Reverse culture shock – a hex-head story

West Point on Mount Tamalpais

West Point on Mount Tamalpais

Did you experience reverse culture shock after you moved back home from another country? A story about a hex-head explains why this occurs. In this article you will learn about the challenges you may experience due to reverse culture shock.

 

Surprise: Reverse culture shock in my home country

My husband and I greet a German relocation specialist in my husband’s office. I can’t believe it; I will soon go back home to Germany! I had left Germany 7 years before, when I was fresh out of college. For my husband this will be his second overseas living experience. He had lived in Australia before. He will soon be an expat again, but not me anymore.

Since I am going back home, there is no need for me to attend this meeting; however, I arrange for a babysitter so that I can go as well.

I am very curious what the relocation specialist has to say about my home country. She tells us about the German culture, the language, food, politics, education system and so on. Germany sounds like a nice place to live! And she informs us a little bit about culture shock.

My husband takes lots of notes; he seems a little bit nervous. After all, he will have to work in a country where he doesn’t speak the language. I am a pro for all German things; it will be easy for me to move to Germany!

Now fast-forward, a few months later, I am standing in my German kitchen. Just standing there, unable to move or do anything. My tears roll down my cheeks. I don’t know what is happening to me:

I feel like a fish out of water.

I don’t feel at home. I have never lived on my own in Germany.

All the bureaucratic things I have to deal with overwhelm me.

And shopping with my little children is different. No one helps you with the groceries like in the US.

I miss my friends.

This is not what I expected it to be like when you come home.

I am homesick for Atlanta!

This is not easy! Maybe I should have listened more closely to what the relocation specialist had to say! I started to remember a story she told us about hex-heads. I thought that all this was relevant only to my husband since he is the expat and not me.

Let me tell you this story. My husband and me refer back to this very often. Even today, 20 years later, after that day when I was standing there in my German kitchen and feeling miserable.

It’s an analogy that beautifully explains the situation of expatriation (leaving your native or home country) and repatriation (reentering your native or home country), as well as culture shock and reverse culture shock.

 

The hex-head story

There once was a country where all the people had round heads. So round they didn’t have any edges at all. The name of the country was, you guessed it correctly, Round.

 

Round country

Round country

There was another country, only a six-hour flight away from Round, where all the people seemed very different. They all had square-looking heads. Every head had four corners. There was nothing round on them. And the name of that country was Square.

Square country

Square country

One little round-headed person moves abroad to the Square country. He is taking the six-hour flight. He is excited about being an expat.

Our round-headed person flies to Square country

Our round-headed person flies to Square country

The first few months in Square country with square-headed people are quite challenging. Often he is homesick. He is experiencing culture shock. But after a while it becomes easier. And eventually he enjoys living in Square.

Culture shock in Square country

Culture shock in Square country

Now when he looks into the mirror, to his surprise, he doesn’t see a perfectly round-headed person anymore. Where did all these small corners come from? He sees a hex-head in the mirror! He is wondering if that is really him, a hexagon with six corners. He has embraced elements of the square people and with time has slowly lost his roundness.

A happy hex-head in Square country

A happy hex-head in Square country

The overseas assignment for our little hex-head is over. Time to go home to Round!

He is excited and thinks it will be easy. After all, he is going home! Right? However, you already know that it will be very challenging for him to fit back in since he has a hex-head, and everyone else has perfectly round heads. He now stands out in his home country. He experiences reverse culture shock and feels homesick for Square country.

Reverse culture shock - our hex-head is back home in Round country

Reverse culture shock – our hex-head is back home in Round country

The little hex-head just doesn’t fit into his home like he used to. This explains why he feels alienated and anxious.

 

Challenges because of reverse culture shock

Here is a list of the “Ten Top Immediate Re-entry Challenges” which was compiled by Dr. Bruce La Brack, School of International Studies, University of the Pacific. Read more here about the challenges because of reverse culture shock to get more details.

 

  • Boredom
  • No one wants to listen
  • You can’t explain
  • Reverse homesickness
  • Relationships have changed
  • People see “wrong” changes
  • People misunderstand you
  • Feelings of alienation
  • Inability to apply new knowledge and skills
  • Loss/compartmentalization of experience

 

If I had known before hand about the phenomenon of reverse culture shock, I would have known what to expect and would not be utterly surprised by the situation. I think that would have made my reentry into Germany a little bit easier.

Maria Foley of the blog ‘I was an expat wife’ gives the following advice: “Instead of seeing repatriation as the return to a previous life, perhaps it’s better to reframe it as a fresh start.”

After being away from Germany for so many years, how could I have returned to my previous life there? I had become less familiar with my home turf. By living in a foreign country, I had learned to view everything with a fresh perspective. Germany had changed dramatically in those years (reunification with former East Germany) and I had changed as well. Giving it a “fresh start” would have been a more appropriate attitude.

