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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Coming Home Again Again: the Reverse Cross-Cultural Adjustment

One of my favorite local bands, Keep Your Fork There's Pie, introduces one of their songs with, "I wouldn't want to born again again because then I would have to repeat 7th grade again again."

When we leave the United States to travel in distant and foreign lands, we religiously study the local customs, language, and food in preparation for the cross-cultural experience. We are well prepared, open-minded, ready to listen, and invariably mispronounce words and accidentally say something that means penis at least twice per day. I wonder if it's as easy to accidentally say some variation of penis in English or if that's a clever feature of only other languages?

What we forget to do is to prepare for coming home again again. Yes, we spend a glorious week reconnecting with friends, eating our favorite foods, marathon TV watching, or just enjoying a hot shower. We do get overwhelmed with the number of peanut butter options at the grocery store and selecting tooth paste takes 20 minutes, but other than that we're feeling good. Then the reverse cross cultural adjustment hits.

We're faced with finding a place to live, the job search, and trying to regain independence in the United States. This is contrasted with our experience in the other county where we had purpose, carved out a niche in a community, mastered new languages and culture, and had that independence. Being back in the US rapidly loses its appeal. The job search process starts to feel like a Kafka-esque trap and our experience abroad is discounted. Friends lose interest in our stories about the number of barnyard animals on our bus or on our kitchen table. Our interest in friends' stories about office politics or upholstering their couch fades like our metabolism. After a while, there's nothing new on TV and we don't understand why the re-release of the Beatles anthology was such a big deal.

This reverse cross cultural adjustment is the untold story of coming home again again. We were having fun in our former country, are not having fun in the United States, and therefore want to return to the other country because it was fun. However, that's the wrong reason for leaving. We're running away from a difficult reverse cross cultural adjustment and not running to anything productive. Our semester or service or job ended in the former country or our money ran out. If there is a compelling job, study opportunity, romantic interest, or suitcase of gold in the former country, that is worth returning. Otherwise, it's time to move on and properly come home again again.

Here's how to avoid problems with reverse cross cultural adjustment and live in the present. The first step is to recognize that a reverse cross cultural adjustment exists and needs to be addressed. These are the next steps:
  1. Don't rush into the job search: A job search is inherently difficult since we are asking strangers to judge us while we struggle not to incorporate negative feedback into our sense of self-worth. Returning home with enough money to delay the job search for a month will make the adjustment more successful. Additionally, we need to be careful about turning a job search into a career search since a career search is even harder. There is already the gap or transition period in our employment history from being outside of the United States so we have an opportunity to experiment or get a slacker fantasy job.
  2. Relearn that the United States is fun and look for adventure: Once we've gotten over the joy of being able to easily find good bagels or coffee, it's tempting to go back to the routine or pre-traveling lifestyle. This can lead to stagnation at worst and certainly no new experiences or adventures. The new experience is what made the international experience so appealing and the United States is large enough and diverse enough to offer those same experiences. This can range from visiting old friends to traveling to taking a new class.
  3. Establish a sense of independence: It's likely that we were completely independent and fairly free of any schedules other than bus schedules while we were overseas. Moving back to home towns with few opportunities or being overly dependent will turn the trip back home into a real regression. Taking a job too quickly can also destroy our independence because there is only so much readjustment that we can do while working regular hours. Being beholden to no one is a powerful experience and we can't give it away if we want a successful re-entry.
When I returned from the Peace Corps, here's what I did well with my adjustment. On the job front, I waited a few weeks. Then, I went back to my old job as a resource social work at psychiatric facilities because it gave me a completely flexible schedule that I could control. Since that's not the new experience that I was calling for, I combined that with part-time work at a camping goods store as my slacker fantasy job. That was new.

As far as relearning about the United States, I did that very well. My jobs allowed me to take time off and visit friends within a day or two drive, visit graduate programs (where I had friends) to learn about opportunities in this country. I did more backpacking and camping.

What I did not do well as well was move out of my parent's house in the Chicago suburbs. No rent gave me the flexibility to work as needed and relearn the United States. However, it caused me to hate Chicago because I had to experience it as a suburban commuter.

I also learned what new customs to leave behind. Yerba mate is a very bitter South American green tea that is repeatedly sipped through a metal straw in a cup. To the average US citizen, it looks like you're taking bong hits. It caused my slacker fantasy job to end prematurely so I was glad I had that experience with a minimum wage retail job as opposed to something that followed my career path. Track your progress with your reverse cross cultural readjustment so you know when you're make a cultural faux pas or basically saying penis again.

1 comment:

Gage said...

Yeah DeadHedge! I don't need a rough draft, I'll just turn it in. Look back on yesterday with nothin but a grin. I'll be damned to let that grass get greener on the other side. My garden feeds my friends and kin, we lift a smoke to life.

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