Thursday, June 29th, 2017

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.

We gorged ourselves on cheeses (with condiments!), feathery prosciutto, pizza, pasta, and the most fantastic Italian wine I’ve had since living in Florence, each of us with our own tiny carafe.

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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27 Responses to “Reverse Culture Shock”
  1. EXACTLY the same thing happens to me when I return home to Australia from England.
    Everything looks the same as it was, but it all feels so unfamiliar. The skyline of the city is the same but it feels weird to be driving down roads that aren’t super congested and densely built up on either side like in London. It BLOWS MY MIND to hear a pure, untainted Australian accent.

    Reverse culture shock is in no way the same as when you first land in a foreign country. It’s a completely different kettle of psychological fish.

  2. Erik says:

    Such a thoughtful post. I’ve never been gone 6 months (2 months is my longest) but even if it’s only 2 weeks, there is always an adjustment period. I always am amazed by our media when I get home. TV, Radio and newspapers are so different all around the world. Also, I think things come alive earlier in the morning here than in most places I’ve visited.

  3. I had the same exact reaction – in fact, the poutine calling was so strong I had my mom go at a drive-through so I could eat it on the way home.

    Also, the strongest reaction I had when I came back was the buzzing in my ears at the airport. I had lost the ability to understand what everyone said around me, because in London, there are probably over 10 languages being spoken at all times around you. But when I landed, I realized that I understood what everybody was saying, and it was a bit of a stimulus overload.

    The reverse culture shock is always in the little things like these. Big things don’t change – your family and friends are still there. It’s your habits that have changed.

  4. Michael says:

    You should come to Israel, and then you would see what being open means.

    I can’t wait to see you shocked.


    I’ll guide you through if you wish.

  5. I get that a lot when I return home to the US from Japan too. Even things like the layout of supermarkets throws me.

  6. Matt says:

    You look so unimpressed with that flag costume!

  7. I’ve been gone almost 2 years (without any visits back home) at this point — and it will probably be over 3 years before I finally make it back to the U.S. I don’t know what reverse culture shock I’ll encounter, but I’m already looking forward to eating cheese . . . and flushing my toilet paper. People in the U.S. just don’t appreciate our good plumbing!

  8. I couldn’t agree more… it’s the little things that stick out as different! lovely 🙂

  9. Lauren says:

    The handful of times I’ve returned from long trips abroad back to the US, I’ve always been stunned by the size of everything. From our cars to our Big Gulps, everything is ridiculously over-sized. Over-sizing suggests wastefulness, greediness and a disregard for the environment. Thinking about our society in this way really bums me out. I think we could be so much better than this. Changing the mindset of 300 million people, however, is quite a challenge. I hope the present trends to be “green”, shop and eat local, reduce & reuse keep gaining ground. They’ll only serve to help us in the future.

  10. Claire says:

    I really appreciate how positive is your article. I think the reverse culture shock depends on your mood, the reasons why you left and the reasons why you are coming back…

    I moved back to France twice after staying in London for 1 and 1/2 years each time.
    The first time I could not stop criticizing France : people, adminsitration, politics, news … I was coming back for bad reasons.
    The second time it was all different I was appreciating everything : food, people, quality of life … I had real projects, which made me come back

    Your article also reminds me of the movie “Benjamin Button”, when he comes home after a few years he says that “nothing had changed appart from himself”.

    Thank you for your article …

  11. Steph says:

    I always try to make conversation in bathrooms, I don’t know why! Got ne some strange looks in china and Europe.

    I’ve been back in north America for 10 hours so far and the biggest shocks have been the orderly traffic (no jaywalkers!) and the fact that nobody is staring at me, or even paying me any attention at all. It’s kind of great! Can’t wait to see what other surprised home has in store.

  12. Liv says:

    It’s when you return to where you are from and what was once very familiar, and you notice small things that you never spotted before, that you realise how much you have changed. Be it for better or worse? For the better of course, every time!