Being back home doesn’t mean that your international experience and adventure is over. You can continue exploring the foreign culture you just left behind:

  • Meet international people through www.meetup.com or www.internations.org . You will more likely meet former expats who can identify with you and your situation.
  • Keep up with learning the foreign language. Watch videos and read books, magazines or blogs from your former host country.
  • Stay in contact with your friends from overseas.
  • Cook international meals or try out international restaurants.

After my husband’s assignment in Germany ended, no relocation specialist was assigned to us to help us overcome reverse culture shock. Repatriation back to the US was deemed not problematic. It was nice that we moved back to Atlanta where our friends greeted us with open arms. I think it was easier for me than for my husband to settle back in. I had been a hex-head before, and now returned with fewer corners.

It seems that once you have experienced living internationally, you are changed forever. You will be a hex-head, neither completely fitting into Round nor Square country. This is the fate of the global mind! Is it something to be sad about? You are giving up this feeling of knowing where you belong. And where you totally fit in. But didn’t you gain immensely from the international experience? Wasn’t it worth it? What do you think?

 

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost

 

Subscribe

8 Responses to Reverse culture shock – a hex-head story

  1. rabe cogsil January 21, 2014 at 3:03 am #

    Your article opened my eyes. This is valuable help for many. Be Proud! You are reaching out for someone who is walking in your path. You turned around to help them up. You are completing the Circle of the Village! Peace be with you.

    • Heike January 21, 2014 at 4:23 pm #

      Thank you, Rabe! It helps me to put my thoughts and ideas to paper and I am also hoping that my posts are beneficial to others.

  2. Sarah Beuerle January 21, 2014 at 5:51 pm #

    Hi, while I enjoyed your article, the theme is not a new one. Another blogger I follow has written about this topic in the past:http://naomihattaway.com/2013/09/i-am-a-triangle-and-other-thoughts-on-repatriation/

    There is a huge value in talking about repatriation as it is, in my opinion, even harder than the transition to a new country.

    Keep up the blogging!

    • Heike January 21, 2014 at 8:33 pm #

      Hi Sarah, thanks for the link to the other website. Great article! The analogy for repatriation is pretty much the same as we had heard it many years ago. I find it interesting that she uses a fourth shape in the analogy. She compares kids, who grow up during their early developmental years in another country, (not the home country of their parents) to stars. Third Culture Kids, they are. I think I have two stars at home! No wonder, they love to travel, study and work abroad. (And they will always shine for me!)
      Thanks very much for the encouragement!

  3. Sylvia Jungenkrüger January 22, 2014 at 3:18 am #

    Hallo Heike,

    Rabe hat mir deine Seite empfohlen. Wir sind über ein paar Ecken sogar verwandt. Vielleicht können wir mal privat emailen. Ich bin die Tochter von Christa, deine Mutter kennt sie gut. Dein Artikel betrifft mich auch. Ich bin auch ein Hex-Head. Wusste es nur vorher nicht. Wir haben von 2000-2003 in Kuala Lumpur als Expat gelebt und als wir zurück nach Deutschland gingen war es ganz ganz schlimm für mich. Die Tränen in der Küche kenne ich gut…

    Liebe Grüße aus Berlin

    • Heike January 22, 2014 at 8:31 am #

      Hallo Sylvia,

      welch’ eine Überraschung! Ich habe von deiner Mutter und letztens auch einmal von dir gehört! Da haben wir also zwei Hex-Heads in der Großfamilie. Ich werde dir privat emailen.
      Das Nachhausekommen ist häufig schlimmer als das Weggehen. Es ist sehr ernüchternd nach all den aufregenden Jahren. Häufig ist man dann auch mit seinen Gefühlen alleine, weil sich niemand von den alten Bekannten und Freunden in einen hineinversetzen kann. Zudem zeigen viele dann auch bald kein Interesse an deine dazugewonnenen Lebenserfahrungen.
      Ich hoffe, ihr habt euch nun wieder ganz gut in Deutschland eingelebt.

      Liebe Grüße aus Kalifornien

  4. Anne January 26, 2014 at 11:16 pm #

    Very well written, Heike, I love your round and square head story. I am often thinking about going back “home” after 20+ years of expatriation and I am also scared like you but there are also many nice places in France especially when you don’t have to work. I lived in Atlanta too for 3 years, liked the place and people and hot weather ! Moving every 3 years on average I don’t feel “home” in any place in particular, “home” is where my family lives here and now.

    • Heike January 27, 2014 at 12:26 am #

      Hello Anne,
      thank you for responding! You are moving every 3 years – that doesn’t sound so easy to do. You must be by now a multiple hex-head (which probably would resemble a diamond!) :-)
      I love your attitude that home is where your family lives. That is so true.

Leave a Reply