As soon as I left for India in August of 2019 to begin the AIF Clinton Fellowship, strange as it might sound, I imagined my return home 10 months later. It was not because I was homesick—though at times I was—but instead, it was because I got excited thinking about the version of myself that would land back in the United States in June 2020.
I was born and raised in the United States, and had only traveled to India to visit my relative twice—at age 1, and age 12. The child of Indian immigrants, the country has always been a part of my identity, but from a distance. I went to India with the big dream of reconciling the parts of my identity, emerging with a new perspective on what it means to be Indian American, and seeing my home country and my country of origin with clarity—or at least with perspective.
I was seven months into my tenure in India when the world changed. I had gone through the traditional stages of adjusting to living in a new culture; I had a honeymoon period, I had a period of deep culture shock, resentment, homesickness, and was emerging into a period of understanding, acceptance, even, dare I say it, belonging. At the start of March, as COVID-19 started taking hold, I made the difficult decision to leave India and come home to the US, three months early and without the triumphant return I had imagined.
I had read about a phenomenon of “reverse culture shock”—the idea that when you return to your home culture after living abroad, the place that once felt familiar feels foreign, different, and requires a re-adjustment period. When I landed back in Tennessee, though, the home culture I left didn’t just feel different—it no longer existed.
It has taken months—now, at the time of this publication, almost five—to process that strange reintroduction process. I talked to my partner, to my parents, to my friends; but, dramatic as it may sound, I felt they simply didn’t get it. How could they? My experience was so specific, unique to me, that I must be the only person on the planet going through it.
But as I stepped out of my bubble, turned on the news, talked to the other fellows from my program, it became stunningly clear: I was far from alone. Around the world, there was a wave of people abruptly returning to their home countries before COVID-19 closed the borders.
And so I reached out to them, to learn about their experiences and to see what COVID-era reverse culture shock felt like to others in a similar position as me. For this blog, I interviewed nine individuals who were sent back home to the US from India, either from the AIF Clinton Fellowship or from the Fulbright Program. In our conversations, we discussed the home cultures they left, their cultural experience in India, and the experience they had coming back. I asked them all the same questions, and to share their stories, I have included a compiled, abridged transcript of our interviews here. I hope you find something in their reflections that makes you feel a little more connected, a little less alone. I know they did for me.
Tell me a little bit about your home culture.
“My family is Tibetan—its an immigrant family with a fairly typical immigrant experience.” — TT, New York City
“People will wave in their cars to a passerby, I enjoy going on neighborhood walks, talking to everyone I pass. It’s kind of a Midwest thing of being friendly to the people around you.” — MP, Kansas City, Missouri
“Especially with the way I grew up—in a couple of different places—the thing that’s most homey is community; friends and family. Most of my friends and family are spread out.” — JS, Florida
“I feel like I have home in a lot of places. I am Indian, my stepdad is white, I have a lot of shared experiences with folks who have grown up in a multi-racial parental household. I’m not mixed race but I’ve grown up with that environment. My mom is from England, and her parents from Africa, even my mom’s version of Indian culture is different.” — JW, Bay Area
“I didn’t spend a lot of time at home, I was going out with friends, meeting to study, hang out,I had so much space to be with people constantly, so much time to debrief on my experience of culture.” — JH, Virginia
“Home has been a weird thing because even through my adolescence, I would go from house to house, in middle, high school years. Did not have a concept of a singular home; it was more of a feeling of where I felt safe.” — IB, Clarkston, Michigan
“There are three layers to this – 1) I was born and raised in the US, influences from my friends, school; 2) another layer of super traditional Tibetan family; 3) influences from my parents’ time where they spent in refugees in Montreal, Switzerland.” — CB, Virginia
“Talking about culture is a little bit hard—I don’t think I can separate my culture from my whiteness, the role that my whiteness has played in the current political landscape.” — AH, Washington D.C.
“The people around me would look at me in a different way. I experienced the duality of both being comfortable and recognizing that other people might not be comfortable with you being there.” — AT, Dallas, Texas
When you were in India, what did you look forward to about returning home at the end of your experience?
“I wanted to be able to dress how I want, speak how I want. Coming back and seeing friends, eating a variety of cuisines, missed organizing and unpacking racism and patriarchy and anti-blackness.” — JW
“I had missed some major moments—my best friend had a baby—and I was looking forward to coming home, see my family and friends. I was really looking forward to food — a list of places that I wanted to eat.” — JS
“I was excited to brag about having a continual summer all year.” — IB
“I was enjoying my time in Bangalore, I had a lot of friends. I was more or less not thinking about it.” — AT
Tell me what happened—and how you felt—when you first arrived home because of COVID.
