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Reverse Culture Shock is a Lonely Experience

After Ilham's year at Madison College as part of the Community College Initiative program, he knew to experience some reverse culture shock when he went home. But he wrote in to share how he wasn't prepared for what it was really like to go back to Indonesia; in particular, he's having trouble rekindling relationships with friends and family who don't seem that interested in sharing his study abroad experience. Here's what Ilham wasn't ready to encounter, and what he thinks you should know to expect:

Prior to leaving Madison, my study abroad program had explained about reverse culture shock to the international students who would be going back to their home countries. Even though I lived in Indonesia for more than twenty years and get used to things in life easily, reverse culture shock would be unavoidable.

My reentry experience started quickly, as soon as my friends Sylvia and Meita and I landed in Jakarta as the final destination after about a 35 hour-long flight. I felt confused entering its environment and culture, as my eyes had not adjusted yet.

Jakarta greeted us with pollution and humid weather, and when we walked out of the airport I was quite surprised to see the difference in our surroundings. The first question that came to my mind was, “Why isn’t the sky clear blue here?” Sylvia and Meita were immediately upset at how humid it was even though it was just 7:30 in the morning. That moment seemed unreal to us.

In only a week back I’ve had a lot of reverse culture shock experiences. Here’s what I’ve experienced so far:

1. Tipping at the airport: Has my country has changed since I've been gone?

From Jakarta, Meita and I needed to take one more domestic flight to get to our homes. We got on the airport shuttle and the bus driver helpfully got off the bus to assist us in putting our suitcases in the trunk. When we arrived at the terminal, some porters approached us to give us a hand unloading. I could handle it myself and did, but by the time I turned to help Meita, her luggage had already been taken care of by the porter.

The porter impolitely asked us to give a tip to the shuttle driver who had helped us put our luggage in the trunk. It took me a minute to respond to what was going on - I thought the driver wanted to help us without the expectation of a tip. I handed him ten thousand rupiahs, which is about $1, and said thank you. Then the porter asked Meita for his tip. She didn’t have enough rupiah to pay him. Luckily I still had some and I thought ten thousand would be reasonable for him having helped Meita even though we didn’t ask him to do so.

To my surprise, he refused my money and said, “Just keep that money. Nothing I could do with that small amount.”

Tipping isn’t part of the local culture in Indonesia, so if people would like to give a tip they just feel free to give it voluntarily for whatever they think is reasonable. I wondered if the culture had changed while I was gone, or if the porter was trying to take advantage of us as we returned from overseas.

2. Lining up is an unusual habit: Seeing my own culture through American eyes

Being away from home for a long time in a country where everything seems to be neat and in order has made me forget that everything isn’t necessarily the same way in my home country. At the airport I was in the boarding lounge waiting for my domestic flight to Pekanbaru. After about an hour, the airport officer finally announced that it was time for the passengers to get on the plane. Suddenly every passenger in that lounge was in a hurry to be the first to get through the gate.

It was obvious that the officer had trouble checking every passenger’s boarding pass because people walked towards her from any direction in the lounge. They looked impatient as if they would not get their seat on the plane.

3. Gifts are more important than catching up: Difficulties reconnecting with friends and family

I was very happy to get together again with my big family after I got home and got rested from my long flight. I felt especially welcome because they had cooked delicious dishes for me that I had requested. My siblings couldn’t wait to see what I had brought for them, so they asked me to unpack my suitcases.

Later in the evening some neighbors stopped by the house because they had seen me get out of the taxi. They also asked for gifts. I felt overwhelmed and was not comfortable with the crowd and the attention.

Some of my friends did the same, asking for gifts from me. I could only explain to them that I didn’t buy gifts for everyone, but that I wanted to share my stories of study abroad with them. Apparently they felt disappointed that I didn’t bring them gifts, whereas I felt disconnected from them because they weren’t interested in my stories.

4. Punctuality is not for everyone: Friends don't always understand how I've changed

I used to be a latecomer when I had an appointment with people. Living abroad taught me the value of punctuality and to appreciate people’s time. One of my friends had not yet noticed that I’ve changed in terms of punctuality. It was day two being at home when he promised to come to my house at 8 p.m. to pick up the stuff he’d asked me to buy in the U.S.

When he hadn’t shown up by 8:15, I sent him a message asking where he was. Later he replied to my message saying he was still at his house and he had a sudden thing to do first. “Why didn’t you inform me?” I asked. “I kept waiting.”

I was very upset but tried to relax. I understand that people need time to see the “new me” and I need time to accept this life back again.

“Sorry for being late. I didn’t let you know because I was definitely coming to your house, but didn’t know what time,” he replied. If only he had let me know this, I wouldn’t have been that upset.

5. How dangerous life on the road seems: Scared of something that once normal

I had enjoyed the traffic in Madison. I took public transportation very often and the drivers obeyed the rules, followed the speed limit, and shared the road with everyone – bikers, drivers and pedestrians.

My city doesn’t have such rules on the road, so I was quite nervous to ride my motorcycle again on the first day. And it was not fun at all having to deal with the heat, terrible traffic jams and impatient drivers.

I know coming home is an adjustment and I am trying to give it time. I still have mixed emotions of confusion, boredom, feeling disconnected to some people, and the need to escape from the crowd. But I am trying to make my readjustments better. What I do now is stay in touch with my fellow study abroad friends and mentor families to share my reentry experiences. I also meet up with friends who are interested in hearing about my journey in Madison.

I look at things through different eyes now, so I am trying to relax and hope that my eyes and my expectations will adjust more smoothly and easily.

Have you had difficulty readjusting to relationships with friends or family after going home? What's the best way to share your experience with friends without boring them or alienating them? Share you story in the comments or using the form below.