More than Reverse Culture Shock; Adjusting to life back in the States

Before you cross the street
Take my hand
Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans

United States

(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.” 



5 responses to “More than Reverse Culture Shock; Adjusting to life back in the States

  1. This was interesting and, of course, relates to stuff on my mind lately. I wonder, though, how much of what people perceive as trouble readjusting is really just a more keenly-felt disconnect that was always there?

    I mean things like Alison’s frustration with people being so blinkered by what they know that they have no idea what’s going on even 100 miles away: that’s something I remember struggling with in Canada even before I left Saskatoon, so I kind of expect to be frustrated by when I return.

    I wonder to what degree the expat-bubble plays into all this. Not to say, “Hey, one year abroad is nothing,” but after a year out, my readjustment difficulties to returning to Canada would probably have been very different, because my perception of what I was leaving behind in Korea was different. (And, for that matter, Korea was a different place then.) The longer you live someplace, the more your life becomes intertwined with it and its people—whether the people like it or not—and you also see more of both the good and the bad.

    Which is to say, if I left Korea in 2003 or 2004, I imagine I’d have been relieved to be able to call a plumber and talk to him in English, and struggled with how it takes a week to ten days to have a plumber actually come around. Now, I feel like I’d be relieved to be able to go to Home Hardware and buy a line of silicon tape and wrap the pipe myself till the guy shows up, but would struggle with the exorbitant amounts charged for minor repairs. (The wait, I’d still struggle with.)

    Or, for another example, in 2004 I’d have been relieved to be able to call someplace an get an English-speaker on the line, but frustrated that everything’s done by tedious voicemail systems. Now, the relief is less since I can kinda-sorta do stuff on the phone in Korean, so the voice mail systems will probably aggravate me much more.

    I also wonder how much of RCS is something that affects certain people more deeply, just like culture shock itself. I don’t know that I actually experienced culture shock when I was first in Korea. Or maybe I had my formative culture shock experience when I moved to Montreal, and was suddenly in a bilingual place with different norms. After that, Korean just felt a little more foreign to me.

    You’re right, though, that it really depends where you return to. That’s something I need to research in the coming months, though of course, the job market is a big factor in how we decide that.

  2. Oh interesting point! I hadn’t thought about how being able to get around in the new country could contrast with a return. I can see how that is on your mind. But I think that, in my opinion, that relief (or lack of) is probably pretty small potatoes compared to the whole enchilada.

    And agreed that people feel CS and RCS differently. You grew up in a couple different countries though; many who teach ESL have never lived abroad before and are probably more susceptible.

    • Hey,
      I mean, I’m sure the adjustment can be more or less difficult depending on how one feels after a long stay abroad. I just think it can also be different, focused on different things. For me, just the knowing my son won’t be breathing rotten air, or dealing with the kind of overt racism in Canada that he would be here in Korea, is enough to make me think it’s for the best, though I’m sure readjusting will be very hard.

      Oh, and I didn’t grow up in a couple of different countries: I was born in Malawi, but don’t remember it: we came to Canada early enough for me to not have known anything else before leaving for Korea. I did have a little bit of culture shock moving to Montreal, but not THAT much. But I think growing up in a bicultural family, and also reading a lot about life in other places (and reading SF) helped reduce the profundity of whatever minor culture-shock I did experience coming here. I also think Korea was sufficiently modernized (and prosperous) that it was less shocking than if I’d gone straight to a place like India or Laos, say.

  3. For me, I felt the most culture shock in Korea. I think it’s kind of uncanny valley–it looks like a western city but in so many key ways isn’t. India, Myanmar, Laos are so obviously their own thing that they felt less “shocking” to me. But I might just be a weirdo that way. 🙂

    And yeah thinking about your wee one would change everything I think. But still if I were to have a kid, I’m pretty sure the US is the last place I’d want to raise them. Canada obviously is pretty close to the other extreme.

  4. Yeah, when I was first here, an Australian friend who was also new here commented to me about how, at first, Korean people seemed so modern and Westernized, but underneath that, many people thought and felt and operated in such different ways that it gave him culture shock. I can’t say whether India or Laos would be more culture shocking, since I came to Korea first and was here long enough to sort of pick up on a fair amount of things I think of as “culturally old world”… stuff that seems sort of universal in Eurasian cultures, though in European cultures we’d perceive them as much more archaic and thus “exotic.”

    And yeah, while I feel like I’d have *lot* more opportunities to get a creative writing instruction job in the US, I don’t really feel like that’d be a good choice for our son. Canada has its flaws too, but at least we wouldn’t be bankrupted if he broke his leg falling off a bike or something.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s