I never expected to experience culture shock and I certainly didn’t anticipate the reverse. How could I have a hard time visiting the U.S.? That’s basically being a stranger in your own home. But it happens every time: I can’t decide what to eat because I’m overwhelmed with options, I can’t quite remember where things are, something I’ve built up in my head has changed or closed or wasn’t very good. Spend enough time outside your home country and a short return visit will feel foreign as well.
It’s particularly strange when I visit San Diego because that’s the place I considered my home. I have family and friends there, it’s where I got married and settled into ‘real life.’ Facing the ways your former home has changed can be daunting, and there’s always a sepia tone that creeps in somewhere (I’ve written before about the dangers of going back too soon).
I spent a week in southern California towards the end of February and decided to put into words the foggy feelings that come along with regularly moving between two worlds. Below are a few of the things I’ve come to expect when visiting my former home.
Language barriers also exist within your native tongue.
When I come back to the U.S., the first thing that overwhelms me is English. I speak completely differently in Spanish—most of the time I simplify things because I don’t have all of the words I need. And even though most of my day is in English, I still find myself scrambling for words and then putting them in the wrong order.
I’m not fluent in Spanish, so it takes work to listen, speak and comprehend. If I’m not actively listening to a conversation, it’s tuned out by default. In the U.S., I’m continuously distracted by English and find myself popping in and out of multiple conversations at once—including the one I should be in with another person. Listening to English is so easy that it’s hard to not try and take it all in. Perhaps all this eavesdropping isn’t completely my fault; let’s call a spade a spade and admit that Americans generally converse at top volume in public. It needed to be said.
Things that were normal may seriously grate on your nerves.
For instance, everything in the U.S. is orderly: lines are single-file, traffic lanes mean something, appointments start on the minute. All of these exist because everyone sticks to the rules, which is fine…until you need a little leeway. I had a tight connection in Houston on my way to San Diego and I was shocked that the TSA agent at security wouldn’t let me pass the line, even though my flight was boarding. After almost two years finding a new kind of order in this chaotic city, I’ve become accustomed to a little more flexibility. On the other hand, it is surprising and miraculous to run errands in the U.S., where everything starts on time and is always in stock. (And just in case you’re wondering, I made my flight in the nick of time by taking the tram to another terminal, where there were ZERO people in the security line.)
People may have a hard time relating to your amazing travel stories.
There are people with whom you can just be yourself, knowing that you can tell stories of everyday life or traveling or a great experience and don’t have to self-censor. And then, there are those who’s eyes dart around because they’ve stopped listening, who you know will be recounting your time together as you bragging endlessly. The trick is to know your audience. If someone asks you specifically or you’re with a close friend, then chat away about the amazing aspects of life abroad. Just be sure to temper your tales with a few stories from the other side of expat life—the ones where you feel out of place, lonely, and just want something familiar. It’s a fine line between share-y and showy. And just to be clear, there is never any excuse for steering a conversation into left field so you can tell some pretentious story that has no relation to the topic at hand.
And you’ll have a hard time relating to others.
Before you think it’s so unfair to have to hold back and gauge your interactions so carefully, remember that you’ll be having a hard time connecting as well. Correcting people’s misconceptions about Colombia—or even explaining where it is on a map—can become tiring. People may not know what to do with you if you no longer see your home country as the best in the world. Seeing waste in the U.S. is hard. The materialistic culture is obnoxious. There will be a million little ways that things feel off when popping back into your home culture. In these moments, I repeat the same mantra that I used to assimilate to life in Bogotá: there is no better or worse, only different.
It has been just as big of an adjustment returning to the U.S. as it was for me to leave. Depending on how I’m feeling at any given moment I can find myself either vilifying it or becoming sentimental. Reverse culture shock sneaks up on you because you feel like the same person, but you aren’t. Experiencing other cultures through travel or living in a foreign country changes a person and there is no a way to untangle the two. Knowing what to expect when I return ‘home’ has been helpful, but not having any expectations is best of all.
There are so many ways to be surprised when going ‘home’ so please help us all and leave your personal revelations in the comments below.