As of this moment, I have been traveling the world for 10 years, currently living on continent number 4. In 2013, after almost 5 years in Buenos Aires, I made the life-changing decision to move back to the Netherlands. I was born and raised there, so how come I felt everything but “at home”?
Facing facts: it’s shocking to be “home”!
After several months of extensive brain picking, soul searching, and anatomy analysis (“What exactly am I feeling and where does it hurt?” “Why am I crying all the time?” “How come I am gaining this much weight when I am eating healthy as usual?”), I came to the conclusion that there could really only be one reasonable and acceptable explanation to this state of seeming insanity.
I was suffering from a severe case of Culture Shock.
Culture Shock? Really? How could you tell?
Maybe I should call my predicament reverse culture shock. After all, I had come back to my “home” country. And it had been my own decision!
My brain was telling me I should be happy. Grateful for all the places I had seen and the unique experiences gathered over the last 7 years. And I wanted to be! I wanted to feel excited to start a new life, rekindle old friendships and make new ones, find a challenging job, move out of my parents’ house as soon as possible… Oh boy, I wanted so many things.
That’s right. I had come back with a mission. I was convinced I would settle in, get my sh*t together, and go on with my life. Ready to start building a (stable) future.
Having a bit of an existential crisis, are we?
In reality though, I couldn’t even decide what to wear most days. Even if I managed to drag my sleepy ass out of bed, by telling myself that I really had to be out by 8 am to make something of myself and my new life (quite the challenge when an annoying little voice keeps saying: “Why? What’s the use of getting up when you don’t have a purpose anyway?”), I usually didn’t get much further than opening the doors to my wardrobe before the tears starting flowing.
“Really?! Am I really standing here crying while staring at the mirror?!
Get a life you loser! Do you even know what you’re crying about?! Who cares what clothes you are wearing? Besides, the only people who will see you today are probably your parents. And heaven forbid! Maybe the next door neighbor.”
[For people who don’t know me personally, I tend to be a “bit” hard on myself. 😉 ]
I missed the sunshine. Warm temperatures. My dresses, my skirts, my sandals… How am I supposed to dress for these cold rainy days again?
But most importantly, I missed the generally laid-back attitude of people, even those working in the business world. Funny enough, what initially frustrated me in South America, the opposite was now getting on my nerves in the Netherlands. Like people freaking out about a train being one minute late. Are you kidding me?!
[I once stood in a train station watching people run hither and thither, listening to them snorting and grunting in disapproval of the train services. It was like watching a movie. Like I wasn’t really there. All I could think was: “Err… folks! Lighten up! In Buenos Aires, you consider yourself lucky if the train even shows up! Life will still go on, even if you miss your connection. You will still get to work, I promise. The worst that can happen is that you are a few minutes late(r)… Think about it. Would that really be the end of the world?”]
Qualified, but never good enough
And then there were the “good” days. The days that I would bounce out of bed, motivated by all sorts of futile items on equally futile to-do lists that suddenly seemed very important at the time. And I would get cracking right after breakfast. No lingering, no procrastinating, no distracting myself on Social Media. It was time to get my b*tt straight to business.
Oh yes. On good days, I would spend 14-16 hours on my computer, non-stop and with only a few necessary breaks, sending out application after application (and receiving rejection after rejection, but since I had decided this was a “good” day, I’d of course ignore that).
But then again, how often can someone be told that you have a wonderful / interesting / amazing curriculum, but they “just found someone that fits the profile better”? Needless to say, I struggled “a little” with the incredibly competitive employment culture in the Netherlands.
Maybe I am not good enough at boasting about all the ways I am the greatest catch your company will ever find? Although surely, the staggering economic crisis that was paralyzing the country at the time didn’t help much either.
Let’s meet up! How’s your agenda looking… next month?
Dutchies abroad tend to joke about the rigorous planning, organisation, and structure we commit ourselves to in the Netherlands. Ask anyone who has left the country what they love most about their new destination or what they miss the least about “home”, chances are you will get an answer that involves… The Agenda.
The relief of having gotten rid of the straitjacket schedule of social interaction translates into statements like “I love the relaxed atmosphere!” or “I feel far less stress out here!”. The truth is, the Netherlands is generally not the best place for spontaneity. People are always busy busy busy, and appointments have to be made well in advance. Be it for work, or to meet up with friends.
Needless to say, for people coming from a laissez-faire kind of culture where absolutely everything is decided, settled, and organized in the very last second (if at all), this intensely structured way of life that is common in North America and Western Europe takes some getting used to. After 7 years abroad, I had to learn the hard way again too!
Inviting someone for coffee? Don’t be shocked if this person asks you “what your schedule looks like” in 3 weeks, or even 3 months from now. Agendas are opened, pages are flipped, and faces will frown until a date is finally fixed.
And forget about picking up the phone on Friday night to ask around about your friends’ weekend plans! 99.9% sure they already have their weekend fully (over) booked. About a 50/50 chance you won’t even make it past their voicemail.
Lonely amidst a crowd
At a risk of sounding a tad too negative, even when they do have or even make time to meet up, there is a high risk of you no longer fully “understanding” your friends when you come back after years of traveling. I’ll give you an example. On Fridays or during weekend days, I would occasionally join my “old” friends in the local pub. You know, the ones that didn’t move away for university, a life-changing career, or a journey around the world. The people you used to be friends with, before everything changed. Before you changed.
