On Reverse Culture Shock

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.


25 thoughts on “On Reverse Culture Shock

  1. Okay, this brings up something that weirds me out every time I come over to your (current) neck of the woods – why AREN’T the eggs in the fridge?!?

      • When I buy eggs in Italian markets I freak out that they’re sitting out on a shelf, and then I stick them in the fridge as soon as I can. Like that’s going to negate the hours (days?) they’ve been sitting on the market shelf.

        And the screens. I forgot to mention – I’ve often thought that importing window screens to Italy (Europe?) would be a lovely little side business for some expat. I seriously couldn’t even find “window screen” in the English-Italian dictionaries I have.

        • Ha ha, well my Italian teacher years ago had chickens and explained this to me. 🙂 The eggs naturally have a membrane around them that prevents any bacteria from entering and harming the soon-to-be baby chick. If you wash the eggs, you break that membrane and bacteria can enter. In the US, the eggs are washed. So they must be refrigerated.
          In Europe and Argentina, the eggs aren’t washed and can sit outside of the fridge because bacteria can’t get in anyway. I always put them in the fridge anyway because it takes me so long to get through them that I think with time, they still can go bad. 🙂

    • The last time I was home, I was obsessed with ice cubes, and unsweetened iced tea. Two things I had at my dinner table for at least 15 years growing up.

    • A bagel with whitefish salad is on my food list – but I am an Ess-A groupie, so you’ll have to meet me downtown! Is Fairway still around?

  2. I’m so with you on the screens and air conditioning!

    Why are there 16 different brands/varieties of Italian-style breadcrumbs at the grocery store?
    Starbucks on opposing corners? Is that really necessary?
    Why are you refilling my drink when I didn’t ask you to? And adding so much damn ice in the process?
    What do you mean the speed limit is 55mph?
    Why doesn’t the light turn yellow again before turning green so I can prepare to shift?
    Is there any yogurt in this market that doesn’t taste like pasteurized crap? How about some creme fraiche? No?!

  3. For me the biggest shocks are-
    Oh there’s cold water to clean my teeth.
    The toilet seat is cold to sit on.
    Why is everyone is T-shirts and skimpy clothes when its only 24c – my AC is normally set to that?
    Women are walking around half naked.

    All these are when I return to UK/Europe because I live in Oman, Middle East. We do not wear abayas, just are generally more conservatively dressed. It normally takes me a week in Italy before I go out in public in shorts.


  4. I would expect to find some hatched eggs among those on the market…/me Dutchman does them fresh in the fridge….but thinking of it: my Dutch milkman does not keep them in the fridge funny!

  5. My favorites from your list are:
    Wow, these screens are really good at keeping out flies!
    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!

    Esatto esatto esatto! 🙂

    • P.S. the “these screens are really good at keeping out flies!” one can be changed to “these screens are really good at keeping out mosquitoes” and there you have my return from Argentina summed up.

  6. The day after I returned from 4 months abroad in Rome I decided to go to the mall alone. Bad idea. I don’t know what it was (sensory overload, too many people trying to help me get my size, etc.) but I started crying in the middle of a store and had to run out. Embarrassing.

    Good luck!

    • I had the same problem in the American grocery store a couple years ago. It was a “Super” supermarket and I just had no frickin’ idea where I would even begin to find basics like milk, bread and juice.

  7. Great post! Can’t wait to see you. If I were able to play practical jokes on people I bet Mr. Pants and I could come up with something hilarious to trick you with. “What? You didn’t know that NPR is sponsored by Walmart now? It’s cool though. Corporations aren’t that bad.” Or something…Hmmm…I have to work on that. 🙂

  8. Yeah, going home can really be a shock.

    For me some things I have to get used to when I go back to the States are:

    Tomatoes and other produce that are tasteless.
    What passes as pancetta in the States is not pancetta.
    What passes for espresso is not espresso.
    Not having to go through security checkpoints to get into a branch bank.
    In the same vein as the eggs, I can never get used to milk in boxes that last for months.

    Some nice things about returning to the States, especially from Italy:

    There is a sense of order on escalators and in the Metro as opposed to the chaos.

    You rarely find a person or couple that can take up an entire sidewalk making it impossible to pass without going into traffic.

    You don’t have to beg for more than 3 cubes of ice.

  9. My first trip back to Texas after some six months in Berlin, everyone wanted to show me Central Market, a gargantuan gourmet supermarket that had opened in my absence. And, of course, I wanted to go. So I popped into the car with a friend and off we went.

    I was nauseous by the time I finally staggered out. I had to sit down. I was sweating. I finally caught my breath. There was *so much stuff* in there! There were more New York steaks than there was *meat* in my local so-called supermarket! There were umpteen brands of anything I looked at — and this was all upmarket stuff.

    There was another problem, one they’ve thankfully corrected: there was only one way in and out, and you wound up following a trail to the checkout. It was immensely confusing, and, combined with the sensory overload I was feeling, gave rise to a panic, which is what laid me out. Now there are clear signs for various departments, so if you just want the cheese, you can go to the cheese.

    But nowadays I ration my re-entry a little better and don’t get crazed.

    Good luck to you, though!

  10. Good post!
    I can relate to many things on your list
    Culture shock for me also was the customer service. A person can return an item and get their money back too. (I confess that at first my husband and I were just buying things to marvel at the ease in which we could return them)
    AND it’s really cool shopping on Sundays too.

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  12. The morning after I got back from 2 years abroad, I nearly cried when the server set down in front of me both a bottomless cup of coffee and a bottomless glass of cold, cold ice water.

    Also, I thought I had mentally prepared for my first trip into a supermarket again and was ready for the endless aisles of products. But two things I hadn’t forseen got to me right away: the announcements they kept blasting over the speakers and the enormous size of all the products. I remember being baffled in the lotion aisle because I couldn’t find a bottle smaller than 40ish ounces!

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