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Opinion: The reverse culture shock of coming back to Ireland after years abroad

Reverse culture shock is the part of living abroad that you’re not warned about.

Kate O'Shaughnessy

“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.”

SITTING IN JFK airport, awaiting the last leg of my flight home to Ireland, a knot formed in my stomach. Christmas songs filled the air and I was a mere flight away from the loved ones who’d be waiting for me on the other side. After anticipating this moment for so long, suddenly I felt nothing but dread. Thinking I had been so ready to come home before, I now stepped aboard the plane with waves of anxiety washing over me. What would Ireland have in store for me? Would everything look strange? Would I ever fit in there again?

It’s an odd thing. I had assumed that in my absence, everything would have changed. Well, nothing really has. Everything looks the same, smells the same. The buildings are still small and the roads seem smaller still. Back to square one. Sure, people have new jobs, gotten engaged and babies have been born. The idle chit chat down the shops or in the local pub has shifted from the recession to the water charges. Yet daily life remains constant. It is my perception of the life that I’d left behind that has changed.

Reverse culture shock is the part of living abroad that you’re not warned about. For over four years, my life has been a whirlwind of Oriental adventures and experiencing new pastures. Naively, visions of myself regaling my friends and family with tales of all the amazing things I had seen and done were racing through my mind. Nobody was that interested. When asked how my time away was, how can I possibly sum up four years of my life in a few minutes worth of conversation?

Certainly, I am not the only returning expat that feels this way. Unless they have lived abroad for an extended time, it is quite the challenge to convey to someone all that goes with being an expatriate. Despite spending the majority of my twenties so far on foreign soil, it feels pretentious to say “well, one time in Vietnam…”. Once the initial excitement of encountering your old friends and family has subsided, reality sets in. Inevitably, as feared and predicted, the questions began: “What’s the plan?” “Have you a job yet?” “Are you going to settle down?”

Like I said, I am looking at Ireland through new lenses. Strolling along the cobbled roads of Temple Bar in late December, I realised I’d never before heeded the sights and smells of the Dublin food markets, the Celtic sounds of the buskers, nor had I ever appreciated the casual banter of passers by. I took delight in seeing “Nollaig Shona Duit” written in neon lights. Previously mundane outings such as grocery shopping or taking the bus have now become somewhat of a novelty. Ordering food is no longer a chore. Being understood everywhere I go is refreshing. Ireland has just as much to see and do as anywhere else.

Befriending people from various backgrounds and witnessing life around the world is enlightening and an education in itself. Reverting back to old friends who’ve known you for years, listening to the lilt of the Irish accent and visiting familiar places you don’t get lost in can be equally satisfying.

Only time will tell if I have made the right choice in coming back to Ireland. There is a palpable sense of uncertainty in the air. I suppose, whatever the decision, be it to go again in the future or to stay and settle, there’s a price to pay for each. For now though, Ireland, you’ll suit me grand.

Kate O’Shaughnessy is a 27 year of freelance contributor from Co Wexford. Follow her on Twitter @irelandadvokate or her blog at http://irelandsadvokate.com

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