I would like to stress that most of these people really did try to include me or at least made an effort to be nice. Except for the jealous ones, of course. They would just be mean. But that wasn’t at all the problem. I could deal with those people. The real problem was… me.
And I did have fun nights, reminiscing, taking photos and telling stories. I really did! But then there were the other nights. Nights in which no matter how much I tried to have the same amount of fun as everyone around me, there just wasn’t an amount of alcohol in the world that could make me shake the strong sense of loneliness that I was feeling.
Somehow, conversations couldn’t captivate me like they used to. Nothing seemed to be all that interesting really. No activity too exciting. Most stories didn’t sound intriguing, and secrets weren’t all that shocking. To me.
In reality, there was nothing wrong with their conversations. Again, let me be clear about that. They would talk about the weather, politics, relationships, the consequences of the economic crisis, their work, or the current lack thereof… Who got together with whom, and which bastard or sleaze ran off which someone else’s boy or girlfriend. You know, normal topics for normal people. Normal gossip for weekend get-togethers. It was me who just wasn’t “feeling it”. Like I was completely switched off!
To make matters worse, every 5 minutes, my mind would wander off to Buenos Aires… Which park would my friends be hanging out in? What club would they be checking out tonight? Would there be steak on the menu? A glass of Malbec to go with that?
Feeling guilty about my own thoughts…
And what ever happened to my empathy?! Horrible thing to say about myself, but I wasn’t all that sympathetic during this period either. First world issues, problems, and concerns simply seem to vanish in comparison to third world daily life. “Oh, you lost your job? And now you are ‘only’ receiving 70% of your last pay check for the next 2 years? How awful.”
[Obviously, I would never say something like that! I totally understand how losing your job can feel like the end of the world. I have been there. But in the back of my mind, I just couldn’t suppress certain sneering thoughts either. “In South America, most people wouldn’t even know what social security is! Or welfare, for that matter…“]
Aligning body & mind
To make a l-o-o-o-o-o-ng story short: D*mn right, I could tell.
My mind was still in South America, while my body was in the Netherlands. And once I realized what was going on, it was so blatantly obvious that I could no longer ignore it.
I was suffering from Culture Shock – mixed in with a bit of an existential crisis for good measure – and I’d better start working hard to get my sorry self back into the right perspective. Before I’d go mad. Or people would hate me.
You are no longer living in Buenos Aires. You decided to leave, remember? You are back in the Netherlands now. Things are different. People are different. Problems are different. Hellooooo!
Definition & dealing with Culture Shock
According to several dictionary definitions, a culture shock is: A condition of confusion and anxiety affecting a person suddenly exposed to an alien culture or milieu.
Oh really? So you are telling me that the Dutch have somehow become aliens to me (?!).
Alright. That does it. Never had I imagined that moving back to my home country would completely paralyze me. No idea about what to do, where to go, what to say… Reverse or not, this was most definitely SEVERE.
Not exactly what you would call productive or efficient. Really quite the opposite. So after 5 months of directionless – or better said, all over the place! – worrying, heavy headaches and sleepless nights, I decided to tell myself: Stop worrying, start doing!
Smiling and boxing my way out
I literally boxed my way out of my culture shock. Now, I am not suggesting you start kicking the sh*t out of random strangers in the streets to get rid of your frustration. What I am saying is that you should find your “exhaust pipe”, your outlet.
For me, that particular boxing class was the first time in a very long time I didn’t think about my worries, confusions, and money concerns. Instead, my mind was fully occupied with uppercuts, left hooks and correctly kneeing my partner without losing my balance. And afterwards? I was so exhausted I wasn’t even able to think, let alone worry.
The point I am trying to make here is that although it might seem like a paradox, in order to find your way, you first need to clear your head. Stop thinking. Take a step back.
When your head is working at 500%, spinning around your anxieties and insecurities about this new culture, there is no space or energy left to give your life direction! Patience, understanding, acceptance, and adaptation are key to overcoming Culture Shock. Try to face challenges with positivity, and regard differences as an opportunity to learn. About yourself and others.
“Different is not better or worse” is the best mindset when exploring or being faced with a different culture. Keep an open mind and respect other perspectives, opinions, customs, and traditions. Do not judge. Once you manage this, you’ll find you can have a good time anywhere you go!
Silly but true, another thing that helped me – if anything to better my mood! – was to listen to the wise words of Mr. Bobby McFerrin. Over and over again. The lyrics of this song have shown to contain an invaluable lesson or life motto if you will: DON’T WORRY, BE HAPPY. Put a smile on your face. The rest will work itself out as you go…
A business venture & a transatlantic move
In my case, after regaining my happy self, I started my own business, made new friends in my ‘old’ home town, and even acquired a number of (recurring!) clients that turn out to be very happy with my communication and translation services.
Nevertheless, three months after initially writing this article, in November 2013, I accepted a job offer in the United States of America.
Maybe the Netherlands isn’t my place on planet Earth after all. Or maybe I wasn’t ready to settle down just yet? 😉
Are you about to give your life a new direction? Or thinking about it?
Don’t let this article stop you! Whether you are Dutch and about to set sail to (far) foreign destinations or a foreigner trying to settle into the Dutch culture and traditions: Amazing, incredible, life-changing experiences are awaiting.
No doubt about it. And trust me, you’ll be fine!
If you have ever experienced Culture Shock and you would like to share your story, join the conversation on the #CultureTrav Twitter Chat on February 25, 2016, at 2.30 pm EST.
* This article has been edited and expanded from its first appearance on MGM Language & Leisure in 2013.