A week from today, I’m heading back to the States for the first time in three years on a month-long visit with friends and family. This is the longest I’ve been away, and a significant percentage of the total seven years I’ve lived overseas. And I am bracing myself for a whole new level of reverse culture shock.
Reverse culture shock may seem like something expats made up in order to remind people back home that they lead an impossibly exotic life, but I can assure you from my own experience that it’s very real, completely involuntary, and can be hugely embarrassing.
My most embarrassing reverse culture shock moment happened in a deli in Manhattan the day after I arrived in 2006. I bought something with what I now know was an old $20 bill, and received as part of my change what I now know was a new $10 bill. After accusing the deli owner of being a crook and extracting the opinion of some poor guy trying to buy the paper, I learned that the Treasury Department had gotten all creative on me while I had been jingling euro coins in my pocket.
If you think about it, you’ve probably gone through reverse culture shock in your own life as well. Anytime you revisit a place you once knew well, you’re bringing with you the entirety of the experiences you’ve had since your last visit. The combination of nostalgic emotion, personal evolution and straight-up sense memory makes for a bit of a brain overload.
The best analogy I could make would be a New Yorker who heads back to the family abode at Christmas time. The typical New Yorker, no matter where they grew up, cannot get over chain restaurants, driving everywhere and the lack of good bagels. But how about you? Have you ever felt for a phantom light switch in your old room? Repeatedly bumped into a chair that’s been moved? Looked for something your mother sold in a yard sale 10 years ago?
Well, my own reverse culture shock is a bit like that – but constant, and overwhelming. While I consider my life here far from exotic, I catch glimpses of what’s in store for me whenever someone from the States comes to visit:
Where are all the scooters?
Why are the eggs in the fridge?
Wow, these screens are really good at keeping out flies!
My clothes can be washed and dried in less than a day?
I have to wait a whole week for the next episode?
It’s 9AM, I can’t eat all this food.
Are you sure the store will be open? It’s lunchtime.
Dinner? The sun hasn’t even gone down yet!
All this carpeting sure soaks up the sound.
Ahhhhh, air conditioning.
I could go on and on, but you get the idea: I’m about to spend the next month being confused, surprised or excited by things I spent the first 30 years of my life taking for granted. To all of you I’ll meet in the States, I send out a preemptive apology.