When your own culture catches you off guard

reverse culture shock

When you face a cultural quirk in your adopted home it’s easy to chock it up to the fact that it’s a funny (or irritating or charming!) part of life abroad. However, it’s bewildering when those shocks are coming from things that used to be second nature. Robin Pascoe, writer and expert in all things expat, likens repatriation to wearing your contacts in the wrong eyes: everything looks almost right.

I’m no stranger to reverse culture shock. This blog has been an important place where I can talk about my changing ideas of home, of adopting aspects of a new culture or having a hard time going back to the U.S. 

But, like regular culture shock, no matter how easily you move between worlds you still experience it to some degree. I’ve learned to stop expecting things to be the same when I return to San Diego. The thing that always gets me though are the unexpected ways I’ve changed.

This week I was poking around google, looking for stories about repatriation and found an excellent article discussing the expat phenomena of becoming a triangle.

The premise is to imagine yourself as being formed into a circle by your native country. Moving abroad—and into a different culture—puts you in a land of squares. While in your new home, you pick up a few new habits and leave others from your native culture behind. And so, neither 100% circle nor 100% square, you become a triangle. The tricky part is going back to the land of circles: you’re expecting to slip right back in, but your pointy triangle edges stick out.

Whether it’s for a month long break or forever, a return to your home country doesn’t mean you drop the cultural quirks you’ve picked up. Since I’ve been back in southern California I’m constantly struggling to be on time. This is absolutely unbelievable to me because after serving in the U.S. Navy for five years, being on time has all but been etched into my genetic code. Well, thank you, Colombia for breaking me of that because somewhere in those two years time became a fluid concept. I pretended this wasn’t so until a recent dinner when our best friends’ daughter said something like mommy said you used to be punctual. I could only laugh because, well, it’s true!

But isn’t there always a flip side? Because it also seems that for every one thing that grates your nerves, there are two more that you now see with new, appreciative eyes. Cody always mentions how polite Americans are and I completely agree. For the most part, people thank you for holding doors or return your good morning. And I can’t deny how lovely it is to know exactly where to get things, to be in the same time zone as your family, and having a whole tribe of friends waiting to spend time with you.

So many expat problems can be mitigated by simply managing your expectations. If we anticipate some bumps, the impact will be less jolting. American culture will always be familiar to me, but now I know to expect some things to catch on my triangle edges.


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