Reverse Culture Shock: Returning Home after Years in Paris

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We’ve talked a lot about going abroad and starting fresh there, be it for education or career purposes, but we rarely talk about what happens after, when you have to come back home and re-start your life in Indonesia. Our columnist, Dytha, shares her thoughts on what it feels like to return back home after two years working abroad.

After finishing my master degree in Paris, I got the opportunity to work directly at the same company where I did my apprenticeship program. It was a real opportunity, and I couldn’t say no and couldn’t let down my parents who I know would love to see me working in France. As a result: I couldn’t go back home for two years in total. It may not be long for some people, but it really was, for me.

Paris - photo from Author
Paris – photo from Author

I know two years are quite a lot for me, that is why I asked for a whole 4 weeks leave last summer. Luckily, in France we can have at least 25 leave days per year – see my last article on what it feels like to work in France. After sending a request to the office and had it accepted by my manager, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I started to look for tickets, looking for some destinations to go on this not-so-short holiday, trying to manage the time for family, friends, and every single person I would love to meet after two years. It was so exciting to plan for everything for this interlude, thinking everything will be lovely after all this time, waiting for this big day, the day I can go back home.

So there I was, arrived at the airport, waiting for my family who came for me to pick up. Then, I realized how things changed in my hometown, Jakarta. In two years, I saw a big difference in a lot of things: some recently built highways, the brand new MRT, digital payment services that makes us less worry on forgetting wallet at home, big pavements in Sudirman, etc… How can I miss all these amazing things!

A welcome cake - photo from Author
A welcome cake – photo from Author

However, all these massive progresses were not the only things that changed. So did I. In two years I didn’t see the same people, didn’t share the same experience, didn’t eat the same food, and didn’t talk the same subject. That makes me a different person, not in good or bad way, just different. At that time, I was too excited to come home, forgetting that adaptation is not only one way trip, it works the same way back. After one month spent home, here are some real reverse culture shock I’ve experienced last summer:

First, not only jetlagged, I langua-gag!
I remembered when I woke up, probably still half asleep, I went to the kitchen and saw my father and I said to him “je veux bien un café moi aussi” means “I would like a cup of coffee too” because I saw him drinking his coffee that morning. He looked at me weirdly until I’ve realized that I was talking in another language. French was the main language I use for those 2 years, I was really used to it and it did take me a while to find some words in Indonesian. It was quite tricky to socialize with my friends too, as it’s been a while that I don’t use day-to-day language. Some finds my choice of words was really formal and not easy to understand, well, thanks France, you’re making my words too sophisticated.

Secondly, a difference on how to define “politeness”
Ever since we are little, people says we have two hands: the bad hand (left) and the good hand (right). This gesture politeness is an unwritten rule, that we cannot give and ask something with our left hand. We repeat this everyday until it becomes really natural. However, in Europe, people don’t really see the difference. You can give change, pay taxi, point a direction with your left hand – or with your right hand. People will not feel offended and think that you are not impolite. I was really used to this ‘new’ habit of mine until when I got back to Indonesia, I keep handing money with my left hand… And well not-so-surprisingly, every single of these people seem a bit bothered.

Where a no is not simply no
Another case, it’s how we say ‘no’. I was born and raised with a culture that saying no can be considered quite impolite. So instead of no, I try to say other things so the person may get the code and understand that I don’t agree or don’t want to say yes to his or her question. My first 2 years in Paris was really complicated because I couldn’t say no to people. In France people get what they say, a no is a bold no, and a yes means yes. If people ask if you want a cookie and you said no, they will not reask you to make sure that you’re saying no just for politeness. It was a real problem when I got back to Indonesia last summer, people started to think that I’m becoming a bit colder and stern because I said the word no pretty clear. I feel bad after that but it’s not easy to change a habit just in couple of weeks…

When people see me with so much expectation
“It must be really nice to live in such a modern country, you must have changed now”, “You still can eat rice after European foods all the time?”... and a lot more questions about comparing life in Paris and Jakarta, some people even asked bluntly about my private life and how much I got paid, etc. It is hard to measure oneself, I can’t really say if I’m reaching a better place in my life, or if I actually prefer Jakarta to Paris. Everyone keeps thinking that Europe countries are amazing and everything is better right there, while actually the answer can be pretty bias. Each country has their own strength and weakness, Indonesia is a great nation and we should be proud about it. It can be uncomfortable to hear that some people can be really pessimistic on their home country, especially if you hear it almost everyday.

Feelings of alienation

Feeling left out - free rights photo from Unsplash
Feeling left out – free rights photo from Unsplash

Fear of feeling left out is real, especially when you have a strong connection between you and and people who spend their lives differently than yourself. I’ve spent my time a lot asking my sister what is this food/drink/place/habit/etc. Everyone is using their digital payment service, to get their favorite boba drink or coffee and get it delivered in 30 minutes. And this is a quite different way to buy a beverage in France where a delivery system is not too common and people still prefer to use their credit cards (even though digital payment system do exist). A lot of new places and malls were built in the past 2 years in Jakarta and it didn’t feel good when I can’t join the conversation because I’m not sure what are my surroundings talking about.

Last but not least, reverse homesickness
Maybe I’m exaggerating as it was a one month vacation… But after 2 weeks I started to miss how fast and easy it is to commute in Paris. How nice it is to spend a day outside in a park and read a book without the rush and hush to go to coffee shop in a mall. How rich and interesting a day of museum visits is… and the list goes.

Nevertheless, Indonesia is where I was born and raised, where my family lives and what I still call “home”. Going back may not be easy, but nothing can beat the relief of seeing one’s family, spending time with friends, eating comfort food and especially, talk in one’s native language.

Quality time with family - photo from Author
Quality time with family – photo from Author