Google fb32x32 twitter linkedin feed-icon-32x32

Reverse Culture Shock!

Reverse Culture Shock!

September 26, 2011

After three years in India, re-integrating back into Western society has numerous quirks.

Returning to New Zealand after three years in India (and a year in Japan before that) brought with it a strange trepidation. I had spent so much time ingratiating myself to the people of Kerala and taking on some of their characteristics. Now I was returning to a home culture that no longer seemed familiar. I wondered whether I would be able to fit back into society, and wondered where the so-called reverse culture shock – difficulty in adjusting upon return to one's own culture – would hit me hardest.

As it turned out, fitting back in with the people of New Zealand wasn't really an issue. Kiwi-ness puts down some pretty deep roots in a person, and they bear fruit as soon as you set foot back on the land.

But reverse culture shock? Oho, yes. Let me give you a few examples, in order of my noticing them.


1) Weather
My last two months in Kerala were May and June, the hottest of the year, with temperatures rising to 35ºC and beyond and nights spent sweating beneath a single sheer blanket. New Zealand in July? The dead of winter, and home in 2011 to a particularly bitter cold spell. The moment I set foot outside of Auckland Airport, a blast of icy wind blew me sideways and expletive-laden exclamations of delight spilled out of me. Cold! What novelty, what fun!

Yeah, that novelty wore off in a couple of days. The 25-degree temperature difference took its toll, and I suffered the one-two of flu followed by sinus infection in quick succession. (The edge was taken off by a more positive element of reverse culture shock: hot showers.)

2) Roads

I was driven from the airport to my mother's home on expansive, near-empty motorways – a surreal sight after the chaos of Indian roads. This was admittedly close to midnight, but one couldn't imagine the streets of Mumbai being so open and friendly at that time.

Still, going out in 'heavy traffic' the next day really brought home the difference. My stepfather winced and cursed at following distances of less than five metres; I resisted the urge to laugh and draw comparison with the margins of millimetres anywhere in India. (I would resist that urge – the “Haha, you should try ______ in India” template – countless times over the coming few months, in all manner of situations.)

3) Understanding other people's conversations

It was very easy to remain focused, or at least inside my own head, when walking through shops in Kerala for the simple reason that everybody was speaking a language I couldn't understand. Granted, this is more a commentary on my pitiful attempt to master the flowing tongue-twisters of Malayalam than anything else. All the same, it gave me a sense of calm when stocking up on rice and lentils that I didn't understand the value of until I got back to New Zealand...

...where I was suddenly, involuntarily tuned in to everyone around me. Worse, having had to respond to anyone speaking English for the past three years – because they were virtually always talking to me – I found myself wanting to join everyone else's conversations.

“Did we need tomatoes?” I don't know. I haven't even seen your house! “Mummy, I want to get ice-cream.” Don't call me 'mummy'. And no, you can't have any. “I'm so tired of your s***. It's shopping. Let's just get it done.” All I did was walk past you, humming out of tune! Let it go!

4) Monetary value

There are infinite examples I could use to demonstrate this, but the finest is this: In India, breaking train-related laws (like travelling without a ticket and somehow getting caught by the inspector, or trying to cook a ten-course meal on your portable gas stove) gets you the choice of either a Rs. 300 fine or two years' imprisonment. I always found this a bit of a no-brainer but some people don't even have Re. 1 to spare, let alone Rs. 300.

In New Zealand, breaking train-related laws (like stepping onto the tracks for a quarter of a second, or having the music in your headphones turned up just loud enough that someone might hear*) gets you the choice of either a $20,000 fine or six months' imprisonment. Want that in rupees? 765,000. You can do the rest of the math for yourselves; suffice to say, a rupee is actually worth a lot more than a dollar.

*Possibly hyperbole.

5) Advertising

Copywriting in Kerala is pretty straightforward. Copy/paste some fancy text from some ad you saw in 'foreign', add a photo of Mammootty or Mohanlal and you're set. (Okay, it isn't always that simplistic. Maybe only 90% of the time.)

New Zealand, on the other hand, has a global reputation for particularly creative advertising. We are a small market, which means there's less risk involved, so agencies often try advertising concepts here that are a little more 'out there'. Some really brilliant stuff comes out of this (example, example, example). Some really bizarre, stuff, too, like this sign which I saw outside a church in Waikanae.

I find myself actually admiring some of the outstanding creative work you can see over here. This is a strange feeling after alternately tuning out or giggling at advertising campaigns during my years in Kerala.


I could go on. This is not an unusual thing, though; indeed, NRIs experience it all the time upon each returning to the mother country. What's going to be really interesting is when I eventually return to India. Having thought of it as a home for so long, and indeed still thinking of it as such from a distance, will I experience reverse-reverse culture shock? I suppose I'll just have to find out. 


  • sandy
    28.09.11 03:47 PM
    loved ur post-except for the advertising bit. i think indian creative is very good too- happydent, zuzu, asian paints, fevicol are cannes award winning creative. of couse kiwi ads are gr8 too!
  • Jaai
    27.09.11 04:21 PM
    Hahaha. The same thing happened to me when I shifted from Delhi to Mumbai. Every Marathi-speaking person on the street seemed like a family member.
  • Fire Crystals
    Fire Crystals
    27.09.11 10:31 AM
    This is a great post. The Instant Kiwi Commercial has been immortalised in the Hindi movie '3 Idiots'. Not sure who did the rip-off though.
  • tys
    27.09.11 09:36 AM
    iam tripping over the links you have given of the kiwi ads. The first one is a mallu rip off...i swear it...i had seen a similar theme in some parody show...the eternal mallu satire..

    iam telling u, we are everywhere..the last i heard we influenced god to ensure that he gives us the excess of hair thereby depriving the europeans who really needed it...ever wondered why on earth people living in a hot climate has so much body hair? and the ones in the cold dont have any fur?...

    that my friend is the puzzle that has made darwin go bonkers...the reason was simble...

  • Writerzblock
    26.09.11 02:21 PM
    What a delightful read!! Loved the mention of 'rupee is worth more than a dollar' ;-)!!
  • Muhammad
    26.09.11 10:57 AM
    If you were in Northern part of Kerala, like wayanad, you would have got a different shock, as here it is six months of continuous rain from June to almost December.
  • slag
    26.09.11 09:11 AM
    Great post - I'm sure you could do a whole series.

    Not sure if your stepfather's anything like mine, but it may be that his attitude is personal, rather than shared by all on NZ.

    Waikanae church sign link goes to L&P Stubbies youtube.

    Also, mathS - septomin is a vital and integral part of it.
  • Wishto RemainAnonymous
    Wishto RemainAnonymous
    26.09.11 06:33 AM
    Come on, I haven't lived in India but there are a lot of creative adverts on TV there too. I guess knowing the language helps, next time try get a feel of northern india. The weather and traffic will be the same, the language and food quite different.

Leave a comment