Reverse Culture Shock and the Truth About Coming Home After Traveling

My new job with came as the perfect solution to a problem Brent and I had been struggling with for the past few months: He was ready to move back to Canada to build his career; I wanted to keep traveling. This job allows us to have the best of everything – we can have a home base in Canada without me having to slow down on traveling.

At first, I was so happy when I got the job and everything fell neatly into place, and then I suddenly realized I hadn’t really thought through what it would be like to move back to Canada. Over the last few years since we left Toronto, I guess I always imagined I could just pop back into my old life whenever I felt like it. But the truth is that I can never really go back “home” because home has changed and so have I.

Reverse Culture Shock is Real

Reverse Culture Shock is Real

I’ll be honest: When I read other blogs and articles about reverse culture shock I thought it was kind of a made-up concept. It seemed like an excuse for people to make themselves feel special and keep name dropping about their travels: “It’s so hard to eat this fake Thai food after trying the real thing”; “I just can’t deal with the rudeness of Western culture after living in Japan”.

Brent and I hadn’t spent more than two weeks in Canada in the last three years. When we first came back, it felt like our usual trips home – an exciting blur of seeing old friends, eating all the foods we’d been craving, and visiting familiar places that we’d missed.

But the longer we stayed, the more those feelings began to change. I kept gearing up for pleasurable waves of nostalgia when I would eat at a restaurant I used to love or walk down a street I used to live on, but most of these experiences just fell flat somehow. People seemed pushier and louder than I remembered.

I never appreciated how easy it was for me to tune out in Asia. I was always learning the language and I had to focus hard to understand anything at all. The side effect of this was that it could block everything out if I wanted to. Now, I’m surrounded by English-speakers again and there are all these conversations between strangers and big advertisements that push themselves into my mind everywhere I go and I can’t help but notice and understand all of it. It feels oddly intrusive.

Reverse culture shock is a difficult phenomenon to pin down and describe because it’s the net result of so many little feelings and interactions, but there’s no question that it’s real and that I feel it.

I Miss the Weirdest Foods from Different Countries

Reverse Culture Shock Means Missing Strange Foods From Strange Lands

Last year, I wrote about craving all kinds of strange foods from home when I was living in different countries as an expat. I was living and traveling in countries known for their amazing cuisine and although I definitely took full advantage of this, I also found myself missing foods from home. I finally have access to all those foods I’ve been missing and, of course, I now find myself craving dishes from my homes in Asia.

I can certainly get international food here, but it just isn’t the same. I specifically want the cheap conveyor belt sushi from the restaurant near our home in Takayama, and the Massaman curry cooked in this family-run restaurant down a little alley in Chiang Mai.

You Can’t Really Go Back Home

Reverse Culture Shock -You Can Never Really Go Home

I’m not better than the person I was when I lived in Toronto three years ago, but I’m definitely different. Culture isn’t static and Toronto has changed too. The differences are subtle and barely even nameable, but it’s somehow not the same place I left in 2011. The city feels a bit like an old friend that I care about, but we’ve simply grown apart over the years and we just don’t have anything to talk about anymore.

Brent and I initially gravitated towards moving back to Toronto. It seemed like a natural choice. It’s where we used to live, which means most of our friends are still there, plus it puts us less than a few hours away from both of our families. Yet, we both felt little enthusiasm as we began the apartment hunt, and a definite reluctance to commit to a year-long lease, the lingering effects of reverse culture shock.

We were lucky enough to be offered a chance to housesit for a friend for the next few months. It will give us more time to consider exactly where we want to put down more permanent roots. I’m starting to think it might need to be a completely new city – one where we’re not trying to return to the past but instead creating a new home from scratch, just like we did when we were expats.


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Reverse Culture Shock

27 thoughts on “Reverse Culture Shock and the Truth About Coming Home After Traveling”

  1. Great post! I had exactly the same experience when I went back to BC after being away for 2 years and wrote an almost identical blog post! It’s strange to go home again everything is the same but different at the same time. I lasted 4 months before heading back on the road for another year but now I’m thinking about going home again in September and try to stay put. Who knows if it will stick?!
    Good luck with TO!

  2. It’s so funny – we are having a very similar experience. At first coming home was fantastic — but as months tick by, it’s becoming harder. We are in the process of figuring out how to make long-term travel, with a home base, a sustainable and permanent lifestyle. Fingers crossed it works AND soon!

  3. I’m not sure how much a Reverse Culture Shock I feel as I just returned from a year in Australian back to the states, which is a pretty westernized country. A lot of things feel weird though and I’m starting to see a lot of the differences between the two countries.

  4. Great post, and I agree reverse culture shock is real. After returning to NYC from Korea a couple of years ago, I just realized that not only had so many things changed, but I had also changed, in some ways that I cannot put into words. Congratulations on your new adventure with!

  5. I felt the same way after returning to Seattle from living in Korea. The English all around me was the craziest thing — I never could have imagined how distracting it was to have so many people all around me that I could understand. I would constantly find myself stopping mid-sentence and eavesdropping because I was so unaccustomed to hearing so much English!

  6. brittanygosnell

    This post basically sums up all my feelings about moving home in the coming months. I’ve only lived abroad for a short time, but the idea of moving back to Ontario makes me feel like I’m about to break out in hives.

