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Overcoming the Culture Shock of Coming Home

Home Sweet Home?

How marvelous to return home after a long trip! Your own bed, your favorite chair, the foods you’ve always loved and of course the family and friends you missed so badly. Coming home from the outposts of society, from the other side of Mars, where you had to struggle with a language barrier, weird customs and challenging new situations every moment of the day, is truly bliss. Heaven on earth.

But is this REALLY so?

Of course many of us miss the familiar surroundings back home, but does returning home resolve all the issues or does it create new challenges that we didn’t know existed before leaving?

Honi Ha-M’agel

culture shock of coming homeIt reminds me of the Talmudic story of Honi ha-M’agel who fell asleep for seventy years and when he woke the world had moved on. People died and were born. Nobody knew him as he was now (though his scholarship was still revered). Reality was different from what he remembered. He couldn’t cope with the changes and preferred to leave the world permanently.

Similarly, when you go away on a long trip, you change. You grow and develop, learn and progress. The person who went on the journey can be intrinsically different then the one who had left weeks or months before. At the same time, those who remained behind at home, who hadn’t gone through the growth of travel, seem to be the same as before. They might not connect at all to your travel experiences. This gap creates stress and a feeling of not belonging anymore.

Homecoming Difficulties

One of my favorite travel writers, Rolf Potts, beautifully summarizes the experience of homecoming, in his book “Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel”:

Of all the adventures and challenges that wait on the vagabonding road, the most difficult can be the act of coming home.

On a certain level, coming home will be a drag because it signals the end of all the fun, freedom, and serendipity that you enjoyed on the road. But on a less tangible level, returning home after a vivid experience overseas can be just plain weird and unsettling. Every aspect of home will look more or less like it did when you left, but it will feel completely different.

In trying to make sense of this homecoming experience, people often quote T. S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding”:

And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

As inspiring as this sounds, however, “knowing” your home for the first time means that you’ll feel like a stranger in a place that should feel familiar (Chapter 11).

Culture Shock of Coming Home

culture shock of coming homeHere are a few suggestions for coping with the culture shock of coming home, which I picked up here and there:

  • Accept that you will feel different when you return home. Its normal.
  • Realize that the people who know you will probably not see more than basic changes in you on your return. Only you understand the difference.
  • Expect both change and no change in those you left at home. They’ve moved on too, though physically remaining in the same place in your absence.
  • Give yourself time to adjust.

In addition, you can also expect some of the following things to occur after you arrive:

  • Mild Travel Depression – give yourself a few days to hide out when you get home till you get over it.
  • Not everyone wants to hear your stories – most people only want to hear the micro-short version. Don’t blab on endlessly about your experiences. K.I.S.S. Keep It Short and Simple.
  • People will have moved on with their lives without you – just like you’ve changed, so have they.

Here are a few links on the topic I’d recommend for coping with your homecoming.

Jewish Homecoming

I’ll conclude with a Jewish take on homecoming which I believe helps ease you back into the local reality.

There is a tradition that one who returns home from abroad should get an Aliyah to the Torah Reading on the Shabbos following his arrival. I always assumed that this is to be able to say Birkas Hagomel, which is recited upon crossing the sea or dessert or coming out of danger.

It occurs to me that there is an additional and deeper idea in giving an Aliyah to a returning traveler. As much as Jews are one People and one Nation they are also as diverse as can be. It’s not only that “two Jews have three opinions”, but rather that Jews can be extremely different culturally from each other. For example, Sefardim and Ashkenazim differ in prayer text, pronunciation, traditional foods. Hasidim differ from Modern Orthodox in dress code, religious philosophy and more.

Nevertheless there is one common denominator among all (traditional) Jews – the Torah. After thousands of years of dispersion and persecution, our Torah remains identical wherever we go. The same text, the same Laws in Yemen as in Paris. In Hawaii as in Jerusalem.

When one returns home after a long journey abroad and gets an Aliyah, remember the following – I’ve seen the world and its vast diversity of culture and traditions, codes of behavior and foods.  Nevertheless as a Jew I share a common bond of Torah with every other Jew and especially with those back home. Despite the changes and differences in other countries and cultures, there’s more to bond us together than to set us apart. Time will pass and so will the culture shock.

Welcome back.