A small art gallery in the middle of rice paddies. Shot on iPhone.
Don’t worry, this isn’t an overly-sensitive whiney post. Having freshly returned from four months in Southeast Asia, I have put together a quick guide to understanding reverse culture shock and asking a friend who has been away about their experience. There’s a healthy smattering of my own perspective in here, but I am hoping it is widely applicable.
1. Your friend is thankful you asked.
In all likelihood, the person you are asking is elated that you care about their journey. While they may have some solo post-processing to do, but they also are likely to embrace the opportunity to share the pivotal experiences they have just undertaken. Having someone “in the loop” in their home environment is important for reacclimatization, and most certainly for comprehending how things learned abroad apply to home base.
I have been dreaming about Bali’s beaches and the otherworldly terrain of Tibet daily since returning. Reminiscing with a friend makes it all the more special.
2. Choose the right setting.
If you are truly looking for the details—the soaring moments of awe, the gritty rough patches, and the deep, personal development—don’t ask in a crowded social setting.
Candidly, posing this question in a quick, distracted bump-in in the middle of a night out is more of an annoyance than anything. Don’t use someone’s life-changing journey as filler or small-talk. Just don’t. Let’s get coffee or grab dinner. Then we’ll chat.
3. Get specific.
If you say “how was your trip?” you may receive a hollow, confused, jet-lag-glazed face. It feels casual and reductive in one sense, and big and intimidating in another. While I could try my best to articulate a quick response, this likely does nothing for either of us, nor anything for our relationship. “It was amazing! I had a great time.” “It was good, thanks.” Unsure where else to take that.
Instead, go for substance.
“What was the most important thing you learned about yourself?”
“Which place did you feel most at home?”
“What was the culture like in ______?”
“Did you try any weird food?”
“Were you ever sick?”
“Give me the three most adventurous [or other adjective] things you did.”
You get the gist.
4. Be sensitive to reverse culture shock.
Adjusting to back to home is difficult. Reintegrating into relationships, a social life, local diet, work, and daily chores while maintaining the precious personal space and relaxation created by travel all amidst time and climate differences is no small feat.
On my second day back, in a jet-lag-induced delirium, I began boiling a pot of water to sanitize it for drinking and toothbrushing. Mid-boil, I realized my folly; I was totally dishabituated from drinking tap water. Laughing at myself, I instead used this water for a lovely pre-sleep tisane, but this illustrates the point. There is an awkward interim between landing and actually being present in your home country. You simply cannot expect your traveling friend to be exactly the same as when they left, nor can you expect an instantaneous adjustment.
By being attuned to this reverse culture-shock, you can help ease the transition.
Ask questions like:
“What do you miss most about being abroad?”
“Is it strange being back home?”
“What did you miss most about home while you were away?”
For me, I really missed running in clean air and on paved surfaces, without the risk of being whomped by a motorcycle or catching a massive mouthful of dust. I went for a run the day I got back—on a sidewalk (!!!)—and felt a sense of comfort. Doing an activity like this with your friend could go a long way.
Finally, be enthusiastic about the trip, even though you didn’t go.
“Let’s try to cook Indonesian curry this week!”
“Show me the stuff you bought while gone!”
“What’s the story behind this [object]?”
Obviously, this route to asking about someone’s travels is both a mental and time-based investment. However, I guarantee you will be a much better friend in the process, making your traveler feel comfortable being home. Plus, you’ll also get to acquire a lot of the wisdom your friend accumulated abroad—with considerably less effort.