Before you cross the street
Take my hand
Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans
(At first this was a more general themed idea; adjusting back to life in your home country back wherever you came from. However, of all the people I asked only people from the US responded. (Update: Save for one tardy brit) So viola! A focus is born.)
One of the things people tell you when you go live abroad is that while culture shock can be daunting, the real problem is reverse culture shock. On one hand, this seems strange. How can a lifetime of habits and expectations and values be challenged simply by observing/participating in slightly different ones for a couple of years? How can the core of who you are be fundamentally changed by simply moving to a different place on the map?
But calling it reverse culture shock [RCS] is underselling it. As Ben Haynes, whom I met while we were both teaching in South Korea, puts it “…RCS doesn’t go away; it’s a shift in one’s own paradigm in response to his experiences.”
Some of those are small things, like paying for things with two hands, taking off your shoes when you enter a house, sitting on the floor when everyone else drags chairs up. I think those things are simply changed habits, part of reverse culture shock, and overtime they can fade away. But there is something deeper; learning about the changes in yourself. I don’t know if it’s easier for someone from, say, New Zealand or Finland or a country a little less dystopian, but American culture certainly makes it difficult to re-acclimatize. It makes it difficult to want to.
It is of course hyperbole to say that life in America is dystopian, even in the Trump era. But it is closer than you might think and certainly hard in all the wrong ways. A pursuit of comfort at all costs combined with ever-growing bureaucracy and a cultural addiction to litigation makes life here hard in ways that it shouldn’t be. That’s for the day-to-day stuff, but far worse are well-documented social ills such as education, healthcare, failing infrastructure, willfully ignorant insularity, and rampant political corruption. Prescription drug ads (illegal most other places) overwhelm the airwaves. America’s sickening dependency on guns. And the problems get far worse for those born with “the wrong” skin color.
Stepping out of the cave, at least a few chambers more, leads to seeing things in a new way. Big portions, tipping, ice in drinks, rampant waste, superficial kindness are well known. But after years in asia, Ben was amazed by “the fucking size of our cheese and dairy aisles and size of our grocery stores. ”
Living abroad made him see America in a new way. Things he did not miss were “the lack of effective public transportation, a media hell-bent on dividing an already disparate population along with constant bombardment of advertising…. The insane amount of waste, excessive consumption throughout. Television….And of course, politics.”
It’s not that other countries are free from those problems, it’s that America’s version of them become much more clear and obvious after getting some space. Like Marianne Silva, who taught in Vietnam in 2016-7 says “I did not miss home complicated things are here. Life seems more laid back and worry free in other countries, especially Asia. They work really hard, but still enjoy life. Re-adjustment is hard! Definitely suffering from reverse-culture-shock! It’s hard to get back into a routine and reconnect with friends. I also keep thinking how enjoyable life was in Asia and it makes it hard to want to settle here.“
Indeed I think one reason people live abroad is precisely because it’s an antidote to the problem John Lennon identified. Instead of letting life pass you by, life on the road is a series of plans; you are engaged with your life and actively making and following your ideas. Maybe there’s no such thing as control over your destiny but this is probably as close as you get to fooling yourself into feeling some kind of autonomy.
But coming back isn’t just about adjusting to an over-regulated society. Alison Wilson, a teacher with 10+ years of experience, finds more and more that she is an outsider in the country she was born in. “I can’t adjust to my own country again. People really have no idea about anything here outside of their 100 mile area.”
“My struggles get bigger the more I have strange conversations with people. Just yesterday we were talking about a bullet train in the works for California. I believed it was a great idea and would improve so much maybe get people to think less of their car and more on being a community. No one agreed with me, they thought having a bullet train was a waste of money.
Then I asked have you ever been on a bullet train?
They all shook their heads no.
Well there’s my answer then. Of course not. They are talking about something they know nothing about. They don’t understand people in the countries and their need for public transport how everyone takes it. How it is better for communities if it is used right.
How it is one of the best ways to get from point A to point B.
