5 stages of reverse culture shock after returning from charity work abroad

I’ve been back from my charity trip in Nepal for a few days and have many thoughts swirling through my mind. 

It’s an interesting process to re-enter life after working in a developing country. You think everything will be just like it was before you left, but things always feel different. 

When I first returned, I was ecstatic to be back in America with my family with the comforts of home. My boys seemed like they grew a few inches since I last saw them. I got butterflies when I saw my husband. And the feeling of getting into my bed on the first night back was so exciting! I settled in, with the relief that I live in a society where clean water and unhealthy air quality are not concerns.

But after the initial feelings, sadness sets in. What is it? Why am I feeling this way?

I read we go through stages after returning from charity work abroad. The reality of what we experienced, seeing first-hand the problems that exist in our world; coupled with the knowledge that most of us turn the other way is deflating.

I feel a combination of gratefulness that I am privileged, guilt for the same reason, sadness that so many in our world are suffering and disappointment that we haven’t come further along in working together as one world.

The 5 stages of reverse culture shock after returning from charity work abroad are:

  • Judgment
  • Depression
  • Reflection
  • Acceptance
  • Action

It can be an unpleasant process to go through, but I’m ready.

As human beings, we are wired to prefer familiar routines that are narrow in scope. Work, family, kids, exercise, dinner, weekend plans. Many of us don’t have the bandwidth to broaden our views beyond our own bubbles and prefer to keep our efforts within these confines. Until a few years ago, I certainly didn’t.  

But when I disrupt my schedule to work in the face of poverty within developing countries, the effects are powerful.  It can be challenging, but I find these experiences help to shape my character and broaden my perspective.

When I take myself out of my comfort zone, I learn more about who I am. This includes areas of weakness where I need improvement. During my time in Nepal, one characteristic I found myself feeling was judgment.

Almost immediately after landing in Nepal, my allergies came out in full force and remained until I left. We had to cover our faces with masks when walking through the streets due to the poor air quality. Trash was literally everywhere, and I watched people throw garbage out of their windows without a second thought.

I couldn’t help but wonder why there wasn’t more order to the trash.

We had to educate some communities where we were distributing water filters to teach them not to drink the dirty water before boiling or filtering it first.

“They don’t already know many of their sicknesses are from the water?”

“Many don’t know until we teach them.” This confused me.

Privilege. When we have it, we tend to be more judgemental. I tried to catch myself as I passed judgment, but it wasn’t easy. I kept trying. 

In Nepal, amidst the trash, dirty water and shack-like business structures and homes, one thing that was consistent was the Nepalis’ sense of community.

Everywhere we went, people were gathered together, working with each other, collaborating in the fields farming their crops, celebrating the annual 15 day religious festival of Dashain (which they say is equivalent to Christmas in the US.) They smiled as we passed and were always cordial to us with service.  In general, they seemed content with the little they had. Their society still has a far way to go in their treatment of women, but we could learn a few things from them.

So, who should judge who?

They could teach us about

  • being present each day and enjoying life for what it is and
  • forming close-knit communities.

This week alone – the pipe bomb mailings and the Pittsburg tragedy makes me question many things about our own country.

I suppose I am in the judgment/depression phase based on this blog post! Judgment in Nepal, judgment in the US… but ultimately I’ll have a better perspective on both sides based on my experience.

So I shall continue to go through all the stages and allow myself to sit in my thoughts until I’m ready to return to “normal.” I am reminding myself that life is more full when we feel. Feel it and then release! I want it all. Anger, joy, confusion, acceptance, curiosity! All the emotions, good and bad will help me to gain a better understanding of myself.

“Flavor Your Life with an Ounce of Salt.” A lifestyle blog by Jen Oliak.