While cleaning up my blog today I came across this (previously unpublished) post which focuses on what I was experiencing upon my return to Europe. It’s been exactly 2 years since I left for Thailand to start an NGO with some locals; 1.5 years since I returned. Reading through the bullet points below brought long forgotten memories back. I forgot how strange everything seemed to me back then… How I was struggling to fit in again and move on with my life… But reading about the challenges I was facing back then made me laugh as well since I’ve managed to settle back into an ordinary European life.

On June 4, 2015, I noted: “I’m suffering from reverse culture shock. There are a ton of things I just can’t get used to. I’m a stranger at home.”

These are the top issues I was struggling with back then.

  1. Where’s the chaos. I was shocked by how spacious everything was. I missed the crowds, the chaos in the streets, the variety of smells & noises. Nobody ever bumped into me. Nobody was trying to sell me a taxi ride or an overpriced souvenir. There weren’t any merchants trying to sell their goods, therefore shouting across the street. Everything seemed so quiet, tidy and well-organised!
  2. Food. I was excited for it at first but got bored within 3 days. I didn’t like most fruits anymore. Bananas weren’t as sweet as they were supposed to be; mangos & pineapple not as juicy. I didn’t care for apples. Western flavors were uneventful. I wanted sticky rice & mango. Guavas. Noodle soup. I was craving rice and chilis. I drove my Mom crazy so she decided to cook a curry. But the rice wasn’t as fluffy and soft as I was used to and the curry didn’t meet Thai standards either… I was disappointed and my Mom upset (Looking back I see what I brat I must have been!). The only food I couldn’t get enough of were dairy products but those were upsetting my stomach. My body wasn’t able to handle lactose anymore. Finally, I just couldn’t get used to eating with a knife and fork. I wanted a spoon! Oh yes, I hated having returned to Europe…

    Spicy larb, one of my favourites

  3. So much stuff! This issue was perhaps the biggest one I struggled with. It led to countless disputes with friends, family and strangers. European houses are mansions compared to many houses in SEA. I couldn’t believe how much Europeans owned. I was overwhelmed by the amount of stuff that filled my old room and closet. I had grown rich overnight. I was Cinderella. I had re-gained access to sooooo many things. But then again I hated it. I kept telling my parents we should get rid of stuff because we didn’t need it. I kept complaining about European’s wasteful behavior. I was struggling to justify my new old lifestyle since I had experienced how other people didn’t even own 5% of what we had. And I continue to struggle with it today.
  4. It’s soooo green! I returned to Europe just as Southeast Asia’s dry season came to an end and monsoon season started. It hadn’t rained in months so most plants were either dead or withered. Europe’s summer took me by surprise: there were leaves everywhere. Trees and flowers were in full bloom and the soil was black or brown, not red!

    A remote village in Hsipaw's mountains

  5. I’m ordinary. This was the most unexpected thing to get used to. It hit me when I boarded my flight from Dubai to Hamburg: I was no longer ‘special’. Nobody was staring at me. Everyone around me was white. We all looked more or less the same. Most people were as tall or even taller than me. I was able to understand what they were talking about… and I instantaneously wished I wouldn’t be able to overhear so many conversations.
  6. Throwing toilet paper into the toilet. For months I had signs in every hotel, restaurant or train station yell at me to not throw anything into the toilet bowl as the drainage system wouldn’t be able to handle it. It took me weeks to get used to flushing down toilet paper again. Thinking about it today makes me chuckle.
  7. It’s freezing cold. I returned to Europe in summer so it wasn’t even that cold. Still, I’d be freezing and had to put on warm clothes while everyone else would be wearing shorts and t-shirts.
  8. Why so serious – why so bitter? I observed how everything and everybody seemed to be grey. There were a lot of unhappy faces around me. Frowns. No smiles. A gloomy atmosphere. Why is that? We have so much in Europe and yet we are often unable to see and appreciate it to the fullest. Life has mostly been kind to us. We live in stable, democratic countries. Our basic needs are taken care of. Once you’ve seen real poverty it puts everything else into perspective.