  7. Tony and I spent six months in Toronto following our two years of traveling and it was definitely hard for us. Even though I grew up there, I hadn’t really lived there for the seven years prior to our trip and with each year I spent away, I found myself more and more estranged from T.O. until it no longer embodied home for me. My family is still there and we have lots of friends there too, so we will always go back, but it’s definitely one of those places that feels like it’s always the same, but is also somehow different too. Maybe we would have done a better job of assimilating/acclimating if we hadn’t known we would be leaving again in six months, but we found we just didn’t fit in very well and didn’t really want to either. I hope you guys learn to love the city again, but if not, perhaps a new city in Canada could be the change you need. Good luck!

  8. Lauraandtheworld

    I totally get what you said. I started feeling like you around two months after I set foot in France. Solution: stay here for 3 more years (and maybe more). I can’t imagine how odd would be to go back home.

  9. I can totally relate to everything you’re saying here. After my first stint of travelling in Asia, I came back to the GTA and knew there was no way I could settle there. Have you thought about trying out Ottawa? My husband and I were dating at the time and decided to move to Ottawa together. It’s a smaller more manageable city than Toronto (although it definitely is colder haha).

    1. We have actually! Two of our close friends live there, so we visited for a few days over New Years and really enjoyed it – it has a lot of the convenience of Toronto but it feels a little more chilled out. Montreal and Quebec City are also on the list, so we’re thinking about road tripping through all three to figure out which one is the best fit

  10. Go to Vancouver! I lived there for six months and am dying to return. So much to do around the city (mountains and beach) and although it can take a bit of time to make friends (it’s a bit clique-y) there are some awesome, open minded people living there.

  11. Charlie Marchant

    Can very much relate to this! Although we naturally have attachments to home, returning can definitely feel like ‘going backwards’ and that’s a difficult feeling to adjust too. Wishing you both the best as you think about where to put down roots for now.

  12. Great post. I had such a hard time returning home after living in Korea for 2 years. I lasted one year, then moved to Colombia, and now I’m in Shanghai! lol. My feet get too itchy; and you’re right. You can never really “return home.” The only constant is change.

  13. I completely agree and I’m so glad to have other travel addicts online to identify with because there’s not enough of them in my everyday life! I recently went to Seattle for a week and even coming back from that was tough- I live in a tiny city in upstate NY and it felt way too small and quiet when I came back, a lack of stimulation. Such is the nature of returning from traveling!

  14. It’s a great read! I haven’t tried to be an expat, but I’m planning to.. and to read something like this is like my preparation. I just want to do something different in my life.

  15. This is really insightful. I’m getting ready to move abroad this year with my husband. I know it won’t a permeant move but I do wonder what it will be like when we move back to the US. We have already decided that when and if we do move back we won’t be returning to the same state that we left.

  16. I totally agree about reverse culture shock being real. After our 1 year round the world trip, we found it strange being back home and found it hard to settle back into ‘normal’ life…which is why we’re simply not going to We’re going to keep doing it too because we love it, but I know that our friends and family are the ones struggling the most to deal with our non-conventional life and aspirations and it doesn’t really fit with their expectations of us. So I’d be interested to know if you have any tips for dealing with this? Thanks!

    1. I know the feeling – traveling constantly isn’t normal by the standards of our friends/family either. I guess time has helped – the longer we’ve continued doing it, the more they’ve grown to understand that it’s just a part of who we are. Although,I think there will always be those few people who keep asking when you’re going to come home and get a real job, haha.

  17. Wow, thanks very much for this blog post. It really does shed some light on the feelings of reverse culture shock. I had some similar experiences when I moved to Germany and then back to Canada. I’m planning a longer trip down the road and will be curious to see if I feel the reverse culture shock even more. Maybe I’ll just never return home and keep wandering 🙂

  18. Thanks for sharing about this. I’m heading back to NY myself after two years in Spain, and as excited as I am now, I know within a few weeks, I’ll start to really miss a lot of things about being here and it’ll be a difficult transition! Good luck in your search for your next home!

  19. This is such an honest analysis. As an expat who will eventually return “home” I’ve worried about what it will be like to go back to the place we left. I think trying to limit lofty expectations is key and realizing it will take a period of time to readjust just as it did when we moved abroad.

  20. Wow !this is such an interesting post and has really helped me feel that I’m not alone in my feelings, having returned to the UK from LA, USA almost a year ago . As others have said, initially it was great seeing everyone, watching favourite TV shows and eating missed foods but the novelty is now passed. The hardest part is I have two children who are at crucial points in their education so I can’t keep moving them, my husband says I am seeing things through rose tinted glasses but I think I am only now able to see the benefits of what we had in comparison to what we have returned home to. I know my boys would relocate back to the US without a second thought, I now just need to convince my husband we should go through the relocation all over again !

  21. My passport says that I am an American citizen. I would say I am not anymore. Depending on my mood, I really get frustrated with the mentality in this cultural desert, etc or I hate it straight out. I lived in Europe for 15 years. That’ll get you! And I had to return here, of all places, Alabama. I would much prefer Canada!!!! At least you don’t have the superiority complex. Of course large cities in the US aren’t all that bad…

  22. I wonder what it would be like to return to Toronto after living in Bangkok for over 12 years. I went back to Toronto in 2012 and it did not feel the same. I came back to Bangkok because there is nothing like Pattaya within 120 miles of Toronto.

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