Moving Back from Abroad

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. 

22 thoughts on “Moving Back from Abroad

  1. SM says:

    “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….” Yes. I’ve found this as well when people are surprised and dubious to hear that I enjoyed being there. I think it’s largely due to American media perpetuating a very negative view of China. China isn’t all roses, but by highlighting the problems and “crises,” media makes it seem worse than it is.

    “Most people don’t care what you did when you were abroad.” Yeah!!! I’d be practically interviewing someone who went abroad for an extended period of time! Bless my family and closest friends who listen to me and my China-USA musings.

    It is nice to be back though. I have a profound appreciation for blue skies and white clouds now. The suburbs were weird at first. I was wondering where all the people walking on the streets were! haha.

    On another note, congratulations on your new work!

    • maklu001 says:

      Driving is an even weirder experience for me and yes, where is everyone, but then again, I appreciate the tranquility of the burbs.

  2. Suigetsu says:

    Regarding Tiananmen, the CCP should just stop their woeful attempt at enforcing “collective amnesia” because 1) the people will learn the truth eventually no matter what, and 2) the truth is not as damaging to the CCP as they imagine.

    • maklu001 says:

      I agree but most people do know what happened, but choose to stay quiet about such affairs. I like your application of “collective amnesia.”

  3. CrazyChineseFamily says:

    The western media still puts too often some stereotypical bad view on China. Also here in Finland/ Germany I have been asked too often really weird questions about China and how I could actually enjoy my time there.
    I wonder how my coming back home will be next month but well, I have other worries right now before thinking what people I might meet later on the streets.
    Good that your husband is so much into history, my wife can’t even place any date on certain big events of ancient nor recent history. Always confusing for me as I am so interest in history :p

    Btw, your header picture, is that the West Gate?

    • maklu001 says:

      The media does a terrible job of maintaining bias-free reporting on China. It’s something I dealt with regularly in teaching news writing. Some Master’s students scaled the Great Firewall of China and would confront me about the China reporting in Western media. I felt at a loss for words especially since I tended to side with them. My header is the South Gate and the Xi’an City Wall.

  4. Eileen黃愛玲 says:

    I know I am going to have reverse culture shock when I return to the US from Taiwan. I already had a wake up call (so to speak) when I went to Starbucks while living abroad. I thought I was drinking cheap children’s cake frosting in a cup. My hand was shaking not due to the caffeine but due to the sugar high. I haven’t been to Starbucks for so long and I already have reverse culture shock before I came to the States. Go figure!

    Dawen and I have reverse culture shock by returning to Taipei from Shanghai. 🙂 How do I deal with it? By eating Taiwanese food and relaxing. 🙂 I will probably blog about my reverse culture shock when I return the States. (sigh)

    Spot on with the article. I have a feeling I would be saying the same things. I just know it.

    • maklu001 says:

      I think Starbucks products are calibrated differently in China than the US. I’ve had quite a few coffee beverages since I’ve returned (my sister works for them and soon I will, too, part time) and didn’t have as an intense sugar high as I did when gulping down drinks at the Starbucks in downtown Xi’an. Are you returning to the States soon?

      • Eileen黃愛玲 says:

        I had somebody go back to the States and say, “Brace yourself. What we had in Shanghai is nothing compared to the Starbucks in Florida.” I had Starbucks in Seattle and it was a huge difference – I think the only time I actually enjoyed my drink. Maybe you just have higher tolerance for sugar than I do. I eat fruit and I think that’s sweet enough for me. xD I can say that whatever came from the States is much less sweet in Taiwan. I think I just got used to their standard of sweets over here so everywhere else is too much for me.

        I don’t know when I will be back but I am in no hurry!

  5. Jocelyn Eikenburg (@jossailin) says:

    Just wanted to say this subject touched me deeply b/c I’ve had all of these experiences and more when we returned. Our transition to the US was one of the toughest and most harrowing times in our relationship. My heart goes out to you as you and ZJ navigate life together in the US, and I sincerely hope it works out much better for you.

    • maklu001 says:

      Thank you as always, Jocelyn. We’re only a month and a half in so we’ll need more time before we make any executive decisions. I’d like to get in contact with you about exchanging guest posts. What’s the best way to reach you?

  6. Anna says:

    A great post! Very much to the point. I have experienced this reverse culture shock several time now throught the past ten years due to the fact that I had to go back and forth between China and Germany. You would think, there is a time when you get used to it… but no, it is the same over and over again.

    Most of the time I have lived in China, but the need to go back to Germany (for visa issues or simple family visits) forced me to go through the revered culture shock over and over again. The point “Life at home isn’t as exciting as you visualized it to be.” would be my major issue. Everytime, close before my flight back home, I imagine how awesome it is to go back, eat all the stuff I cannot get in China, visit places, enjoy peace and tranquility, watch familiar TV shows… but in the end, I always fall into the culture shock trap…

    I just arrived back in Germany yesterday, after over a year of China. I am struggling to adjust, everything feels weird, nothing has seemed to change, and at the same time everything seems to have changed. For me I find it very difficult, this going back and forth between two lives. It feels very heavy on my heart, I don’t know why.

    I wish you and your husband all the best for your future in the USA.

    • maklu001 says:

      You’ve captured sentiments I missed covering in my entry. I couldn’t imagine the constant back and forth between the US and China so major props for managing to do so. Having only been back for about two months, it’s still hard to say how everything is going to pan out. We also hope for the best!

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