RTW Recovery: Dealing With Reverse Culture Shock

Welcome Back Gifts

Two things we could not have been happier to return home to. Thanks, Lisa and Rick!

Welcome to our new series, called RTW Recovery Wednesday, in which we tackle topics that have made our transition back to the USA easy or difficult. Posts will offer a candid breakdown of what it’s like to return to what we used to call “home” after living in our own bubble as we traveled around the world for 14 months.

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Leading up to our return to the USA after 14 months of RTW travel, everyone had something to say about reverse culture shock. Mostly that it was inevitable. Everything they said scared us more than the thought of jumping off a cliff again. Time out, time out! Didn’t we grow up in America? Don’t we already know that a $1 soup in Thailand costs $7 in NYC? We didn’t lose our memory, we just disappeared for more than a year.

Common sense told me that reverse culture shock should not be as, well, shocking as culture shock. I know what Western prices are, I know what the food is like and I know there is a diverse group of people here. But just because I remembered those things did not mean I was prepared to ease back into the American way. Like culture shock, you have to experience reverse culture shock for yourself to understand what it means to you specifically.

Reverse culture shock, to me, is like a new relationship. I don’t want to keep comparing my new boyfriend to my last boyfriend, but my last one is still so much more familiar, and I can’t help it. I have to move on, stop saying that the new one should have certain attributes that the old one possesses. For example – and this isn’t even my biggest complaint about America – I have always known that Americans can be pushy, short-tempered and rude to strangers. After spending more than five months in Southeast Asia, where “saving face” is an important aspect of the culture, I cannot even imagine having an attitude with someone. It just seems so pointless and self-centered to me now.

Aside: To make sure you completely understand, “saving face” means that you want to maintain a good self image so that people respect you. Because this is so important in Southeast Asia (and elsewhere, I’m sure, but I can only relate it to where I’ve been), you will rarely see people acting in ways that would hurt their reputation. Having a negative attitude, shouting in public and verbally abusing another person are against the unspoken rules.

Mike and I are currently residing outside of Washington, D.C., but I flew to south Florida a couple weeks ago for my sister’s bridal shower. I grew up in south Florida and I know the type of people you may encounter. You almost have to walk on eggshells all day and never ask, “how are you” or you’ll awaken a beast in someone.

Sam's Club Storefront

Photo credit: StockMonkeys.com

Well, I was shopping in Sam’s Club with my mom and sister and was patiently waiting in the long checkout line. (For those who don’t know, Sam’s Club is a members-only wholesale store that sells items in bulk for people who own a concession stand, have an extra large family or are stocking up for the zombie apocalypse.) Ahead of us, a woman and her son were arranging their purchases on their extra large cart so that the barcodes were facing outward. This, the woman thought, would make it easier for the cashier to scan the items. Apparently, Sam’s Club employees are trained to request that you place all your items on the conveyor belt so they can ensure no one steals anything by hiding it among packages in their cart. This is actually well known to anyone who has ever purchased anything there.

The male cashier said something along the lines of, “You would have made it easier for me if you put your items on the conveyor belt.” (I assume he asked her to at first, and she must have refused. I honestly wasn’t paying very close attention.) The customer responded with some serious attitude. She literally went off on this poor guy, screaming at him about how she did make his life easier and how he wouldn’t know it anyway because he is “just a cashier.” Oh no she didn’t. Yes she did.

I was so embarrassed by the situation – which, by the way, I was not even part of – that I could not bear to look at either of them, or the woman’s young son. I stared at a package of Gatorade behind me, thinking, “I used to down that stuff in high school.”

Later, this incident was a great topic of conversation between me, my mom and sister and the bridal shower attendees. But internally I was thinking, “That would not happen in Southeast Asia.” Ok, yes, we did see people in Southeast Asia not acting as poster children for saving face, but it was oh-so-rare. I was back in the States for barely a week and already witnessed something I hadn’t seen since I left. I couldn’t help but compare my old boyfriend, Southeast Asia, to my new one. He was so much better at keeping his cool.

These types of reverse culture shock experiences are something Mike and I are slowly re-acculturating to. We’re living in the DC suburbs and trying to take in America only a little bit at a time. Too much of my new boyfriend will make me feel smothered. I need to be eased in to this relationship. The Sam’s Club incident was a good reminder of what I’m up against. I just have to remember the patience, empathy and positivity I learned while traveling, and continue putting that into practice. Otherwise, this return will be difficult.

Another thing that honestly scares me about America is the food served in restaurants. That will surely be the next RTW Recovery Wednesday topic!

See what Mike has to say about navigating the food scene since we’ve been back.

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8 responses to “RTW Recovery: Dealing With Reverse Culture Shock

  1. This is something I struggled with big time after returning to Australia from Central and South America. The first thing I noticed was the obsessive advertising everywhere- buses, trains, planes, buildings, hung behind planes in the sky, tv, radio.
    Now I’m sure it was to some extent all through central and south america but the fact that I couldn’t understand meant that it didn’t exist.
    The other thing I struggled with was peoples compulsive negativity, EVERYTHING was a drama! When I had just come from a country where they’d twist bracelets together all day laughing and smiling just to make 3 dollars I found it very hard to believe that any one from home had any serious problems.
    I look forward to the rest of these posts!

    • Thanks, Nick! Reverse culture shock is really interesting, isn’t it? I didn’t think that I’d feel much of anything, but you actually realize how much you and your views have changed when you return, and that ends up being the most shocking part.

  2. OMG you two are back already?! Time flew by, right? Ha.. your Sam’s story reminded me of my first week back and walking into a Walmart. LOL.. I struggled with food portions and the negative Nancy’s too. Seriously.. why are people complaining about life? Most don’t know how good they have it. Welcome home you too.. it gets easier. sort of. Gerard’s ready to book another trip! LOL

    • I know! It’s crazy to think there was ever a time I wanted to speed up our trip because I was eager to go everywhere.

      You’re right. I wish people could really take a look at their life and realize that things are good. But it does take seeing the other side to understand it.

  3. This is a super interesting concept. I’ve heard of it many times but haven’t spent enough time outside the states at once to really experience this for myself. But after two months in Thailand and returning to Texas I really couldn’t stop tripping over the size difference. The people, the cars, the buildings.

    • I didn’t think I’d really experience reverse culture shock. I expected my blog posts to say, “It didn’t happen to me.” But, for me, it’s been subtle and more of a mentality change. It manifests in seemingly insignificant interactions. I would’ve never expected it in that way.

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