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The Anglo Edit: Reverse Culture Shock


Amber Johansen writes for The Odessa Journal a charming column, a blog about the city and people. She is passionate about vintage fashion, vegan food and wine.

She has lived in Odessa since autumn 2019


After living abroad for more than four years, the latter 14 months in Odessa, I have begun to question my definition of home. The definition is traditionally ‘one’s place of residence’, though this is arguably an incredibly restrictive perspective of such a multi-faceted word. After all, home is where the heart is, right? Which means home doesn’t have to necessarily be the place you live, nor only one place. Feeling rootless seems like a common phenomena – many people uproot themselves for work, love, new experiences or in pursuit of a nomadic lifestyle. On the contrary, others do not have the privilege of choice and may be displaced by war, poverty and other hardships, essentially migrating for their own survival. Though there is one experience that unites anyone who moves or travels across borders – the inevitable state of bewilderment known as culture shock.

From my experiences across continents, culture shock can flip-flap between a subtle state of mild confusion and a state of extreme distress, the latter of which can be attributed to Ulysses Syndrome, an eponymous psychosomatic disorder in modern migrants. However even the most vertiginous of culture shocks can be overcome given time. Luckily, there weren’t any huge hurdles I had to leap in order to adapt to life in Odessa (putting aside all the uncertainties that coronavirus brought). Living in any major city, especially in Europe, you are surrounded with familiarities and carbon-copy shops, bars, restaurants, architecture and media, largely thanks to globalisation.

It is well-discussed and fathomable to encounter complications when relocating away from your motherland, however what is less considered is what you experience upon your return. The golden shades of belonging fade can into a fog which makes it unusually challenging and distressing to navigate an environment that was once so familiar. It’s reverse culture shock.

For me, reverse culture shock felt like time had somehow crystallised and I was estranged from my former reality – nothing much had really changed except for myself. I think that perhaps when arriving in new cities abroad I have always been mentally prepared to feel like a foreigner, but it’s something I didn’t expect to experience returning to the place in which I grew up.

The last time I returned to England, I realised there were many polarities between the cultures of Ukraine and the UK that I had to readapt to. Minor quirks like embellishing every sentence with “please”, “sorry”, “thank you” and “excuse me do you mind if..”, looking for cars coming from the opposite direction or using the refreshingly straightforward yet disgustingly overpriced trains and tubes. I promptly readapted to such subtleties, but some changes were far more personal and permeated the ground under my feet. Small talk became more challenging and I didn’t want to appear “show-offy” as my experiences were vastly different from everyone else, plus the people I knew, no one else knew. Many friends I used to see everyday hardly acknowledged my return, or were too busy to meet. A community that was so tightly woven into my youth was now feeling threadbare and I was some kind of social pariah. People also quizzed me about what had happened to my accent, which seems to have embarrassingly chameleon-like abilities.

Because of the travel restrictions this year, I haven’t visited home for the longest time yet and I wonder if my sandcastle has been washed away by the tides. Perhaps some of the reverse culture shocks I’ve experienced before will have intensified to the extent that reintegration would become more complicated.

During my last visit home I watched the entertainingly cheesy 1969 Western musical film Paint Your Wagon, which featured a lyric that resonated with me – “home is made for coming from, for dreams of going to”.

Paint Your Wagon

This summarised my feeling entirely; I’m not meant to stay in the same place forever, but I always dream about going back to see people that I care about and the place that built the foundation of the person I am today. It can actually be quite an exhilarating feeling knowing that your home can’t be marked with an X on a map, but instead under a wandering star.

To be continued…