If you’ve ever studied, lived, or worked abroad, moving back, whether that be to your school, home or a new location in the country you lived in prior to your overseas adventure, you likely experienced what I’m about to discuss. Reverse culture shock is aptly put as feelings of readjustment, reentry, and figuring out where the old and new you fit into the larger social scheme. Some of us may revert to our old ways while others try to find a balance between previous and present habits, incorporating the good we acquired while abroad.
You bump into people you know. Everywhere. Because my husband and I have refrained from venturing out, I’ve only had a few run-ins with people from high school, even college, at the gym, supermarket, and even on the street in New York (I saw a Goucher alum) but in many encounters other acquaintances come up. Once I start work next week, I’m sure I’ll have more of these bump-ins. I’ve bumped into my sister’s friends, neighbors, and previous employers. These conversations always start and end with China: “Oh, you’re back from China. How was it over there?”
You understand too much and it gives you a headache. In terms of how much more I’m culturally enriched, I still have a lot to learn about China, especially its history, language, and politics. However, when you place me in an American context, my understanding seems limitless. The amount of cultural insensitivity that exists here is inherent in the boundless amounts of racism, discrimination, anti-semitism and the like. Personal case and point: We went out to dinner for a friend’s birthday and another guest snickered when I took out ZJ’s passport as a means of ID so that he could order an alcoholic beverage. Really? This guest has never seen anyone use a passport as ID? How does this guest think those without a license or other means of identification get into clubs, order drinks at bars in cities. It gives me a headache because of the stuff people say about China. I’m quite cynical about my view of China based on my observations, conversations, and interactions in Xi’an. I still know when to chalk something up to personality, not inherently generalize about all of China and the Chinese. Even in Xi’an, there was a level of cultural insensitivity among members of the international community. When several people would allude to how different, atypical (“Oh, he’s really not Chinese”) he is, and even ask ZJ about the Chinese take on 6.4 (Tiananmen), assuming he’d be ill-informed. When ZJ fired back with mentioning he watched the documentary captured by foreign students working as stringers for the Western media as well as very thoroughly describing the events, those involved, and each side’s desires, the individual exclaimed he’s so open-minded.
Most people don’t care what you did when you were abroad. Those closest do care, and job interviewers take a keen interest in my unconventional background, but for the most part I feel it’s a polite interest, not a deeply profound one. I’m a lone wolf in the sense that I don’t really know too many people, acquaintances or otherwise, interested in China. Many have a hard time placing Xi’an, even when I mention the Terracotta Warriors. I also told my students more than once that not all Americans own passports, bursting their stereotype bubbles. They believed Americans to be open-minded, traveling to exotic places, and living relatively carefree.
You dress differently. I’m more into dressing casually, jeans and a t-shirt or a dress with flats or sandals. I still take my time figuring out what to wear, but as far as makeup is concerned, I am only applying mascara and the occasional lipgloss. I’m a lot less concerned with fashion, a devout interest of mine through most of high school and college. I brought as much clothes as four suitcases could hold, but these were mostly clothes I purchased in the States, very few items were from China. The items I did bring back were mostly from H&M and Uniqlo, and surprisingly, some Chinese trends are making their way onto the glossy pages of fashion magazines here. In our two trips to New York, I’ve also noticed women sporting pieces that looked oddly familiar to the cosmopolitan ladies in Beijing and Shanghai as well as my handful of fashion forward female students.
Your friends don’t hang out in the same places. My friends are scattered all over the place and I didn’t do a stellar job of keeping in touch with my college girlfriends. Friends from high school live in other parts of the country, my best friend moved to central Jersey but will work in town, and another childhood friend still lives in town. We’re no longer just home for the summer or winter break, and going to grab a cup of coffee, catch a movie, or hit up Willowbrook for shopping. It’s also hard to keep track of schedules, occupations, and everyone’s love lives.
People still line up to get into places you don’t understand. We took two trips to New York City and people seemed to be lining up everywhere, the difference being these were tourists and not locals. Instagram has replaced Facebook as the place to document the line insanity.
You need to sort out your life. Nothing says sort out your life like moving back from abroad and doing so with your husband in tow. I’m now responsible for getting mine and his stuff in order, explaining processes I myself don’t have a firm grasp on: healthcare, buying/leasing a car, buying/renting, and other major purchases. We have a good support system as we’re living with my parents, but I don’t want to rely too heavily on them, especially since the perceived societal expectation is that I’m an adult, and responsibilities pertaining to finances, work, marriage, and other relationships falls on me.
You don’t get slang. I haven’t had too many difficulties in overcoming this particular hurdle, but I have noticed buzzwords, slang, and certain colloquialisms have gone out of fashion. Two of my closest friends work in local schools and a few of the anecdotes they’ve provided about what tweens and teenagers are saying these days makes me feel old, antiquated, and 大妈-like.
Life at home isn’t as exciting as you visualized it to be. A phenomenon that comes with the territory of experiencing reentry culture shock, before arriving, I had monumental daydreams about what life would look like for ZJ and I. Some of these daydreams just need more fertilizing, and could very well come to fruition with time, patience, and elbow grease.
Have you dealt with reentry culture shock or moved back from abroad? Share your experiences with a comment.