Dealing with Reverse Culture Shock

Q Ten years ago, I met my French husband on a cruise and have been living in Paris almost ever since.  We have a girl 6 and a boy 4.  For the past two years we have been dreaming of living in California, and miraculously, my spouse has found a job in LA so we’re moving there in August. I’m really excited, but friends have been warning me to expect repatriation shock. Do you think this is something to worry about in our case?

A Any move is stressful, and you are heading for a major change. For starters, your French husband and Paris-born children will be faced with a big adjustment of which you will inevitably bear the brunt. But that aspect aside, below are some repatriation shock phenomena of which you should be aware as you prepare to leave.

Your high expectations You see this move as a dream, but the reality is bound to supply a few unforeseen nightmares, which will destabilize you, and your disappointment will be compounded if your family expresses regret over the decision and blames you for their misery. So be ready for a temporary crash.

Lack of familiarity with what you find You think you’re “going home,” but LA is its own subculture, even to other Americans.You’ve never lived there and after 10 years away, you are out of sync with much of what’s been happening at home, so you’re bound to feel like an alien for a while. Local and national newsmakers may be largely unknown to you as will be television programs, which are a big part of a national culture now, and even the lingo will have changed since you left.

Indifference to your experience in Europe Many Americans are insular and not too interested in how others live. People you meet – even your old friends and family – will quickly overdose on hearing of your overseas experiences, and may even regard you as condescending if you continually bring them up. Your best bet to avoid feeling ignored or undervalued is to seek out other recent returnees who also enjoy referring to their lives here, connect with the French Institute in LA, or find forums where talks about your expatriate experience would be drawing cards.

Clashing values After ten years here, you have probably absorbed certain of the French and/or European values. Coming face to face with American consumerism, far right conservatism, “kinky” California type individualism or an overall obliviousness to international concerns may intensify feelings of not belonging, which will contrast sharply with your long held beliefs about what it would be like being back among your own kind.

Lifestyle differences In France, we take for granted such advantages as excellent public transportation, state-financed health care, television programs which aren’t interrupted every few minutes with advertising, an interest in good food, fashion, and culture… If these things are important to you and are missing in your new environment, you might find yourself not only nostalgic for your Paris life, but downright negative and critical about life in the States. Again, rather than voice these disappointments to the new people you meet, find people who understand your unhappiness and will let you voice it without feeling aggressed.

Career issues Prospective employers may not so secretly believe that your French experience doesn’t “really count.” From their point of view, you have been out of the mainstream for a long time, no matter what you may have learned, and in truth, in some professions, there is more expertise and professionalism in the US workplace than in France. Be ready to compromise on rank or salary at first while you re-acculturate to corporate life at home.

These are some of the main issues associated with repatriation shock, and if you are hit with them, you will probably cycle through moments of deflation, depression, fear and anger. However, your optimism and sense of adventure will be good antidotes to the down times, and, as you adjust and find new interests and challenges, things will gradually fall back into place.

Jill Bourdais is a psychotherapist practicing in Paris both privately and in a hospital setting. A specialist in couple/family problems, she organizes workshops dealing with improving relationship skills and building self-esteem.