Friday, 24 June 2011

Reverse Culture Shock

I am back having emerged from the protective wall that the People’s Republic of China provided to ensure that I was not corrupted by access to Facebook, YouTube and my own Blog during my stay in that country! My release almost coincided with that of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei – but my lips are not sealed.

I guess that most people have suffered the effects of culture shock. It is not particularly nice in that it alienates you from the people amongst whom you are living. One symptom of this dysfunction that appeared during my Chinese adventure was an angry reaction to starers. When I first arrived at the school being stared at was novel and almost aggrandising. It is difficult to believe that our appearance is so different to the local Chinese when their phenotypes are so diverse (I had a boy in one of my classes who was tiny by any standards and another who could almost pop the ball directly into the basket). Nonetheless we did stand out evoking reactions ranging through shock, amusement or fear. One young lady walked into a stationary car whilst ogling us and we caused some near traffic accidents for which we could surely not be held responsible.

Whilst in a good mood I stared back at the starers, laughed at the laughers, said hello - in Chinese - to the smilers (the majority) and ignored the ignorant. But in a darker mood I found the experience of being an innocent spectacle intensely irritating: this is culture shock; there are other symptoms.

We left China in stages, finally easing ourselves through the decompression chamber and escape hatch usually known as Taiwan. As our departure approached my wife became more and more excited; she was even perky as we stepped off the plane at 5 a.m. following a long, double hop flight. My spirits balanced hers precisely: depression fogged my mind as home drew closer.

Dragging forty kilogrammes of luggage (really) along St Giles and the Woodstock Road I failed to respond to the waiting sights of the Ashmolean Museum, the Martyr’s Memorial or St John’s College. I barely glanced at the Eagle and Child and its opposition, the Lamb and Flag, despite a six month respite from real ale. I do not believe that I even bothered to glance at the inspiring sight of the Radcliffe Observatory or into the mystery of tree-lined Plantation Road. My consciousness was filled with the pain emanating from body parts injured during my Asian sojourn and my task as a determined packhorse.

I found little joy in entering our neat little apartment or in the task of unpacking. I noted without surprise that a tribe of immigrants had hidden away in the large suitcase: they were those tiny ants that penetrate the tightest of packaging in search of food. I sent them to another world. Margaret’s enthusiasm was soon assuaged by sleep and I stepped out to do some essential shopping. I found the environment full of irritants. The church opposite had sealed off its gardens and installed cameras as a result of anti-social visitations. People did not look nice: they did not look at me, they did not speak, they did not stare. There seemed to be an excessive number of dubious people around: dossers, alcoholics, lunatics. This is reverse culture shock and it happened in the leafy luxury of North Oxford.

And so my depression, already billowing, descended. I found little of interest or of joy. I did not even enjoy my first beer festival on the second night. I inwardly criticised the beer, the people drinking it, the place where it was held, the speeches made at regular intervals, the food – everything. I was not good company and I humbly apologise to the good friend who took me there.

The next day I led my first tour. Taking a party around Oxford after six months absence is a great challenge to the brain. As a guide you store up an immense cache of knowledge over a long period of time. On any one tour you only utilise a small percentage of it – but you do not know what you will need of your database or when and where. There is no way of checking that the information is there – the cache is just too immense. The only test is to do a tour, in fact to do many different tours. This test did get my adrenalin flowing especially when coupled with the fact that I was called urgently by the tourist centre in the morning with a heart sinking “why aren’t you here” message (they had given me the wrong time for the tour). So I rushed into action and it helped. There were a few things missing. I could not remember the title used by the head of Exeter College (rector). The name of St Peter’s College eluded me and the middle order of the Tower of Five Orders (Ionian). But these omissions are easily dealt with and I really enjoyed my first tour. Great bunch of people. And from this point on reverse culture shock began to diminish.

Today, though still unable to run, I revelled in a walk around my area and admired the sturdy Victorian residences washed with cool sunlight and dappled with the shadows of grand trees. People looked nicer and their behaviour had become more or less normal to me. I have been weaned back onto real ale in my favourite pub and have even enjoyed a party in the gardens of our cluster of apartments.

So what is inverse culture shock all about? Travel, especially the prospect of travel, promises new dawns and sunsets, new lands and people, new experiences and ideas, and it still excites me. Perhaps it is not therefore surprising that the end of a long period of travel is, for me, synonymous with bathos. Sure, I am pleased to see friends and relatives, meet fellow drinkers and landlords in my favourite pubs, renew acquaintanceships, and see the beauty of Oxford and Cotswolds again. I have missed the people and the places.

The problem for me, I think, is that returning is exactly that:  a return rather than a venturing forth. Yes, I missed fish and chips and baked beans and cheese, and yes I missed some home comforts – and they are all great to indulge in once more, but they are satisfying rather than stimulating. And so I will now slide happily back into my enjoyable rut and plan the next adventure.

I suspect that I now know the solution to my ailment, my reverse culture shock, but am not willing to accept it fully just yet. Probably it involves leaving something at home that I cannot really do without.


  1. It proves that you are a genuine and sensitive travellar, just like in the Princess and the Pea.

  2. It proves that you are a genuine and sensitive traveller. Just like with the Princess and the Pea.


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