Counter culture shock and its bag of tricks
November 6, 2012 2:17 PM   Subscribe

Have you been through counter culture shock? Any tips would be appreciated. More so if you come from the arts/creative field.

Hi there,

I came back about 3 months ago from a student exchange in a country very different from where I live currently. I'm realizing now that I might be having more problems adjusting back than I thought I did.

Initially, when coming back, I felt very frustrated at times with some things people do here, or nostalgic for the country I had left ("In [x], it's so much better, they do [y] this way"). I thought I was doing better for a while now because I no longer feel that comparison so strongly, there are tons of things I appreciate from being here, and I have a busy life with a lot of projects that excite me.

However, I'm realizing that maybe I'm not doing so good? I feel very introverted, not as self-confident, I catch myself having wierd protective body language like tucking my thumbs in my palms like a baby, and it's very strange, because none of this is concious. It's not as though there's something specific that's bothering me, and so I don't really know what to do because I can't explain specifically why I feel this way.

I have to say, I think some of the incomfort was there a bit *before* I left on the exchange (some attitudes I find aggressive or disturbing in my country and such), and I think I also happened to go to somewhere surprisingly very suited to me (the place in question actually has the reverse reputation for western people), so I'm wondering what proportion of this is me and what proportion of it is something about where I am that I can't do anything about?

I've never felt so loose, open, comfortable and myself than I was there. I don't understand how this crept away a bit. I know it's something I can do something about, because I feel that you always have control on how you react to things. And I don't feel conciously not myself or anything, my thoughts are very clear, I just don't feel like I'm able to act accordingly.

About the arts comment: I'm in the arts field, and this trip was very helpful in getting rid of all confusion on where I want to go in my work right now. I feel that those interests are quite contrary or not encouraged where I am right now and finding myself feeling pulled in different directions, and having trouble pursuing my own developments, because of that. I'm in art school, too, so I get even more bombarded with a multitude of directions to take, which is confusing sometimes even if it's very interesting.

Has anyone been through something similar before? Any tips? Should I just let time pass again?
Thank you in advance for any advice by the way, it's very appreciated!
posted by kitsuloukos to Human Relations (12 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
When you go abroad, you don't feel constrained by your own society's and culture's rules. When you return home, you expect things to be "the same" but you have changed as a result of having been abroad, so you experience "reverse culture shock" due to the difference between what you expect and what you actually experience. You will probably eventually feel like most people do, which is that no place is perfect and each has its advantages.
posted by Dansaman at 2:21 PM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

We've had a few AskMes on this before. Have you gone through them? I don't think they hit on the art angle, but you may find them helpful.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 2:28 PM on November 6, 2012

And I don't feel conciously not myself or anything, my thoughts are very clear,

3 months is not a very long time, but it seems you may have grown enough from the experience that your comfortable old shoes don't really fit like the used to. Great! That is the reason one studies abroad and your discomfort is simply an indication that your time abroad is bearing fruit.
posted by three blind mice at 2:35 PM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I went through this same experience about 13 years ago.

To be clear, I went from the US to China, and was there for almost two years.

Due to a few big changes in my personal life the confusion of reverse culture shock became amplified in that I didn't have the usual 'moorings' of my prior life (old friends in particular).

You mention you went abroad as a student, and in such a situation you became yourself in that context, secure in who you were in a different environment.

Now returning to your familiar environment, the change has occurred within - and at a glance, all that was familiar once is now new, and that you 'see it for the first time' given all the other experiences you've gained from the time abroad.

That 'loose, open, comfortable and myself' feeling is exactly why so many expatriates stay long-term. Everyone has a different personality and 'fit' in a given environment.

What helped me was a focus on 'where do I go from here?' and 'what can I work on now that I can really get into?'

Best of luck.
posted by scooterdog at 2:35 PM on November 6, 2012

Sure, I've experienced counter culture shock numerous times. It's useful to think of the highs (positive feelings) and lows (negative feelings and frustration) as the swings of a pendulum, and eventually you will achieve a sense of equilibrium.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:38 PM on November 6, 2012

I have lived abroad for 3 years and I experience the exact same thing when I go back to my home country. Just like you describe, this started to happen before I even left. I was prepared to stay here for one or two years and in the process of getting used to this idea, I realized there are many things I did not enjoy in my country of origin. Weirdly, the culture I emigrated to seems more suited to my character than 'home' - I don't feel homesick, ever. I deal with it by staying abroad, for the time being.

My personal explanation is this: Persons can be a good or not so good fit for you, character-wise. You can be born into a family, for example, that is a very bad fit for you because you're quiet and they are loud, or the other way round. It's the same with cultures - you can be born into a culture that's not a good fit for your personal character. Just because you're born in X, that doesn't mean you will be happy when you identify as X and try to fit in. In some cases, it's better to leave your original culture behind and look for a good spot elsewhere. Just like distancing yourself from family, however, it is usually not necessary to severe all ties and burn all bridges. After some soul-searching and a process of maturation, you might realize the culture you come from has good aspects, too.
Good luck on your search for an identity that fits you. You are not the only one on this search. It is difficult sometimes to be 'between cultures', but I believe it also enriches our lives and gives us a deeper understanding of society and culture.
posted by The Toad at 2:43 PM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have. With the art angle even. Set my life towards moving somewhere I felt more comfortable living in, eventually moved here, never regretted it! Is there any reason you can't go back?

