Wait, Reverse Culture Shock is Real?

I didn’t believe in reverse culture shock until I experienced it for myself.

Everyone knows about culture shock — that disorientation you feel when adjusting to a new country, way of life, or culture. But what many fail to mention is that the experience of returning to your old way of life is just as jarring as leaving it in the first place.

When I moved to Beijing from the US just after college, it was extremely difficult to adjust. I found myself questioning everything and comparing it to America. Why did people spit on the sidewalk? How did they eat this food every day for three meals a day? Didn’t they want to get a suntan instead of covering up with long sleeves or an umbrella? Why do they keep staring at me? Why doesn’t anyone line up?

One particularly memorable experience was when the friend I was staying with – the ONLY person I knew when I got to Beijing and who had graciously offered to let me stay at his place – bought a bunch of Chinese breakfast dishes for us to eat at home. At this point I’d been in China a couple weeks, and I was getting sick of the food. The flavor was different and too strong compared to what I was used to eating, and I missed the more bland and cold food I enjoyed in America – cereal for breakfast, salads and sandwiches, cheese, the list goes on. But how could I refuse the meal, when I was already burdening him so much by staying there? I fought not to cry through nearly the whole breakfast, eating only as much as necessary to be polite.

For my first three or four months in Beijing, there were many days filled with tears, homesickness, and loneliness. I longed for things from home, things that were familiar — Western food, clean air, less crowded streets, less noise, Western bathrooms. But as I slowly accepted and adjusted to the culture and the lifestyle, I spent fewer days crying and more time enjoying the experience. Of course I still had bad days where I wanted to leave, and I missed a lot of things from America. But I was able to find alternatives if really needed.

After two and a half years in Beijing, I moved back to the US. That may not seem like a long time, but when the differences between the two places are so stark and when you really immerse yourself in the new country, it’s a big deal. I thought it would be easy to get back into the swing of things in America, because it was home after all. But it was harder than expected.

I felt stuck between two places, as if I didn’t fully belong in either country at that point. When I was in China, I often wondered why people did things a certain way. But when I returned to America, I found myself asking the same question about life there.

The first time I went out to eat after returning to the US, I almost forgot to leave a tip. I had paid the bill and was about to sign the receipt, when I suddenly remembered, oh, you need to leave a tip!

That wasn’t the only time I realized I’d forgotten something about the way of life in America. When I went shopping, I wondered why everyone was so nice to me and smiled and asked how I was or told me to have a good day when I checked out. In China, they would usually aggressively try to sell me things and follow me around the shop asking if I liked this item or that.

People in the US were just all-around friendlier than I was used to in China – whether that was while shopping or just walking around my neighborhood. When I went for my runs, other runners would wave to me – a concept I had all but forgotten while living in China – where people stared at me like I was crazy when they saw me out for a jog.

Another thing I found hard to adjust to was public toilets. I never thought I’d actually miss squatty potties. But once back in the US, I found sitting on public toilets dirty and wished there were squat toilets instead. And speaking of bathrooms, I forgot what it was like to have toilet paper and soap provided – something missing from most restrooms in China.

When I lived in Beijing, I adopted many of the mannerisms, habits, and ways of thinking – eating family-style, pushing to get myself onto a crowded subway, using an umbrella to block the sun, paying for meals when out with friends, and I’m embarrassed to say, even cutting in line.

When in the US, some of those things carried over — like communal eating, using chopsticks, and carrying around bathroom tissues.

But other habits fell away and were quickly replaced with more American behavior. I welcomed the cleaner air and the personal space I had once again. And I was glad there was no spitting or smoking in public places. After a few months, I readjusted to my American life.

But now that I’m back in Beijing, it’s hard for me to imagine ever living in the US again. Part of it is the fear of having to adjust back to the culture, part of it is the dread of moving all my belongings across the world again. And part of it is that I love China, my life here, and the opportunities and experiences. Despite the culture shock and reverse culture shock, both countries are a part of me now, and I’m so fortunate to call them both home.

Christine LaPlaca
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  1. Christine–You have described reverse culture shock and the in-between feeling perfectly. You made me laugh about the communal eating because I got used to that first in Hawaii and then in Hong Kong. Now when I visit the US mainland, I am dismayed when friends or family order their own dishes in a Chinese restaurant although I can remember when I felt the same way about my Chinese family ordering western food in the US and eating it family style.

    1. Hi Heather, thank you for the comments. I’m glad you were able to relate so well. I know what you mean about ordering Chinese food in the US, I always want to order family style but my friends and family aren’t used to it. We did hotpot at home when I was living there, and they are still uncomfortable with just eating out of the big pot of boiling soup with everyone.

  2. There’s something special about someone who can live in a different culture. Especially in a culture that can be so different that it causes friction. I guess it’s not so bad after getting used to it.

    1. I agree George, it takes a certain kind of person to be able to adjust to a different culture. It’s definitely not a good lifestyle for everyone!

  3. Do you happen to know there is a saying in China, “in the first year you are out, in the second you are in, in the third you forget about your dad and mum”? That is a vivid picture describing how a college student from a remote rural area gets used to his urban life. So it is not surprising for me to read your article.
    An outdated film star Chen Chong (or Joan Chen as she is known to Westerners) who went to make fortune in Hollywood in 1980s angered many of her fellow countrymen when she made a comparison of America and China, especially mentioning the size difference of breasts of women. But over time everything is fine.
    When I worked in South Asia where local females wear skirts with pants on, I was surprised and felt it was so weird, but when I returned home to see the bare legs under the skirt around me, I became uneasy, so that is what you say about reverse culture shock.

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