In the spirit of Thanksgiving, this is a story about being simultaneously thankful and uncomfortable.
I’m thankful with every atom of my being to have had the opportunity to spend a mind blowing two years deeply immersed in what I experienced to be a vibrant, optimistic and forward thinking culture during my two and a bit years in NYC / America. I could go on for pages about everything it taught me, but that’s for another post.
I returned to London via Australia two and a half months ago now, and while I haven’t talked about it very openly because I always prioritise the positive (which there is so much of!), the challenges posed by reverse culture shock upon returning to your original culture after being an expat are very real. And I believe in the value of talking about our challenges openly, of being human and real together, and not just pretending everything is rainbows and butterflies 24/7.
Even a few months on, while I have a deep affection and gratitude for London and all that it offers (and I know with absolute certainty that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be right now!), there are still days when my soul yearns for New York. For ridiculously talented buskers spreading good vibes on the subway; for unparalleled efficiency, conciseness and dedication; for pure, unashamed, unadulterated self-expression and excitement; for strangers who converse openly with one another.
The bewildered:happy ratio when a friendly stranger talks to another stranger feels like it’s roughly 80:20 in favour of bewilderment in London, even for me, though of course those I hold dear are surely amongst the 20, whether I’m around or not! In contrast it felt, as long as you weren’t on the subway during rush hour, more like 20:80 in the opposite direction in New York for me. Nevertheless, I do recognise that it’s possible (as many of my New Yorker friends suspected) that I got special treatment in New York for my English accent, so I’m curious to know what any New Yorkers reading reckon the NYC ratio is, especially any who’ve also been to London!
During my first few weeks back in London, while it was incredible to be back in my own home again after 2 and a half years (and after switching residences almost every night in Australia!!), and there was so much about the extra tranquility and home-ness that was regenerative, the sheer disparity in my environment triggered intense reverse culture shock. There were days I didn’t want to get out of bed I felt so alien. I craved sugar and dairy constantly (which I hadn’t for a long time) and found I needed 9-12 hours sleep most days, physically and emotionally exhausted for no apparent reason.
There were days where just getting up felt like a hike up a mountain. Days where my heart both emotionally and physically ached for the people and energy of NYC. More than a handful of moments where the last thing I wanted was to mingle with what felt like a population consisting of 80% aliens (and NOT by the American definition wherein aliens are tourists and immigrants!) but in the sense that I felt like they just didn’t get life. Didn’t get joy. Didn’t get what was really important (getting shit done, talking to each other, having an amazing life) and what wasn’t (complaining, taking forever to do things, being grumpy and unfriendly).
But each day I reminded myself that these feelings were part of the relocation territory. I experienced a similar sense of fatigue and overwhelm during my first few months in NYC after all. So each day, I hauled my ass out of bed, focused on all that I am blessed with and thankful for and showed up in London in my own quirky third culture way, bridging the gap between English and American, adopting my favourite habits and phrases from each to create my own Engl-ican style.
Much to my amusement, I’m continually confused for Aussie by almost every person I meet in London, English or otherwise. Where my English accent made love with what I call the American “bounce”, a hybrid was born that somehow turned out to sound a bit Australian, even before I arrived in Australia this summer. This confusion I’m told also stems from my sheer level of confidence and openness as compared to other Londoners, traits that rubbed off on me in New York that are a lot more alien (and in some circles truly frowned upon!) here.
While some judge, most people enjoy this novelty, and each day I hold faith and trust in the power of my own ripple effect and of the increasing numbers of people cultivating these traits worldwide. They are, after all, traits that contribute to a more empowered and aligned existence, which has knock on effects on both physical and psychological wellbeing, or the alternative – malaise. I know I didn’t feel as mentally or physically healthy before I became fully expressed during my time in America.
Meanwhile I’m also more attuned to the many admirable and adorable traits of English culture I took for granted before, because I’d never known anything else. To experience two cultures so deeply is something many do not get to, and I count myself immeasurably fortunate. I also count myself lucky to be continually challenged in so many interesting ways. I am so much more adaptable than I was before I left for New York, precisely because I have been in so many situations that were so far outside my comfort zone and found ways to thrive regardless.
I have a level of serenity I just didn’t have before, and the unshakeable confidence that comes from knowing I can deal with any situation or pressure, no matter how unfamiliar or alien. This is one of the many benefits that practising the art of relocation helps you achieve – indeed the art of travel too.
As the last two months have gone by, I’ve also found it fascinating and compelling finding ways to integrate my newer beliefs, values, and identity into my “old world”, and even, creating a new world in old territory. It’s really quite magical seeing London with such different eyes, and particularly as the culture shock has faded I’ve been able to recognise ever growing quirks and perks and opportunities I never saw when I lived here before. I’ve been seeking out and attending events on a par with those I gravitated to in New York, connecting with people I never would have dreamt of before, and seeing possibilities I never envisaged. And sure enough, each day London has felt less and less different and alien than New York. For the past few weeks, getting up has started feeling a lot more natural again and I’ve felt more and more at home.
Culture shock is real, but it does get easier.
Here are four of the morals I’ve learnt along this journey that I want to share with you:
1) Every culture has its benefits, perks and quirks. The sweet spot lies in questioning what you’ve been conditioned to believe and do, and integrating your favourite bits of each culture you experience to create your own personal stamp. The feeling of freedom this will afford you is incredible. It might make you more likely to feel like a bit of an alien occasionally, but that’s ok, you’re a super-alien!
2) If you have the opportunity to live and work in another culture, I recommend seizing it with both hands. It’s terrifying in moments and full of challenges but few things will give you more opportunities, more potential for growth or impact you more. You’ll realise that fear is totally negotiable, and that if you give it a new name, like excitement, you can turn it into a powerful, magical force. This premise alone will blow your mind and expand your entire perception of life. You’ll also notice how much more arbitrary geographical boundaries feel, and become able to appreciate any culture without freaking out, because you no longer see in black and white. OMG look at that beautiful rainbow!
3) Whether or not we are aware of another’s turmoil, we’re all working through something. I’ve noticed it’s a lot more common and socially acceptable to talk about struggles openly in New York (it is the home of the phrase “the struggle is real” after all), while there’s more shame attached to doing so in London/England. Wherever you may be in the world, never assume that you are alone, or that you are weak for feeling discomfort or for expressing it. When we talk openly, more often than not our experiences are validated and normalised in powerfully healthy and healing ways. And most likely, the more discomfort you are experiencing, the more you are outside your comfort zone (whether you’ve consciously pursued it, or whether it’s been thrust upon you), which is essential if you want to achieve exponential growth.
4) It’s possible to be intensely grateful, thriving and outwardly successful, and really really uncomfortable AT THE SAME TIME, and it’s totally ok. Discomfort is not only ok, but when we start making peace with it, and combining it with positive emotions, rather than having a black and white happy/sad mentality, whatever discomfort we may have been feeling actually starts feel more comfortable. The key is in what we’re telling ourselves mentally about the meaning behind it, what we choose to take away and how we decide to make it part of our growth trajectory. We don’t always get to choose the situation, but we do get to choose the meaning. And we must be kind and patient with ourselves, not just each other, always.