A Stranger at Home

Reverse culture shock in the Middle East

While studying or working overseas, you think of the wonderful family and friends who must be pining for your return and you can’t help but yearn for the comforts of home.

A warm hug from Mom. Hearing your Dad’s well-thought-out advice. Going out with friends for coffee on a whim.

When the time finally comes to return home, the happy homecoming you expected may not be your reality. Experiencing the effects of reverse culture shock can be more difficult than you could have imagined.

I spent 12 years, on and off, living in the US while getting my education and working in Silicon Valley. My perception of home was where I left off in high school. I didn’t think people or my parents would change. I didn’t think I would change. I didn’t think the culture would be different when I returned.

The US and KSA are on such different ends of the cultural spectrum. The following are some of the most jarring parts of a return to the Middle East:

My friend Malik puts it this way:

“Everything I did overseas in terms of services was easy like paying rent, phone bills, and customer service. They did not exist when I got back to KSA.”

You’re used to mobile deposits, or putting off a bill to the last day? Sorry, online payments do exist, but not to the extent they do in the US. Mentally prepare yourself for the frustration that awaits you.

My only advice is to build extra time into your day to take care of the little things.

After spending a third of my life in a different country, I was used to thinking in English. Even 6 years after returning, English is my chosen language unless courtesy dictates otherwise.

Imagine speaking another language most of your day at school and work; readjustment doesn’t happen overnight.

I’ve been accused of speaking English to look cool, but in reality, it’s simply harder for me to translate into Arabic before speaking.

The graphic designer at my company says she has a habit of speaking English and Arabic in the same sentence.

Everyone’s brain has a different way of adjusting, but I’m afraid only time can heal this frustration.

One change that is hard to get a grasp on is the harsh reaction to feedback.

In the US, “constructive criticism” is viewed as a way to improve yourself or your company.

In KSA, it can be seen as rude to inform someone that, for instance, their project may see better results if they go a certain route.

Be careful where you insert your opinion. Don’t give direct feedback, and if you choose to, do it in a positive way. Just remember that your comments could be taken negatively.

Every person changes through the years, but seeing these changes in your friends and family after 10 years can be especially difficult.

You change too, and comments like “America did this to you,” can be stressful.

My wife explains reverse culture shock as feeling like a stranger when sitting with friends and family. I’ve heard so many others describe it the same. You almost have to learn to speak and think all over again and the resulting depression is real.

My friend Hytham says, “I think it is mentally one of the most difficult situations to be in, there is an underlying effect of subconscious hysteria and delusion that while experiencing this culture shock you will not recognize.”

One specific change was that I came to prioritize work and my career. To me, starting my own company meant I had to throw all my weight behind my passion so I could take care of my family. This may have alienated some friends, but I made some friends with the same values in the process.

My advice to others would be to take a long hard look at how your values have changed while overseas. Are you satisfied with these changes or do they embarrass you? However you feel, decide on values you can stand 100% behind. Even if you have to rebuild your circle of friends, that circle will be stronger and not as easily broken.

In Saudi Arabia, it is almost a rite of passage to leave home after high school to study overseas. You’re expected to come back with your education and use it to the benefit of your country and its citizens.

For me, this was more easily said than done:

I worked in Silicon Valley when it was at its peak. Living there felt like constantly being in line at the Apple store on iPhone release day- the excitement was palpable. I was constantly working, learning, making, researching, planning…just to stay competitive.

And then I moved back home.

I love my country. But there’s no comparing the infrastructure, work culture, and technological advancements between the US and KSA. It’s not like we’re in the dark ages, but we’re a few years behind.

Both times I returned, I took positions where I thought I could help innovate and use my experience. It was soul-crushing to realize that I would not be challenged at work as much as I’d hoped.

For me, the answer was starting my own company where I could utilize my skills and education to help other Saudi businesses and the economy.

For others facing the same feeling of being held back from your fullest potential, I think my brother, Majed, said it best:

Our country is changing in a very slow pace, but this is your destiny to return. Try to apply what you experience overseas here and you will make a difference. You are the next generation that will change the country.

Find a niche where you can contribute.

After getting married in 2008, my wife and I moved to California to begin our life together. It was the best decision we could have made.

We got to learn to navigate life as a team of two. We got to know one another for who we were as individuals. I can honestly say that had it not been for this escape, our marriage may not have made it.

In the US, we owned our time. I studied, met with friends, and went to the gym at a time that worked best for me.

Back in KSA, my time no longer belonged to me. It’s a collective society, so it’s normal for everyone to weigh in on your life. I struggled with trying to please my parents and in-laws, all while getting used to my new schedule, going through job interviews and planning to open my digital agency.

We came to be visitors in someone’s home after living our own very independent lives on the other side of the globe.

To this day, we haven’t found a great way to deal with family pressures, and it’s one of the most difficult aspects of being home again.

When it comes to work, the United States and Saudi Arabia are on totally different ends of the spectrum.

First of all, it seemed I was trusted and valued much more by my managers in the US. Anytime I needed info to complete a project, it was shared with me, no questions asked. Back in KSA, it was frustrating when I wasn’t trusted enough to get the resources I needed.

On the flip side of the coin, I realized that workers can be trusted more the US. When I started my own business in Saudi Arabia, I wanted to create a positive work culture that would attract and retain great talent, just like the companies I had seen in Silicon Valley.

One part of this was allowing employees to work from home, which American employees appreciated and honored. Finally, after months of tasks falling through the cracks, our company had to reverse the rules. I don’t think we’re ready for this type of work arrangement yet.

Reverse culture shock had struck again. I’m still making realizations that show how my American expectations of work are far from the norm in Saudi.

Sadly, this is advice I’ve heard over and over again. But I think we’re stronger than avoiding the challenges that come with returning home.

My friend Khalid suggests lowering your expectations and creating your own environment once you come back.

Other suggestions include seeing a psychiatrist and becoming a very flexible person to be able to deal with everyone. Keep yourself at a distance and slowly try to acclimate yourself to friends and family. Prepare yourself mentally, then prepare to lower your expectations again. Learn to pick your battles.

Whatever your coping mechanism is, realize that there are so many people around you who are going through the same thing. You are not alone!

You have returned home for a reason.

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I’d love to connect and hear how you experienced reverse culture shock, no matter where you’re from or where you lived. Share your thoughts with me on Twitter with the hashtag #aStrangerAtHome, and follow me @motazhajaj.