  13. Roy says:

    So typical! It shows you how much everything in your hometown is ‘natural’ to you. You almost start to see things through a tourist’s eye!

    Nice post! 🙂

  14. Faith says:

    I hate when women are standing around talking in the bathroom! Lately it seems everytime I head intoa public restroom a large group of women is blocking everything. I have to pee, please get out of my way so I can get into the stall? I think I got stuck on a small detail from your post there…

  15. I never really noticed it Kate but alot of what you mention is so true. Many Americans are so willing to join in another conversation and always seem to be looking for someone to talk to. I guess not really being in another I really have nothing to compare to but I can certainly see what you are saying.

  16. AnilaB says:

    I know this feeling all too well, having come back from a long stay in India. 6 years on and there are habits I picked up traveling that I still haven’t let go of!

  17. Kris says:

    Most of all, I missed the coffee…

  18. Teresa G. says:

    Had to shriek; I LOVE Macaroni & Cheese with cut up hot dogs… that is a classic! When I came back from South America, it was absolutely the same. My poor parents haha.

    I love what you said about American mannerisms; it’s absolutely true and we don’t recognize it until we experience reverse culture shock.

    I was in Ecuador; walking into a bus depot buying a ticket back to Peru. A lady started speaking to me in (American) English and struck up a convo. She asked where I was from and said she absolutely knew I was not only American, but from New York. I said How? At this point in my travels, I was always Brazillian for the dark (DARK) tan and the bright light brown hair.

    She said: “American girls walk in the room and everyone has to stare. I’m not trying to say you’re a bombshell, even though you’re gorgeous, but it’s the way they walk; they stand tall, they bounce around with the wind caught in their hair and a cheeky, upbeat confidence that is contagious. Especially New York girls; you can just smell the assertiveness. So I knew you were one of those girls the moment you walked in.”

    Probably the best compliment I could ever get. Couldn’t stop thinking about watching American mannerisms since!

    • I really like that assessment of hers! We Americans really do have a confidence about us!

      (The best compliment I ever got was in Florence — “Wow, you speak like a proper English lady!” She thought I was Italian!)

  19. For me it was the amount of smiling at strangers. I was able to smile at anyone and they wouldn’t be (as) weirded out, and vice versa. There have been numerous articles written about “fake Americans” and our tendency to over smile, but I feel like most smiles are actually sincere! 🙂

  20. Sabrina says:

    So true! And it doesn’t ever really stop. I first left Germany for a year in Egypt. About half-way through I went home for a visit and enjoyed every minute of it, but I also felt different. Out of a sudden there were all these material things and all this food… After returning to Germany for a while I lived in Paris for 6 months and I had a blast! But returning home from that I could tell people were not really asking so much about my experiences anymore. They really kind of wanted me to fit in back home. Especially people who usually don’t travel that much get kind of jealous when you tell them about a night out on the Champs Elysees… What they don’t realize is that they could do the same and that I wasn’t telling the story to name-drop the Champs Elysees, but that it was just that, a night out with friends. I’ve now lived in Texas for seven years. I go home to Germany at last once a year, often twice. And the transition between each gets a little easier with time, but I am more than ever acutely aware that I’ve changed so much with all my travels and expat stints that I fit in best with other expats – no matter which country they’re from – rather than with any of the countries I have lived in.

  21. Hi Kate,
    I love this post cause I can really relate to it. One of things I find after I return back to nyc after a long trip is that I can hear everyones conversations. When I am traveling, I think that I am always looking to see if someone speaks english so that I can talk to them. So I am always trying to listen to what language people are speaking. When I get home I can hear and speak to everyone and it’s a fantastic thing.
    What are you planning for your next trip!?

  22. I’ve never been away long enough to experience true culture shock! It must be completely disorienting!!!

  23. Adam says:

    Love the American outfit! What a nice homecoming 🙂

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