When I returned to live in the UK after almost a decade as an expat in the Middle East, everything felt familiar, but strange.
England was no longer my home as before. My house was 4,700 miles away in Dubai.
My reality was the tall, shiny buildings of Sheikh Zayed Road, the grand suburban villas, the palm trees, and the sight of distant sand dunes. My norm was the smell of Oud in the air, the sound of the call to prayer from the mosque, and the dry, sometimes overwhelming heat of the Persian Gulf on my skin.
In the small village we moved to in Berkshire, the brick buildings looked tiny, the grass and trees looked so green and smelled so earthy. The clouds were fluffy and low in the sky and the air, cool and crisp against my skin. I felt detached, like an alien or like I was in a dream.
It was in 2010 that I resigned from my job as a journalist in a newspaper in the UK. In our twenties, newly pregnant with my first son and about to embark on an adventure halfway around the world, my husband and I left with little more than a suitcase, returning years later with three children in tow and a 60ft shipping container full of possessions.
What I found myself at the departure gate of Heathrow Airport ten years ago, nauseous with morning sickness and nervous, I could never have imagined what life had in store for me. The joy that expatriate life would bring. Memories of the desert cherished forever. And then how very difficult it would be to leave everything behind.
Two years later and now loving my life in the UK, I realize that those first few months I experienced the phenomenon of ‘reverse culture shock’.
I read about the little-known subject and discovered that experts say that, like expatriation, repatriation has its psychological phases, almost like a grieving process, which are surprising. It’s definitely made for me.
It’s not just feelings of loneliness and homesickness for your experiences abroad that cause dissociation with your “home”, it’s the daily practices of your home country that you become disconnected from.
Ex-pat social media sites are full of familiar stories. An expat from Oman confesses that when she moved back to live in Preston, she turned to alcohol – not available in the Middle East without a permit – as a coping mechanism, then got abstinent to save her marriage.
Another mother-of-two who moved to Berkshire after living in Bolivia, South America, could barely bear how locals seemed to take their privileged lives for granted, when she had seen such painful poverty .
A woman describes the embarrassment of not knowing how to use a chip and pin machine when she first returned to the UK. Card payments still involved a signature when she lived abroad.
Others sat in their cars at a gas station, momentarily waiting for a staff member to fill them up for them. So remember they had to do it themselves.
Coming from an Arab country, I was initially shocked to see people wearing shorts and t-shirts in supermarkets when I had gotten used to modest attire.
Then there are the obvious differences such as the weather, driving across the road, having so much choice in supermarkets and the convenience of online shopping that we never had abroad.
Robin Pascoe, the author of the book “Homeward Bound”, compares coming home to wearing contact lenses in the wrong eyes. “Everything seems almost perfect,” she says.
What are the symptoms of reverse culture shock?
Expatica, an online information portal for English-speaking expats, says, “Being an expat is a long and deep international experience. You see the old norms and values of your home country in a new light, and expats see things in a new light – something like Dorothy going from black and white to technicolor.
According to the University Studies Abroad Consortium, symptoms of reverse culture shock can include frustration, boredom, restlessness, changes in goals and priorities, depression, and negative feelings toward your home country.
How to cope
Life Coach Aryssa Amin, from Ryssdom Coaching, herself a Briton based in the United Arab Emirates, says the key to any relocation is to be aware that “you are not just moving physically but also mentally”.
“We invest a lot of time and effort coordinating the logistics that we don’t give ourselves permission to emotionally prepare for the transition,” says Aryssa.
“If we keep hoping to reproduce the life we already have, we open the doors to disappointment and shock.
“Prepare for the move by bonding in your new location. Interact with the local community via Facebook pages or other social media platforms. Work to build a new life you desire with like-minded people.
“Making connections will encourage you to move forward rather than looking back. Creating a new life is an opportunity for growth.
Although it may take time, expats gradually adapt to feel comfortable with their new life – it can take anywhere from a few months to two years.
Throughout this process, I realized that “home” is a malleable concept – it changes as we move throughout life and feels like the embrace of a loved one. It’s not a specific place – it’s where we raise our families, make our memories and share the great moments of our lives.