Here’s What Happened When I Went from Petting Elephants to Working at a Startup

Expats, foreign exchange students, and long-term travelers know that living abroad can be hard. We often hear about culture shock, how confounding it can be, and how to prepare for it.

But what we’re often not advised on is dealing with reverse culture shock.

Sometimes, the readjustment when coming back home after long-term travel can be even harder than it was to adjust when we first left.

Sure, catching up with old friends and family, wearing the clothes we had to leave at home, and eating everything we’ve been craving during our time away can be exciting. But after that initial joy wears off, it’s not uncommon to feel like a stranger in a strange land.

lissa morales reverse culture shock soussvlei
Walking up sand dunes in Soussvlei.

I had never traveled so far in my entire life.

After deciding to spend my post-graduate year abroad, Cape Town, South Africa was the place that kept calling to me. If I ever was going to visit and hop on a 24+ flight, I thought I might as well stay there for an extended period. So I applied for an internship, obtained an 8 month visa, and was off. Going from Los Angeles to Cape Town felt like going to the other side of the world. Because I was. I was moving another continent, ocean, hemisphere, and time zone away.

I was ready to face a little discomfort as I got adjusted to this drastic change.

The first night I was there, I went to the dive bar across the street from my new flat. There, I met two local boys — Nathan and Uzair.

We quickly became friends. It felt like I had met my two long-lost brothers. In the following months, they showed me the ins and outs of my new city, connected me with other like-minded folks, and accompanied me in my favorite pastime: trying out new food. Instead of the difficulty I expected in adjusting to this new culture, I found myself feeling more and more at home, all thanks to them.

8 months later, it was time to head home. I knew it was going to be difficult when my visa expired, my internship was over, and I had to repack my bags. But boy, was I not prepared.

lissa morales reverse culture shock paragliding lions head
Paragliding at Lion’s Head.

On the drive home from LAX, I was struck by how clean and wide the American streets were in contrast to the townships that I often worked in in my time away. Without anyone to share this observation with, it began to feel slightly eerie and lonesome.

This feeling was further compounded over the next few months, as I readjusted to life back home. And without anyone or anywhere to process with, I soon found myself sitting across from a therapist.

Here’s what I learned.

Don’t Try To Fight It

“You have to give yourself some time,” was one of the first things my therapist said to me.

Wanting to hit the ground running as soon as I came back from Cape Town, I made the mistake of rushing to work at a fast-paced startup.

The contrast in work culture ended up being too much. Going from a slower-paced work environment, where I could brew myself a cup of tea, sit down, and talk to my supervisor for 30 minutes before we actually started the “work day,” was such a stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of a Silicon Beach startup.

I crashed and burned.

“What the heck is wrong with me?” I wondered. “Why can’t I keep up with all the tech lingo, celeb scandals, and TV shows that everyone is talking about?”

lissa morales reverse culture shock table mountain
On top of Table Mountain.

I had been living abroad for a year, so of course there was going to be a cultural gap between my old and new lives. It was ridiculous of me to expect to be “caught up” with what was happening at home.

In retrospect, I wish I had budgeted and saved money for the readjustment period when I first moved back. I was looking at many of the routines, patterns, and customs of US culture through a new and critical lens, and it would have been tremendously beneficial to have treated coming back as essentially adapting to a new culture.

Because my funds were running low, I moved back in with my mom, and began working a few days after I landed. Having known it would take time—and not feeling the need to dive head first into work—would have been a lifesaver.

In Cape Town, I had allotted myself 2-3 weeks to ease into unchartered water, before I started my internship, and it would have been okay to do the same when I moved back home.

Stick to Your Usual Routine

Back in Los Angeles, I had to hop on the highway in order to get to work or see a friend. I started to feel like I was spending the majority of my time getting to and from places, and therefore rushed to fit everything in. As a result, I began to skip out on things that had become a part of my everyday routine and were essential to keeping me sane.

It wasn’t until I realized that it was okay to tell the people in my life that I was still adjusting and needed some time before meeting up that I finally breathed a sigh of relief.

I didn’t have to fit in visiting friends or setting up meetings all in the same week (or even the same month!). It was okay to prioritize consistently waking up at the same time, exercising regularly, and having enough time to myself.

It helps if you already have a set routine that you can continue, despite the change in setting, to make you feel like you are somewhat in control. It’s too easy to feel thrown off balance when you don’t.

lissa morales reverse culture shock white shark cage diving
White Shark cave diving.


Embrace Your New Self

One of the most uncanny things about moving back home after a stint abroad is that we expect the people we know to be the same, all while wanting them to understand the immense changes that we have undergone.

Life doesn’t really work that way.

Friends may have moved away, or may have also undergone immense changes, and we can’t expect them to be just as when we left. It would be unfair. Just as it would be unfair for them — if they are really, truly supportive of us — to not respect our growth.

I felt the most uncomfortable around my family when I first returned. This was partly due to the fact that I had to move back in with my mom, and there is quite a big contrast between being single and living in the city and moving back into your childhood room.

I felt very fortunate, of course, to be able to fall back on my mom during that difficult period. But I also felt extremely stifled. Curious as she was about my new hair, wardrobe, and attitude to match, I am sure it took her a bit of time to adjust to the changes I had undergone in such a short period.

What I came to learn was that people who truly care for you will understand how important these changes are for your own growth. Don’t feel like you have to lose that part of you in order to make them feel comfortable. Maintain your lifestyle, from the food you cook and the clothes you wear to the nature of your evolving personality.

lissa morales reverse culture shock paragliding 2
Another shot over Lion’s Head.


Find Comfort in a Community

I have yet to meet a South African I can chat with at home, but being that I’m an avid couchsurfer, I started attending the local meetups in my LA chapter.

Stumbling across Wanderful was also a leg-up while looking for a community of like-minded individuals. It helped me cope with this adjustment period.

Joining a group of people with similar experiences, where I could talk freely without having to preface everything I said was exactly what I was desperately looking for.

Whether it be a meetup of fellow travelers, a cooking class that reminds you of those yummy dishes you tried abroad, or a cultural festival, there are definite ways that you can still interact with the culture you feel like you left behind while adjusting to life back home.

Remember That These Things Take Time

Though I of course wish that things could have gone a lot easier for me, it would have at least been nice to hear that things would get easier and more familiar with time.

While it took some time to get accustomed to South Africa when I first moved there, it took me double the time to readjust to living back home when I finally did.

[Tweet “”The more comfortable you were when living abroad, the harder the transition back.””]

Allot yourself plenty of time to get through reverse culture shock, and if you find it’s taking twice as long as expected, know that you’re not alone. In fact, I’d say that the more comfortable you were when living abroad, the harder the transition back. However, having gone through this once, makes you all the more prepared if and when you encounter these feelings of frustration and confusion again.

As difficult as this period may be, it is also a great opportunity to to learn more about yourself as you adjust to being home.


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Here's What Happened When I Went from Petting Elephants to Working at a Startup | Wanderful

Have you ever dealt with reverse culture shock after a long travel experience? Share in the comments!

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