Reverse Culture Shock
Reverse culture shock first hit me when I landed in London.
My couchsurfing host, a lovely girl and a friend of a friend whom I hadn’t met before, offered me fajitas, and that’s when it started.
“You can’t get good Mexican food in Asia!”
And then: “CHEESE! I’ve been dreaming of cheese the whole time in Asia!”
And then: “I can drink the water! You can’t do that in Asia!”
Not to be outdone: “The shower sprays all over the bathroom? Wow, it’s just like Asia!”
My poor couchsurfing host — by that point, I realized that I would probably be better off just shutting my mouth.
But for the most part, my three weeks in England were, well, pretty normal. No reverse culture shock there.
Then I got home to America.
Standing in line at customs in Newark, I stared at the US citizens surrounding me. It hit me — for the past several months, I had been hanging out with lots of Westerners, but very few Americans.
Americans have so many unique mannerisms — mannerisms so subtle that I’ve never picked them up before. Americans stand with more openness, their heads higher, their shoulders further back. Americans look around the room more often. Americans are also more open in their manner and don’t hesitate to join in a nearby conversation.
Why had I never noticed this before?!
Steeped in reverse culture shock, I stood quietly, as fascinated as an anthropologist.
But that quickly went out of my head, because my sister picked me up from the airport in style.
And we celebrated — with a bowl of macaroni and cheese with cut-up hot dogs (yes, I’m a bit embarrassed to say that this is what I wanted for my first meal back in America!).
We ate it while watching the pirated copy of Easy A I bought her in Bangkok.
Mac & cheese, hot dogs, good film, a lovely cup of Yorkshire Tea brought over from England. And staying in on that evening, sitting on her futon, there was no reverse culture shock.
Nor was there reverse culture shock the next day when Sarah and I went out for a celebratory meal at Otto in the West Village.
And though I was eating all the foods I had been craving for months, and drinking red wine the likes of which you couldn’t find anywhere in Southeast Asia, it felt normal.
Until I got to the bathroom, and saw all the women chatting with each other. That shocked me — you just don’t see strangers chatting like that, in a bathroom of all places, outside of North America.
The big things were unremarkable. Being in my home and seeing my family, it felt like no time had passed at all. Driving took no effort. Boston seemed largely unchanged.
But little things affected me. Hearing country music. Drinking root beer. Seeing a sea of people wearing hoodies.
My world was familiar, yet it disoriented me again and again.
When reverse culture shock hits, it’s never what you think it will be. It’s always the things you’ve forgotten.
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