I got very upset because they talk about how my area is built wrong, it has bikes lanes that take up too much space but things are walking distance and it’s made for people who walk, exercise, ride their bikes. It’s made for people who get out side and not in the cars all the time.”
America is a big place and the difficulty of return depends on if you end up in a large diverse city or a small town in a more conservative area. Ben was struck by the “Lack of politeness between people; as customers and store clerks. Not rudeness, per se, but just general lack of care. Though that hasn’t been my experience in Nashville. Vegas, on the other hand….”
And it really does matter where you return to. Even for me, in what is considered a liberal bastion amidst the sea of American decadence, the dystopian elements are here as well. Rising houses prices mean that nearly every empty space of grass has homeless people living in tents. On a 10 minute train ride downtown, I stopped counting tents after reaching 25. Worse, I think, is that many Americans still demonize the homeless; Othering them and maintaining that they are simply lazy or losers or otherwise undeserving of social support. It doesn’t require utopian ideals to want to feed and house all citizens as a basic tenant of the social contract. And yet all the new buildings going up are luxury condos, not affordable housing.
As Alison noted, Americans love to drive. The ultimate symbol of freedom (as long as you have hundreds of dollars a month). And nowhere is as car crazy as southern California, where Alison is struggling with a 2.5 hour bus commute each way to work. She says
“Here people depend on their car for everything. Even just to go across the street they will drive their car there. I seem to live in a community where people are walking as a form of exercise. No one here carries bags. When walking on a street you only run into maybe 3 or 4 people your whole trip. NO ONE WALKS.”
I walk a lot in the city and I’d say technically there are three times when most people walk. 1) To/from their cars 2) while shopping and 3) with their dogs. To be fair, people also hike and jog but all of these are so anti-flâneurian that they add to the alienation of those accustomed to a less rushed lifestyle.
There is a positive side to leaving and coming back. You appreciate things you always took for granted. Marianne, whose travels took her to places like Cambodia, Laos, and India, “missed clean bathrooms and not having to worry about carrying toilet paper.” (And when she says clean bathrooms, she means compared to sometimes a literal hole in the ground or a tent where people squat next to each other to do their business or if it’s dark enough just a field will do–no tent!) Clean bathrooms, soap in the bathrooms, running water, toilet paper, trash cans, regular trash pickup, and potable water are all things that you can appreciate much more after not having it.
Ben missed something that many westerners take for granted before living in the developing world. “Clean air would top [my] list, followed largely by the abundance of park space and a cup of joe for $2 at the coffee shop.” The pollution is Asia is well-known but it takes unexpected forms. Ask a Korean kid to draw the sun and it will be red, for that is the color it most often is to them. Then there are yellow dust days, where even leaving a window open fills your home with small dust and it’s an unhealthy decision to go outside.
America is such a big country and it’s increasingly more diverse, both in the traditional sense and the ideological one. But all that space has led to some cultural quirks. Alison says “I think my biggest adjustment here is about space. Everything is just so spread out that it takes a long time to get anywhere. People just don’t understand all the wasted space they have. Everything is just too big. Portion size, TV’s, cars, everything is big….”
Ben has no plans to live abroad again, but he now leads Reverse culture shock meetings in Nashville where “all passports are welcome.” When he thinks back about his time overseas, one of the things he misses the most, apart from the food, is “The belief in a level playing field…the growing middle class and short political campaigns. The mountains. Islands where you meet new friends, and the safety of walking down nearly every street in the country. I loved a lot about the culture, and social mores.”
Marianne, who is currently considering a return overseas, says “I miss the people and food so much! I feel like I had a little family there. And I won’t lie, I miss how inexpensive things are I’m Vietnam.”
Feeling different about yourself in ways you are constantly discovering combined with a frustrating lack of comfort and familiarity with the country you always thought of as home leads to an alienation far stronger than simple reverse culture shock. Many people never feel at home again, in their original or adopted country. Alison, who is fairly determined to make it last in the US despite struggling to re-acclimatize, says “I’m not really an American anymore. I feel it, I’m very different.”