Visiting Homeland and Reversed Culture Shock

by biltong101

palacI’ve been living in South Africa for almost six years. During this time I only visited “home” twice. The first time was a three-month long visit after my first year which was extended due to a delay with the paperwork allowing me to come back to South Africa. I waited four years before I came back to Poland again.

Why do I visit so rarely? I guess longing for what I miss is weaker than the need to stay away from what I escaped. Most people who leave their home country for good, for reasons other than money, to some extent dislike where they come from. My decision about moving abroad was a mixture of personal and social reasons. I thought I’d be fine never coming back, but it was a form of escapism. I needed to go visit eventually. At the same time felt I needed enough security in Cape Town before I could go there. I had to know that the other world wouldn’t drag me in.

The right moment came when I got married. On a personal level I felt more secure, stable and tied to South Africa. On a superficial level I was glad I didn’t have to explain to people why I prefer to live on a different continent. In fact, I don’t think I’d ever have the guts to come back if not for my husband going with me and supporting me on the trip. Being with someone who understands the person you are gives you protection. Whatever they say about your life choices doesn’t matter, you’re not crazy, there’s someone else who believes in the same things that you do.

I associate Poland with the family, the issues and the past. Nevertheless, it’s also a country where I grew up and of which I have some fond memories strengthen by nostalgia. Unfortunately, it turned out that the motherland bread is so much tastier in our brains than in reality. All the food that we miss when abroad just isn’t as good as we remember it. On the top of it, both my husband and I got a very acute case of the culture shock in the form of gastric problems.

The landmarks I remembered stayed the same, but my favorite coffee shops and restaurants were gone. What stayed intact in my memory changed in reality and that was surprising too. I naively expected to find what I left behind forgetting that show must go on, whether we’re present to witness it or not. The same is true for people. I missed those I didn’t see in my last years in Poland just to realize upon meeting them again that they were reasons why we lost touch. Even the closest ones had a completely different life and I was just a tourist passing by. All of this is a part of the reversed cultural shock but there’s more to it.

After a few years I simply got used to the ways in which things are done in South Africa. It doesn’t mean that I love it all because regardless of where I live there’ll be things to complain about. At the same time Poland isn’t really familiar any more. I don’t think the cold and the snow were any easier for me to handle than for my husband. I didn’t know how to do things in Warsaw. What sorts of tickets are there to commute? How much do they cost? I also had outdated ideas about what’s hot and what’s not. Because of it all I had a feeling of being a stranger there. Perhaps it was partially because we used English and people would stare at us wherever it wasn’t common to see tourists. As surprising as hearing English may be to some, I was shocked by the whiteness of Poland and I don’t mean the snow. Almost everyone on the streets was Caucasian. After years in a multicultural and multilingual South Africa it was shocking. I didn’t feel at home, I didn’t feel I was on holiday… Everything just felt weird and alienating in a way that a holiday spot never could.

Of course, there were positives too. Hanging out with friends, seeing the family, visiting new places. Even looking at my old scary high school and knowing that I’m a BIG girl now (although I’m happy I didn’t bump into the Lucipher’s daughter, I mean my Polish teacher). Perhaps if I come visit next time sooner the feeling of alienation won’t be so pronounced. I don’t know. It was certainly a heavy and discombobulating experience.