One thing to consider, especially about feeling open and comfortable, is that as a foreigner your behaviour gets excused far more for minor offences then it would back home (just look as this recent ask from someone dating cross culturally). A gang of expats is one of the most open crowds you can find.

As for the art angle, not really sure what you are asking. You are supposed to be experimenting and testing new things in art school, it's why you go. If you only want to pursue your own thoughts, school isn't for that. If continuing to learn new things is going to disrupt your chosen path that badly, I gotta say it's probably not a very good one.

If you just got back from Japan and have decided your goal is to become an manga illustration master and you're enrolled in a school that specializes in the abstract, yah that's a bit of a derail. But having a background different from everyone else in that field could potentially give your work a unique angle they don't have. Artists who refuse to branch outside of their comfort zones get stale.

If your teachers are shit and you aren't learning anything, that's a different problem.
posted by Dynex at 2:50 PM on November 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

I get this a lot, even just regionally in the US. I love going to NYC, because the pure, uncaring anonymity is nice. I love the higher energy. And when I come home, I think "wow, I would love it there."

And I forget all the things I had brushed off while there because it was unusual. I didn't mind driving 90 minutes to go 40 miles. I didn't mind paying all the tolls. I didn't mind the stink of the subway. But I know I would quickly grow to hate that stuff if I was living there.
posted by gjc at 3:17 PM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't know where you are now, but one thing I've noticed after being away for more than two years is how very judgmental US and European people can be. In the country where I live now, there are certainly societal rules, but they aren't nearly as detailed, and it's very unusual for anyone, friend or stranger, to give you a dirty look, "correct" you, "suggest" a change to you, or make passive-aggressive comments as a way to criticize something you've done, said, bought, eaten, driven, etc. etc. etc. There's much less of a battle here for the moral high ground. If you're feeling defensive or squelched, maybe you're picking up on this subtle but powerful undercurrent of constant judging.
posted by ceiba at 4:25 PM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I had this when I returned for a semester in South Africa (I lived in Seattle at the time). It felt like home in every possible way, and I viscerally longed for the people, the culture, the food...everything.

It changed me.

I really, really struggled to settle back in to school and American culture, and wondered how I had been relatively comfortable there before. What also hurt me was that my friends hadn't changed, and they couldn't really understand what it was like to be changed by that kind of experience. It was mostly: "How was your vacation? Oh, that's nice. Here's what I did while you were gone..."

My professor told us to expect that - people can't really understand an experience where your entire world view has shifted, and you see life through a new lens that they don't have access to. They will nod politely as you show your pictures, but lose interest after getting the Spark Notes version.

I was lucky to have a boyfriend from another culture who had experience the same kind of thing and was with me for the first six weeks after I came back to the States. He understood, and wanted to hear stories, and accepted that I changed the way I pronounced Zebra (zeb-rah, rather than ZEE-brah). That was what helped me most.

Time helps. And going back to the country again later helps too. It still feels like home when I went back to Cape Town. Many of the best experiences of my life were built there.

As to the art aspect, I am a writer, so I can relate in some ways. My spelling changed forever. I don't do American spellings after having to codeswitch for so long; finally, I decided to agree with the rest of the world. My taste in literature and poetry changed. I read more widely and started including many of the dominant literary styles from ZA into my writing (magical realism, themes of identity, memory, trauma, etc.). I still consider it to be one of the biggest artistic influences in my life. Let it influence your art, and if that wanes eventually, that's fine. But the experience is part of you and so it SHOULD be reflected in your art right now.

Good luck. Memail me if you want to talk further about this.
posted by guster4lovers at 8:04 PM on November 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Hi everyone, thanks for all the great answers, sorry I couldn't post here before, end of semester and all! I won't mark a favorite answer because they all helped, and I could honestly recognize myself in a lot of them. For one, it was comforting to know I was not alone or weird for feeling that way I guess.

I've kind of shaken myself out of it since. I didn't want to feel that way anymore and I figure I've got the heritage from the experience in me now, it will always be there. I just need to work hard and with care ("assidûment", we would say in French).

I spoke with one of my teachers and it was a great help: she saluted my "authentic" working methods and suggested that I think about how I got where I am, the "journey". It seems obvious or simple, but I had always thought, when asked by friends and family if I would keep a blog about my experience or something, that it was a bit self-centered to do so. Now I see that perhaps it's the other way around, and that not giving others the chance to go through the same sort of questionings, as my teacher says, (even if the conclusion differs), would be a pretty selfish thing to do.

Elaborating about this just in case someone stumbles upon this looking for advice. :)

Thanks again everyone, and have a good one
posted by kitsuloukos at 10:25 PM on November 14, 2012

Response by poster: (oh, and about the teachers: yeah, some of them are the kind to try to influence students to do exclusively what they do/their approach. One specific teacher I'm thinking about especially, but she was just replacing the other prof I mentionned for a while, and it's way better now back with the first one.)
posted by kitsuloukos at 10:29 PM on November 14, 2012

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