since she’s the one who decided to buy the plane ticket – so true! That self realization is so important. In about a month, I’ll be gone for at least a year. As time goes on, I feel like I am more and more disconnected from the “home” I have here in the US. I was writing my post on reverse culture shock when I stumbled across yours, it’s nice to feel like I’m not alone. Cheers 🙂
You’ve explained this better than I have ever been able to. Possibly because I haven’t tried to explain it to my friends and family who wouldn’t understand anyway. I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me, I just want to connect in the way that people like us understand and people like them don’t.
On that note, I also returned home to Seattle after my own series of travel stints, still wondering what to do next related to travel after years of trying to “settle down” unsuccessfully.
If you want, we can get together and commiserate. Totally serious too… I have found that having a few people around who understand can make a huge difference! Feel free to make contact. 🙂
I loved your story. Having lived away from my home country for 20+ years your experiences resonate! I manage a blog on transition and personal change, and wonder if you would allow me to repost this on my blog (www.embrace-transition.com)?