The biggest culture shock of my life happened when I was 8 years old. As far as experiences go, moving from the falling down shacks and hole-in-the-ground urinals of rural China to the skyscrapers and flushable toilets of Canada felt as alien to me as moving to the moon.
My brain nearly exploded from all the new discoveries.
I touched snow for the first time. I tasted this smelly, bitter, yellow thing called “cheese”. I rode in a car with 4 wheels, no longer needing to be sandwiched between my cousin, my mom, and my aunt, while wobbling over the dirt roads on my uncle’s bike. I marvelled at showers, with their cascading hot water that doesn’t need to be heated over a coal-burning stove. And I learned that when your tooth hurts you go to someone called a “dentist”, instead of just waiting for it to turn black and fall out.
Since then, I’ve grown up in my adopted home, learned English, became an engineer, retired, and became a world-travelling book-writing nomad. My life has become a constant stream of upheavals.
But since my initial move to Canada, I haven’t quite felt that level of culture shock. Until now.
Oddly enough, it didn’t come from travelling the world and switching countries every few weeks. It happened when I returned home.
Once the pandemic hit, we decided, on the advice of our government, to return back to Canada to ride out the storm. Since then, flights around the world has been suspended and borders closed, with no end in sight. For the first time in 5 years, we’re no longer constantly on the way to somewhere else. For the first time in 5 years, we’ve been forced to stop travelling.
Just like the culture shock of moving from China to Canada, once again, I’m re-learning what it’s like to live in North America.
I had no idea that travelling the world would screw you up in ways you don’t expect.
Now, having been back for 2 months, here are all the ways that travel messes you up:
Reverse Culture Shock
Everyone’s heard of culture shock, the unfamiliarity of being in a new country, not speaking the language and not understanding the customs. But we rarely speak of reverse culture shock, the concept of having to re-adapting to your own culture after coming back home from your travels.
We think that just because we’ve spent the most time in our home country, we’d be the most comfortable there. But the truth is, no longer how much time you’ve spent back home, whenever you leave and come back, there will be the inevitable period of re-acclimatization.
I have to admit, I did not have an easy time reacclimatizing to Canada, coming back from South East Asia.
It’s kind of like when you’re in a new relationship and you can’t stop reminiscing about your ex and all their amazing qualities, which you are now viewing through rose-colored glasses.
In this case, our ex is Chiang Mai, and our new flame is Canada. The first few days we came back, it was snowing in March, and I couldn’t stop bitching about how cold and dry it is, how itchy my skin was, and how much I missed having eternal summer. And now that the weather is finally hot and sunny, I’m starting to get allergies and I can’t help but reminisce about how a running nose and itchy eyes were non-existent, no matter which time of year it was, when we were on the road. I also have daily cravings for Asian street food from the night markets and ridiculously cheap and good foot massages.
That’s reverse culture shock for you.
No one gives a shit about your travels
When you come back to your home country, you have this fantasy of meeting up with your friends and family and have this warm and fuzzy reunion. You’ll tell each other all about your adventures and remember how much you miss them.
Sorry to burst your bubble but that happy reunion never lasts for more than two weeks.
After that, your friends and family will go back to their day to day lives and all the excitement of seeing them again dissipates.
Travellers always want to tell everyone about all the places they’ve been to, exciting people they’ve met, everything they’ve learned, how they’ve changed, etc. But your friends and family back home have no way of relating to what you experienced, so they don’t understand what you’re talking about. They want to tell you about everything you missed—and for the most part everything on their side has stayed the same. Or they’ve reached milestones—like getting a promotion, having a kid, buying house—things that you can’t relate to at all. So, you end up not being able to speak each other’s life experience language and just stare at each other in silence.
Which leads me to my next point…
You are an Alien
You’ve changed but everyone else stayed the same.
Travel changes you. Just like parenting, travel shifts your priorities, perspective, and friendship circles. You no longer care about stuff (how can you when you live out of 2 backpacks?). You don’t let little things bother you (like waiting in traffic or in lines). You’re more open to meeting new people and new experiences, because you’ve seen how people live in other parts of the world and things that once seemed strange or crazy to you no longer seem odd. Travel opens your eyes to that fact that as humans, we are more similar than we are different. You also realize there are so many people in the world, and you are humbled by how infinitesimally small and insignificant you are in comparison.
