It was a lovely summer day, but I was feeling sick.
The cause wasn’t some stomach bug or flu, however. It was the fact that I was standing in a church that had escalators. The place was huge—three stories, probably. Surrounded by chattering (and white) churchgoers, I felt like finding a quiet corner and hiding.
I had gone to large churches before; when I was in grade school, I went to a big rock ‘n’ roll church where everyone wore jeans instead of slacks. But this time, the sight churned my stomach. I had a sudden longing for a loud Liberian market—at least I was comfortable there. Listening to people yelling at one another in Liberian street English sounded more desirable than listening to worship leaders croon a Chris Tomlin song.
Sometimes when people talk about cross-cultural interactions, they put the emphasis on culture shock. What is more rarely spoken of (but common to the experience of those who cross cultures) is what is sometimes called reverse culture shock. It’s getting culture shock in your own culture.
It’s also an aspect of story that is sometimes neglected by writers. The events of the story can and do change your characters, but often the potential to have the culture change your character is wasted. Either way, the lessons of real life “re-entry stress” can help determine how your character will react to their old stomping grounds.
One useful action is to find ways to show a character’s changed worldview.
Worldview is the fundamental way we see the world. When our worldview changes, we do too; a book drawn out from the bottom of a stack can cause the whole thing to tip over.
This change can be subtle, and it often crops up in the strangest places. The first time I was back in the United States, our family was overwhelmed by the amount of money we had to spend to live. Even shelling out twenty or thirty dollars at Goodwill seemed like a lot—because in Liberia, twenty dollars would go a long way. We could feed thirty people with as many dollars, and we often did.
You see, our worldview had changed. We had become used to spending very little. We lived very simply in Liberia. Our very definition of excess shrank, and so when we returned, we were confronted with a reality starkly different from the living we had become accustomed to. (On the plane, it was a matter of great excitement when we discovered that the faucets ran hot water. We took turns using the latrine and trying it out.)
In the course of the story, your character has changed. Their worldview is different. Perhaps, like me, your character has ventured into a devastatingly poor world. The result of this change is that he or she is no longer comfortable with wealth.
Change in worldview also leads to change in action, and this is your best shot at making sure the worldview shift is properly shown. A character confronted with the riches of their former life might choose to get rid of the excess. Perhaps another, confronted with the free laughter of a new culture, returns to find the stoicism of culture at home too restrictive—and experiences a shift in social circles as a result. The potential is there; the application is up to you.
If your character spends a significant amount of time in another culture or another place, there is truth you should know: it will be harder for them to fit in, in both their new culture and their old one.
I moved to Liberia as a teenager. It’s a combination in missionary kids you don’t see often; generally, kids move there at a very young age and don’t spend much time in their “home” country. As a result, I do have a very strong connection to my home culture. But even then, when I return to the USA, I am plagued by a sense of discomfort. I recognize that I am fundamentally different from other people my age, in ways that are often hard to understand. I have a totally different way of seeing the world.
Your character, returning from a story that has transformed their worldview, will stand out. Ignoring that possibility both neglects the potential themes and conflicts your story could have and comes across as inaccurate. Focus on finding ways for your character to recognize this dichotomy; even, and sometimes especially, by seeing ordinary things in a different light.
While I have found these principles true, apply signs of cultural re-entry stress sparingly. As always, applicability depends on your context. If you’re writing a story that takes place largely in one culture, you won’t—and shouldn’t—try to recreate cultural re-entry stress.
However, the principles can apply to any changed character. Regardless if the change came about because of story events or culture shock, a changed character will have to deal with their old lives. Even if reverse culture shock is unique, the struggle to adjust to a transformed life is not.
In a way, all of us deal with changes every day of our lives. Even if your reader has not experienced a second culture or a transformative quest, dealing with the consequences of change is a struggle we can all understand.
How have you tried to convey the changes in a character upon their return from adventures in a New World?
J. Tobias Buller—“Jake”—is a missionary kid, a writer, and a strongly loyal Kansan. He has written eight speculative fiction novels and one historical fiction novella, two of which were written via The One Year Adventure Novel. His other work includes a long-winded blog, snarky essays, and a memoir he wrote about his experiences during Liberia’s Ebola outbreak.
He moved to Liberia in November 2011—the beginning of three and a half years of adventure. Recently back in the USA, he plans to be eaten alive by American collegiate education in the fall of 2015.