I recently returned to Gdańsk after a four-day visit to England. Amazingly, I hadn’t been ‘home’ for five years. As expected, I was severely affected by reverse culture shock after living abroad for such a long period.
The process of adapting to a new culture known as ‘culture shock’ is well known. Over the past 16 to 17 years, I’ve seen a lot in Poland, Bosnia and Serbia. I also stayed in Ukraine for a few months in 2007. Hence, there’s probably not much left in Europe to ‘shock’ me.
Reverse culture shock is a whole different animal. There’s the initial euphoria and a few good moments along the way. However, as I shall discuss in this post, negative emotions may arise after re-entry.
Although this post will be more of a reflection on British culture, rather than Polish culture, I hope it will find its place on this blog.
That evening, it all began with the English language
The unfamiliarity hit me as soon as I got off the plane and entered the terminal at Luton Airport. Huge signs in the English language. For the past five years, I’d only really been visually bombarded by the Polish and Serbian languages. There I was – the English teacher – stunned and baffled by the sight of his mother tongue.
I’d been away from the UK for extended periods of time before. The longest period might only have been around 10 months though. No matter the length of time I might have been out of the UK, the sight of left-hand traffic has always left me feeling dizzy. I’ve been driving on the right-side of the road for the last five years. Therefore, I was most perplexed by this left-hand traffic on the M1 motorway, as well as the sight of my father driving in a right-hand drive car.
Frankly, as my father drove from Luton Airport to my hometown (Wellingborough), everything I saw on the road left me in a state of dumbfoundedness. Don’t get me started on the typefaces on road signs.
Into built-up areas we go
We exited the M1 at junction 14. From here, the A509 takes you to Wellingborough through various villages and the quaint market town of Olney.
I was just getting used to the greenery and left-side traffic when Olney took the reverse culture shock after living abroad to stupefying levels.
Olney has a unique High Street, with boutiques and studios, independent shops and vintage stores. The distinct historic townhouses get me every time.
We arrived in Wellingborough after 10pm. Judging by the number of nail bars, kebab joints and barbers scattered along Sheep Street, the town centre had taken another turn for the worse over the previous five years. Virtually no quirky independent stores. No soul. No prospects. Nothing.
It took me a while to fall asleep. I yearned for the noises my Polish neighbours tend to make from 11pm onwards. Ah – Mr Cough next door and Mrs Big Bump Bump upstairs.
Cheese and pickle sandwiches but no more tea with milk
I’m coming to the reverse culture shock after living abroad.
Just to mention that I found an article about reverse culture shock by Frances Carruthers in the Guardian particularly thought-provoking.
What do you do on your first morning back home? Over to Frances:
“At first, I indulged in everything I had always loved about being home: days spent lounging with cups of tea and books, tranquil walks and home-cooked dinners.
Well, soon after getting up on day one, I heartily tucked into some toasted cheese and pickle sandwiches which my dad made for me. Foodwise, it’s about the only craving I had before arriving in the UK. Otherwise, I didn’t indulge myself in many other traditional British treats, apart from fish and chips on day three. Surprisingly, I’ve gone right off drinking tea with milk as I started drinking green tea last year.
The Swansgate Shopping Centre – The same old story
Living in Gdańsk and having all these new experiences in what I consider to be the most beautiful city in Poland, I knew that it would take a lot for Wellingborough to live up to my standards.
Before playing snooker with my dad on my first morning back, we took in the sights of Wellingborough town centre, including the Swansgate Shopping Centre.
Frances wrote about feeling “detached” and that she had “idealised” home in her mind while she was away. Indeed, she’d “expected everything to remain exactly the same” while she was gone. Presumably, Frances was referring to her hometown and her immediate surroundings.
Frankly, with the British media harping on about the cost of living crisis, I hardly left home that morning with idealised thoughts about the miraculous rebirth of hustling and bustling Wellingborough.
We entered the shopping centre. The floor tiles were the same brown and white wonders from yesteryear. There weren’t many new shops. Not much change here, I thought. Virtually no-one was around.
As the years pass, it seems that less and less people actually do any shopping in the Swansgate which, as my dad told me, shouldn’t have been built in the first place. Indeed, it’s an eyesore – a complete soulless dump.
The Streets of Wellingborough Town Centre are even more deserted than they used to be
There’s a great line in an article I’ve read on reverse culture shock after living abroad:
Returning brings a blanket of fog on perception; it’s like an audience member walking around in a setting that’s familiar but still unreal.
I couldn’t have put it better myself.
The reverse culture shock perhaps hit me as I strolled along Midland Road and Cambridge Street. Familiar but unreal – and surreal. Empty spaces and abandoned places. The places that are not for rent are all what I mentioned earlier – nail bars and barbers. There are drugs behind many of those doors, so I heard. Cars illegally parked on pavements and double yellow lines. If my dad did that, he would be fined immediately.
Some very unsavoury people have arrived from wherever and taken over the town centre. This blanket of fog twisting my perception was tinged with fury.
I’d seen enough and was happy to see the much improved interiors of Wellingborough Cue Sports.
I got down to potting some balls to mentally detach myself from the misery I’d witnessed outside that morning.
