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Taiwanese Reverse Culture Shock

Reverse culture shock sometimes occurs when someone who has lived long term in a foreign country returns home. It is possible to experience psychological and emotional distress while trying to reintegrate into your native society. Reverse culture shock can be very pernicious because often it hits unexpectedly. Most expats anticipate needing to make cultural adjustments, but frequently return home presuming they’ll easily slip back into accustomed patterns. However, while abroad values and cultural assumptions may have shifted from living in another culture. Expats often see themselves as outsiders, so it can be surprising how much the host country’s culture and mores have been absorbed. During the expat’s absence, the home country may have shifted socially or culturally further alienating the repatriating expat. Returning home to find the familiar has become unfamiliar can be genuinely surprising. Reverse culture shock is difficult to manage because it’s unforeseen.

Personally, I’ve never dealt with a strong case of reverse culture shock. When I returned to Canada after working in Korea, I had a few minor issues, textbook reverse culture shock symptoms. I couldn’t explain my experiences abroad, which didn’t matter much, no one wanted to listen. I felt estranged from Canadian society, and definitely had no chance to utilize my new skills. Since I’d only been gone a year, those feelings were manageable. I’ve been living outside Canada for a couple decades now. I only return occasionally for brief visits. I’m on vacation, not reintegrating. Friends and family tell me I don’t fit into Canadian culture anymore. Truthfully I don’t know what they’re talking about. I suppose they know something I don’t, and I’d suffer severe reverse culture shock if I moved back.

The feeling of reverse culture shock I remember best was actually the most minor. Robin Pascoe in Homeward Bound notes: “re-entry shock is when you feel like you are wearing contact lenses in the wrong eyes. Everything looks almost right.” I experienced this in a more literal sense than Pascoe intends. While driving around Saskatoon, after first arriving back, I was unable to shake the feeling of wearing new glasses to which my eyes were unaccustomed. You know the sensation when you get a new prescription, turn your head, and the buildings seem to lie down. That’s exactly how I felt. A feeling of vertigo induced by an unfamiliar skyline with low  buildings and flat terrain. It was an unexpected physical manifestation of reverse culture shock.

Though I have limited personal experience of reverse culture shock, I have coped with Taiwanese returning after long stays overseas. Their reverse culture shock has been a problem. I work in Taiwan’s university system. One thing Taiwanese universities do is invite Taiwanese scholars, who have spent their teaching careers in Western universities, back to Taiwan to take on high-level administrative tasks in the twilight of their career, or after retirement. They’re a botheration. Many have been outside Taiwan for thirty to forty years, possibly more depending where they did their schooling. Suddenly they are parachuted into high-profile positions dealing with strategic planning and staff management. Local universities perceive them as the best of both worlds. They have distinguished careers abroad, so they understand Western education, but they are Taiwanese—born in Taiwan—so obviously they understand Taiwan. Not true.

Most left Taiwan in the 1960s or 1970s. Taiwan is a very fast changing society (see: Generation Gap). Their Taiwanese cultural understanding is outdated. As a single example, often they presume staff should have a martial law era slavish dedication to authority. They can assume an outmoded dictatorial management style. They cause problems for local staff that don’t care to relive the 1970s, or weren’t alive then. There are other examples of why this practice is problematic. These returning administrators suffer from reverse culture shock. Their position of authority allows them not to deal with it. Instead their staff has to try to work around their obtuseness. As a peon within the university system, I generally do not deal directly with these people. However, I do have many Taiwanese friends in university administration. They have expressed dissatisfaction with these outside consultants’ inability to assimilate into the modern Taiwanese workplace.

The same story is being played out in Taiwanese companies as managers return from abroad—most frequently from China—to find a society and workforce they little understand. For those coming from working in China, Taiwan’s democratization and shift from sinocentrism can be disorienting. Their positions often allow them to exist in a bubble, detached from present day Taiwanese society. However, they risk becoming irrelevant as bosses, an impediment that staff must work around.

Repatriates expect to find their homes unchanged, reverse culture shock occurs when this expectation is not met. In Taiwan, because of the pace of change, reverse culture shock can be Brobdingnagian. [Sorry, it was on my word of the day toilet paper]. Taiwanese institutions’ tendency to seek foreign perspectives by employing Taiwan-born expats lends a particular intensity to reverse culture shock.