Travelling is also like living multiple lifetimes. Every day is different, so it feels like time has been stretch out since you remember so many different adventures and people. Each day doesn’t end up blending into the next.
This is why when you come back and your friend bitches about their fight with a neighbour building their fence a few inches too far into their yard or how the raccoons are ruining their lives by tearing up their lawn, you couldn’t give two shits. You also have zero interest in the latest fancy gadget or designer purse they added to their already overflowing collection.
Your Values Are Different from Everyone Else’s
People with roots care about their houses, the stuff in those houses, and their surrounding community. Nomads care about freedom, adventure, and growing their international community. Their friends are all spread out all over the world and they stay connected online and via global meetups.
By living in one place for a long time, you end up accumulating a lot of things—sentimental things, gadgets that make your life easier, and conveniences like cars, garden tools, ergonomic furniture, etc.
But when you’re on the move, you don’t have the luxury of accumulating things. You don’t have the stress of maintaining these things, but you do end up living with less convenience. You end up being addicted to experiences and renting things instead of owning them. You don’t want the commitment of “being tied down” with stuff.
As a result, you feel very out of place when your friends and family are all talking about the mind-blowing efficiencies of their steam bake oven, SUV, or professional dough mixer. You end up nodding your head, plastering a fake smile on your face, silently daydreaming about the adorable elephants you petted in Thailand or the mountain hike you took in Switzerland, while they regale you with the food moisture preservation abilities of their kitchen gadgets.
Everything feels too Big (Wanderer’s note: “hee hee hee”)
Cars, buildings, portion sizes, people—
Compact living spaces, roads, and small portion sizes in Asia and Europe has become our norm. We can no longer finish a whole North American-sized meal by ourselves; we have to share.
We now feel much more comfortable in one bedroom condos than houses. Whenever we go back to Wanderer’s parents’ house, we have to carve out a small area in the massive guest bedroom to avoid stressing out about our stuff being swallowed by all the knickknacks in the house.
Travel makes you value tiny houses and minimalism over consumerism.
Relationships have moved on without you
You miss out on a lot of family-and-friend milestones when you’re abroad. Birthdays, Christmas, weddings all fly by in a blur. As a result, you don’t get to know your nephews and nieces as much as you’d like. You come back every summer to make sure they don’t completely forget who you are, but they definitely aren’t as close to you as they would be if you were here all year round.
Zoom and Skype helps you elevate some of that, but it’s not the same as constant human interaction.
On the plus side, you’ve made a ton of new friends on the road—some of them you lose touch with over time, but some of them you manage to keep (thankfully) because of the passion projects you work on together and weekly Skype catch up sessions.
Maintaining friendships and familial relationships are much harder when you are nomadic, so you have to put in more effort than if you were staying in one place.
You Get Ichy Feet
And no, I don’t mean the kind you get from not wearing flip flops in the showers at the gym.
Ichy Feet is what happens when you’re so used to moving around often or so that when you stop moving, you get anxious.
Travel breaks up your time into chunks of memorable experiences, so it feels like you are doing more in less time. But when you’re stuck in one place, your brain mashes the days together into a blur. That’s why travellers get anxious when they settle down. They get antsy to travel and discover new experiences. That’s why you need to teach your brain to stay in the present and not constantly be thinking about the next place you want to be in.
You’re Addicted to Novelty
One of the reasons why travel is so addicting is the novelty. New experiences cause our brain to release dopamine, and it’s the same effect as snorting cocaine. Travel should be used to enrich your perspective on life and open your mind. It shouldn’t be a crutch to escape reality.
That’s why it’s important to meditate regularly to stay in the present and not keep trying to strive for the next new experience. Constantly trying to satisfy our novelty urge can lead to unhappiness. Which is why we’ll be adapting a slow travel lifestyle after the shutdowns are lifted.
You Need to Balance Helping Family with Following Your Dreams
Our parents are getting older and frailer. This means we need to be there for them and take care of them going forward. So how do you balance filial devotion with living your dreams? We may need to change our travels to be more local going forward to be there for our parents, and we are totally ok with that. We are so grateful for everything our parents have done for us, and despite some challenges with familial relationships, we will be here for them whenever they need us.
So knowing all the ways that travel screwed us up, would I still continue travelling after this shut down is over?
HELL YES! It might just be a slower, more local version of what we’re used to, but I believe travel has changed us for the better and I can’t imagine not living the nomadic life.
What do you think? Has travel changed you? Do you think it changes people? How and why?
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