In exactly one month from today, Will and I and our friend Thomas will board a plane bound for the U.S. I’m so excited I can’t see straight, which could also be the baby pushing on my organs again, but you get the idea. Part of me is a little nervous, however. This is the longest I’ve ever spent away from my native land in one take and handling Reverse Culture Shock (RCS) with the absence of intense “Why am I here?!” moments isn’t necessarily a talent I possess. I”m normally well prepared for culture shock entering a different country, but am caught off guard by culture shock after exiting.
This will be my fifth time to experience reverse culture shock which is why I’m already mentally preparing myself. I know what’s coming. I give myself pep talks every so often which tend to sound something like:
“Holly, remember, Walmart is huge and that’s normal. Just don’t get lost again.”
“Holly, remember, 99% of the people you’re going to talk to don’t speak German, so don’t say ‘Danke’ whenever someone does you a favor. You sound weird when you do that.”
“Holly, remember to remember this awesome pep talk you gave yourself.”
I’ll get through RCS as I always do, as everyone always does, but I do expect a specific few culture shocks to throw my balance off just a little bit (without the help of my pregnant belly) regardless of the amazingness of my pep talks.
Here are the 5 ‘Welcome Home’ culture shocks I think I’ll encounter, and if you’re new to Reverse Culture Shock, here are 5 common shocks expatriates around the globe experience along with some firsthand advice if you need it:
1. Daily Transportation
Do you remember the last time you drove a car? Or maybe you’re still driving but have had to learn to drive on a different side of the road. Maybe you walk everywhere you go and haven’t had to think twice about any sort of vehicle. My husband and I haven’t driven since early February 2013 because we don’t need to. We get around by public transportation or by foot, and we love it that way. But we’re heading back into a world of all cars all the time, not to mention the very first place we’ll be reintroduced to driving is in Atlanta, Georgia, and I’m a little anxious! My husband may have to knock me out or at least provide me with a brown paper bag for hyperventilation purposes (and motion sickness purposes).
If you’re like me and worried about this kind of shock, let someone who’s more comfortable take the wheel before you do. If you’re used to walking everywhere, keep walking. You will still need to re-adapt by driving or being driven, but take long walks around the neighborhood or walk to the nearest store to help yourself feel more at ‘home’. Then eat a bowl of ice cream.
Perhaps superstores are a happening thing in your host country. Perhaps not. We’re in the “perhaps not” boat which often leaves us longing for the convenience and low prices of stores we loved. But on the other hand we’ve grown used to our cute little grocery store and simple choice of options which is why when we’re faced with a monster of a store, like Walmart for example, the world stops turning. The sheer number of available choices for any item can be overwhelming and even a little panic-inducing. How do you choose from one hundred different brands of yogurt when I want my one and only choice of yogurt? How can there be so many peanut butter options – I just need creamy peanut butter! Am I drowning on land in Aisle 10 and is there a rescue team on the way?
The goal here is to get in and get out. Keep your eyes on the goal and stick to it. Don’t let yourself get lost in the bread aisle or you might need to call for assistance. Bring a friend or family member to help you if you’re afraid you’ll get stuck or panicky. And try not to run out screaming.
3. Keeping Up
Will and I do our best to keep up with what’s going on in the U.S. without trying to still live in the U.S. from Austria. We glance through the news, we email and Skype with our families for the latest updates, we read our friends’ Twitter feeds and “heart” their Instagram posts. But even those efforts won’t lessen the amount we don’t know about life in the States, and that can get awkward. Whether we want to believe it or not, our friends, families and cities kept on going and living while we did the same in Austria. So that awesome new local coffee shop? Yeah, probably don’t know about it. Or that one thing that so-and-so did 6 months ago? We missed it.
But fear not. You too will want to tell your friends and family about exciting happenings or the latest news, and there’s a good chance they too won’t have the slightest idea what you’re talking about. Expect it to be awkward for a short while, but you will get through the awkward talks and pauses and eventually land on the same page as everyone else – which brings us to our next common shock…
4. Lack of Interest
This is the harshest of shocks but definitely true on both sides of the coin. Have you ever gone on vacation, come back, and thought all of your friends would really enjoy seeing every picture you took of yourself by the ocean, and the shells you found on the ocean, and the food you ate while you were by the ocean… but they seemed surprisingly uninterested? You can expect that to happen again, only this time it will feel more personal, and potentially hurtful. Because your life was happening in country XYZ, you naturally want to tell everyone you’re finally seeing months or years later all about it – every funny story, every embarrassing faux pax, every weird run-in with your crazy old lady neighbor. And they’ll want to share the same things with you about their life that they’ve been living in where you used to call your ‘home’. But just like people’s vacation pictures you’re not in, you will find it difficult to stay interested in your friends’ and families’ stories. You weren’t there so how can you relate? And why are they having such a hard time relating to you? Sure they weren’t there either, but doesn’t your life sound absolutely fascinating?
Try to avoid playing the Blame Game. Your first instinct will be to blame your friends and family for not understanding, sympathizing or taking full, devoted interest in your stories. It will feel personal. But don’t let it get to you and leave you feeling negatively toward the very people you were counting down the days to hug and kiss. You will all come to a place at some point where your life experiences, though different, match up and suddenly you’ll be in that new local coffee shop for hours talking the day away with the people you missed so much while you were apart.
5. People Overload
Claustrophobic much? I never really understood the meaning of this word until I felt it happening to me at a wedding shower. I’d been out of the U.S. for six months, came back, and a few weeks later I was in a room of about 60 women for a friend’s wedding shower. There was so much rapid English chatter being spoken my ears and brain hurt. Many sweet women came to talk to me and ask questions, but somewhere after sweet woman #20, I started to lose my grip. Breathing became difficult, I felt dizzy, my tear ducts were ready to let loose at any moment. I found a quiet room with zero sweet women inside and sat against the wall to calm down. Then I found the friend I’d arrived with, told her I needed to leave sooner rather than later, and she kindly left the party with me.
While it’s thrilling and wonderful to see loved ones again, it can easily get overwhelming and fast. A change of language, a change of pace and a change of the amount of people you’re around at one time can all play significant roles in how you react to RCS. If you feel yourself “losing it”, take a break. Find a quiet place to get it together again. If you need to step outside for fresh air, do so. Your friends and family will understand, and if they don’t, be honest and explain what’s going on. If you’re at a party or an event with lots of people, let a friend or family member in on how you’re doing in case you need to leave early. You’ve just come back from another world and it’s okay that it takes a little while to find your rhythm in this other one.
No matter how uncomfortable it feels, there’s nothing wrong with not feeling at home when you’re at home. Some won’t understand that and that’s alright. Find those who do and confide in them so they’re able to help you when you need it. And most importantly, enjoy yourself. Reverse culture shock comes and goes, but it won’t conquer you. Eat your favorite foods, shop at your favorite stores and talk the faces off your friends and family. Let yourself be welcomed home.
Have any of these happened to you before? What other common reverse culture shocks would you add?
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