“In my case, it was almost a shock. ‘I guess that’s it.’ The bulk of my postgrad years have been in India—and now that was over.”—TT
“I was flooded with relief and I could switch my SIM card back and call my mom not on WhatsApp.” – MP
“It was weird to feel like I didn’t fit in anymore. DC is a young city. Seeing their lives, going to Starbucks, getting drinks, going to work—I could still feel the sense of DC, despite lockdown. It was the path my life could have taken had I not gone to India…When I arrived back in DC I was confronted with the fact that no, you don’t actually have a plan, it’s all up in the air. — JH
“It felt like I was getting picked up from school. There was not much talk about what I’d experienced, it was somber, I was just really sad, I didn’t want to talk about my day at school. Because school was lame and this pandemic was lame. There were no hugs; there was a forced smile behind my mask, but it was tough. It was snowing, and I was really sad about that.” — IB
“It feels like [my life in India] got pushed down, or set aside for the moment, and I worry that setting it aside doesn’t do it justice (the life we lived, the life we would have kept living). I miss the life and community we were building.” — AH
Do you think you experienced a “Reverse Culture Shock” coming back to your home?
“Because of the lockdown, everyone being in isolation—It didn’t feel like I was home, I couldn’t go to restaurants, go out. It still feels like that. It’s like we are in a third universe.” — AT
“It’s hard to know what culture I had been missing because it’s not even available to me anymore. The only culture I have is just home culture. I don’t know what reintegrating into American culture will feel like, but there won’t be any mental or cultural whiplash when it happens because I’m watching it here from my window, being physically here.” — IB
“Our culture of access and excess—right now, I’m staying in a sleepy beach town, its beautiful, nice little streetlights, it’s all so ‘lovely’. To be in a very different physical environment, where I’m perfectly safe, have access to everything, dealing with colleagues who don’t even have food, let alone access to everything—I have continued to struggle with this really weird dichotomy, total privilege and access.” — JS
“I remember going on a Costco trip a month or so ago—being kind of disgusted at all the stuff that was around us. I remember being like ‘mom, this is so much stuff’—it was ugly to me.” — TT
How did your time in India impact the way you experienced quarantine?
“I got on a Zoom hangout with my cousins, and a few of them are moms, they were describing what happened with toilet paper, and that there is a shortage of sidewalk chalk. PEOPLE ARE DYING. You don’t need sidewalk chalk to entertain your kid. Stop ordering online! If we’re not ordering, they don’t have to work. India made that especially salient, just having seen people who are probably struggling or dying right now before COVID.” — MP
“I taught at a school, a lot of my colleagues were experiencing trauma at home, and now they’re all at home. I’m trying to hold the fact that here I was, the worst thing was that I’m bored, and my friends in India were experiencing trauma. When people would complain about having to be at home—we have a house, food, so many privileges—how do you hold that and acknowledge the fact that there is trauma here too?” — JW
“I got really angry with people who couldn’t abide by the rules in US/Maryland, wearing masks, properly social distancing, felt like the bare minimum.” — AH
“Now that I’m back, I feel so grateful, I wish I could go back and continue to feel grateful from the perspective of its ok for not every moment to be fulfilling. Be kind to yourself…I wasted so much energy and anxiety on trying to make every moment count.” — JH
How did the quarantine impact the way you processed your time in India?
“The abruptness of having to leave, coming back, to a place where everyone else is also experiencing something challenging. When I talk about it with my mother, she says “everyone is going through something.” She’s not wrong, people are going through way worse things, but there was no closing of the chapter, and I was left with a lot of residual feelings where we don’t have space to feel.” — JS
“In a weird way, the stay at home orders have allowed me some time to slow down and release myself from the external obligations had the circumstance been different. I could do some introspection, healing, good habit forming.” — MP
“Everyone else has their own stuff right now. Something about debriefing has changed. People really want to meet over group call, but it’s much more difficult to have real conversations.” — JH
“I needed those two weeks of quarantine to reflect, and I got to purge all the negative thoughts I had about the experience as fast as possible. It made me more forgiving about the experience and how amazing it was. I got to rewrite a bad experience as learning opportunities, opportunities for growth; I’m taking a lot of the bad as good.” — IB
Hear more from Fellows on our podcast, Let’s Chaat.