The town of Wellingborough wasn’t my main focus of attention in the days leading up to my return to the UK. I hadn’t seen my mother, brother, grandfather, as well as one or two others, for a long time. Hence, I was relatively euphoric before my journey in that regard.
After playing snooker, I was due to meet my grandad, brother and mum at the Red Well pub. I embraced my mum and brother, and immediately got talking to my grandad. He’s 90 years old. He’s slowed right up with sciatica and bad knees and all. His partner, who’s a year older, has got a neurodegenerative disease which is obviously not going to get any better. What a burden for old gramps. His head’s gone.
Anyway, I naturally observed everything around me, from the quiz machines to the decor. From the British beers (and others) on tap (not many Polish beers on offer in the Red Well), to the menus with traditional British dishes such as scampi and chips.
I had to readjust again. I’d become used to pierogi restaurants (gotta love Mandu) and coffee shops in Gdańsk. It’d be an understatement to say I felt out of place in the Red Well. Imagine if the pub had been crowded. I might have ended up in the A&E Department of Kettering General Hospital.
Disoriented and occasionally melancholic – but not a severe case of reverse culture shock
My case, of course, wasn’t one of out and out repatriation. It was a flying visit. I wasn’t in the UK long enough to enable re-entry shock to fester.
Still, I had this constant feeling that the world around me was spinning. I was there but wasn’t ‘all there’. Everything around me was familiar, yet even the smallest of changes I witnessed in my local area hit me for six. Wellingborough has gone downhill. Don’t get me started on the nail bars and potholes. What’s more, several family members look a lot older and not many were particularly interested in what I’d been up to in Poland. Everything became an anticlimax by the end of my first day back.
We’re getting into the nitty gritty now of reverse culture shock after living abroad. The reality of being back ‘home’ was nowhere near as enjoyable as the place I’d constructed in my head. I soon slipped into seeing faults in British society. Ideally, I should have prevented myself from making mental comparisons between my life in Gdańsk and life in the UK. I need to spend much more time in the UK to regain a more balanced cultural perspective.
Unfortunately, I felt like a disorientated foreigner throughout my stay in the UK. One of my neighbours said “hello foreigner!” when she saw me. She didn’t intend to be vicious but I’ve always taken everything a little bit too seriously. Yet, looking at things in the cold light of day, maybe she was right. I was confirmed as a Polish citizen by descent in 2018. I’ve spent more time in Poland than in the UK since my first visit to Poland in 2006. Although I don’t mix with Polish people all that much these days, I’m very much at peace in Gdańsk and I’ve come to accept and admire many aspects of Polish culture.
To top things off, I mostly speak Serbian at home and spend roughly three months a year in Bosnia and Serbia. Who the hell am I then? Or, more to the point, where is home?
Writing this, Pico Iyer’s magnificent TED Talk – Where is home? – has been doing the rounds in my mind. Allow me to return to this talk in the conclusion.
Re-entry can be debilitating – but I didn’t stay in the UK long enough to find out
Reverse culture shock after living abroad is not just a light-hearted phenomenon. It can be a severely debilitating condition almost on a par with a medical diagnosis.
Check out the harrowing case of reverse culture shock experienced by Hannah Chubb, Associate Lifestyle Editor at Cosmopolitan. It’s amazing to think that someone could become riddled with severe depression and anxiety. Hannah actually ended up in hospital. Her doctor said that while reverse culture shock is not an official medical diagnosis, it “might as well be”.
Having lived here, there and everywhere, it’d take a monumental transition to knock me off my feet and send me into a deep depression. Still, perhaps it was best that I didn’t stay in the UK for longer than five days. The mind can play tricks on anyone at any time no matter how experienced or thick-skinned they think they are.
I’ve been wondering about how Poles see their own country after spending a long time away from Poland.
Actually, Poles who’ve returned to Poland in recent years after a long absence abroad may well have been pleasantly surprised by what they’ve seen in their local areas. A lot of money has gone into road and rail infrastructure. New housing estates are popping up everywhere. Customer service has improved no end as well. I could go on. All in all, Poland’s come on leaps and bounds over the past five to ten years.
Whether it’s returning to the UK from Vietnam, or to Poland from Australia, I think the key point here is to take measures to overcome the stressful feelings of reverse culture shock. This is the stance adopted by Liz Szalai in her piece on reverse culture shock. One of Liz’s tips is to explore the home country with a new eye. Be a tourist to appreciate its beauty and values.
Where do you come from?
Finally, back to Pico Iyer’s TED talk.
As Pico alluded to in his speech, the question “Where do you come from?” is fraught with vagueness. Does the question have to mean where you were born and raised?
What if “Where do you come from?” means “Which place goes deepest inside you and where do you try to spend most of your time?” Right now, I haven’t got a bad word to say about living in Poland. The country goes deepest inside me. It’s a fact I can’t deny.
Nevertheless, seeing some of my family members just the other week reminded me that I should go back to England to see them a little more frequently than once every five years.
England’s green and pleasant land is another draw. There are huge areas of England, such as the northeast, far northwest and southwest, that I’ve never been to.
I’m sure that the reverse culture shock after living abroad might just take a backseat if I ambled around all those charming Cotswolds villages or lost myself amidst the wild and wonderful rolling hills of the North Yorkshire Moors.
England’s green and pleasant land would win out over re-entry shock.