Reverse Culture Shock (Issue 17, 2011)

Glen Clancy

Glen_ClancyGlen Clancy is in his final year of studying a Bachelor of Journalism at La Trobe University; he commenced in mid 2009 and during his time here, he has been lucky enough to study in Japan through a La Trobe exchange scholarship. Below are his thoughts on travel and how it affects you, and the people around you, as well as some good advice for those who find themselves changed from travel.

‘I’m not really into manga,’ I told my friends as they were discussing the top action cartoon characters turned movie heroes. My friend looked back at me oddly with a grin on his face, ‘Not really into what?’

‘Manga,’ I replied, knowing they already knew what it meant.

Although it was a Freudian slip on my part – after just returning home from a year long trip to Japan – you can always rely on an Aussie to take the piss.

As my friends basked in their successful attempt at shunning my apparent excessive cultural baggage – as if the Jetstar check-in staff hadn’t been stringent enough – I sat back, took a deep breath and reassured myself that this was all part of reverse culture shock.

In the same situation, on previous returns to Australia, I may have felt I had committed a sin against the cultural order of the day and tried more strenuously to suppress my Japanese linguistic and cultural thoughts.

Most people who have returned home from a long stay overseas will have experienced similar strikes against their new selves. The person that boarded that outbound JQ206 flight was not the same person that stepped back into Australia. A new self – someone shaped by their new cultural environment – at varied degrees, depending on one’s willingness to assimilate, will have walked through the arrival gates at Tullamarine airport.

People talk about culture shock in a foreign country but often it is the shock of re-entry that is most severe. All countries have both transparent and hidden cultural discrepancies – many differences are never consciously recognised. For me, the sudden arrival back into the Australian winter, the abrupt increase in the ratio of obesity, the extended length of the orange traffic light and lecturers putting their feet on seats were some of the more noticeable differences.

But it is often the variation in human traits that is the most difficult to adjust to – compared to the more docile Japanese class, sitting in an Australian tutorial is often more about trying to hear the instructions of the lecturer over students competing to have their own opinions heard.

It is not only the change in social interactions that are hard to adjust to upon returning home but the process of re-entering your own family and social circles. Personally, I have recognised that after another year spent in Japan I have evolved culturally, whether it be through actions such as removing my shoes as I enter a house or psychologically in warming to a collectivist social theory.

To this day, family and friends have only ever asked me the solitary obligatory question about my years spent in Japan – ‘How was it?’

I reply, ‘It was great,’ for the first several times expecting a secondary question that never comes. Very rarely do you get asked about your experiences abroad as if being sent a subliminal message, ‘we know what you’ve been up to and we don't like it’.

The closer a person has been to you the more reluctant they are to ask you about your foreign life.

But why?

The answer is simple – people hate change. Who wants their son, friend or brother becoming a person they don't recognise or understand?

And it is these reactions, or non-reactions, that become the biggest challenge in returning to your home country.

And at this point the returnee has a choice: to heed the silent warnings of their social circles, bundle up their experiences abroad, collect all of their yet to be fully established cultural developments and lock them away. Or reject the opposition – almost always non-verbal – and incorporate their new self back into their home life.

It takes a conscious understanding of your own personal developments and a certain degree of courage to hold on to your new self. Take your time. It would be wise to reveal your freshly acquired cultural ideas and notions bit by bit. And if you make a linguistic error and call a cartoon a manga, don't be threatened, take a step back and be proud that you have dared to venture out and opened your mind beyond your native cultural boundaries.