I WAS PROBABLY one of the last of our generation to leave Ireland last April. Within the space of a year it seems the country has changed utterly, however this may be due to a case of reverse culture shock, writes Niamh Ní Shúilleabháin.
For many this year will be the first where Irish emigrants ask themselves whether the time is right to finally come home. True or exaggerated, the story that our economy may be making some sort of recovery may be a catalyst for those who dream of heading home to be closer to family and friends.
Unfortunately for our dearest emigrants abroad, they may have to postpone their dreams of owning a part of the old sod back home as the property bubble is back, in major urban areas at least.
It is an unsettling feeling, returning home to a country which is still blighted by a high rate of unemployment and yet the pressure to buy, or at least consider the notion of thirty years of enslavement to a mortgage is back in fashion.
Reverse culture shock
My horror at the whole thing – and especially the return of the phrase, ‘rent money is dead money’ – I feel must have be caused in part by what psychologists call reverse culture shock.
I returned home at Christmas after nine months of shoestring travel across the globe and gradually I have felt overwhelmed by the feeling that I probably had fallen off the mythical ladder and the inevitable measure of success in Ireland – that of property ownership and a stable job.
Organisations which prepare volunteers and missionaries for work overseas have long acknowledged the difficulties faced by those returning home.
Reverse culture shock, they say, is a feeling of disorientation and disconnection when returning home to a land which has changed in your absence, at a time where you are only beginning to understand the implications of your experiences abroad and your own personal change.
Some people get it more than others and to such an extent that there are a range of symptoms from everything from irritability to depression. Many feel overwhelmed at starting a new life while friends who stayed have moved onwards and have developed new relationships.
Returned emigrants can feel isolated
After an initial ‘honeymoon period’ of being at home and meeting friends and family for the first time in months or years, returned emigrants or travellers can feel isolated and adrift.
Changes in personal relationships and financial status are some of the causes of concern for returning volunteers and emigrants as well as structural barriers such as changing career, finding accommodation and adjusting to a higher cost of living.
It is a strange period of readjustment, and organisations such as Comhlámh, which was set up support development workers returning to Ireland, have recognised this particular shock; they urge returning volunteers to take the time to relax and enjoy the changed society which they have returned to and to reconnect with others.
This approach works to a certain extent and I have become adept at judging that exact moment where my friend’s tire of my travel tales. When that happens it is easier to talk about a country which is hopefully exiting in recovery; the queues outside bars on Dawson Street, refurbished late night spots on Leeson Street and new cafés and restaurants popping up across the city.
Have we learned anything?
Indeed, things have changed since last year: there are more job vacancies in the capital at least, rents (unfortunately)are on the up and so is people’s confidence.
However, it is hard not to feel nostalgia for life on the road and the sensory pleasure that tasting new cultures brings, from stumbling across new versions of history to stories never heard before.
Travelling and living in other countries makes us look at Ireland in a new way, sometimes in a more positive light and sometimes with a more nuanced appreciation of how conservative and unyielding the pillars of our society truly are.
It leads us to question whether we have learned anything from our mistakes in the past. And it is exactly this mixed emotion which a whole legion of other returning Irish emigrants will feel if they come home again.
If they do return, it may be worth listening to their ideas, even if they do appear to be a culture shock, to us.
Niamh Ní Shúilleabháin is a freelance journalist. Her travel blog www.rtwchronicle.con focuses on solo travel around the world. You can follow her on Twitter @niamhos.
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