When deciding to live outside your own country, you can expect to undergo a certain level of culture shock. Moving from America to living as an expat in China has given me quite a many cultural shock experiences. Things are undoubtedly going to be different. The food will be different, the people will be different, even your daily routine will be different. Perhaps that weekly movie night you used to do will end up getting canceled because there just aren’t that many English movies playing in your host country. Whatever the reason, culture shock is a given. You expect things will be different when you move abroad for the first time.
What you don’t expect is something called Reverse Culture Shock. It’s when you get so used to living abroad that going back to your home country feels strange and foreign to you. This is something I experience every time I travel back to the States.
I’ve been living as an expat in Shanghai for almost 7 years now and have gone back to my home country a total of three times in those 7 years. Each time, I notice something new and strange that I didn’t notice before. It’s odd feeling like a stranger in your own country, but that’s how it feels. I recently traveled back to San Diego for a couple weeks over the summer of 2018 and from the moment I stepped off the plane in LAX, I was bombarded with a strange sense of being in a foreign place.
In Shanghai, I get it. I know what to do and where to go, even at the airport. But in America, I felt an instant rush of confusion. Everything was in English, yet I felt a strange sense of not know where to go or what to do. I had to ask several people where to catch my connecting flight to San Diego. And oddly enough, that was what made it confusing. I actually could ask someone where to go.
In China, it’s difficult when you don’t speak the language, but I’ve come to accept that. I know how to find my way around without having to ask someone. At LAX, it was the opposite. Following signs didn’t make sense. I had to ask for directions several times just to get where I needed to go.
And this was just the beginning.
I spent about two weeks with my in-laws in San Diego where I began noticing other differences I hadn’t before
Buying vegetables at an American supermarket was also confusing. I couldn’t, for the life of me remember how it was done. In China, you pick out your vegetables, stand in line for about ten minutes to get them weighed and priced, then you can check out. In America, you just pick out the vegetables and they weigh/price them right at the checkout. I was so confused, I think I spent ten minutes just wandering around the store looking for the place where to get them weighed/priced.
Checkout was perhaps even more confusing. In China, we pay for things using an app on our phones, either Wechat or Alipay. All you have to do is scan a QR code at checkout, type in your bank code, and it automatically transfers money from your bank account to whoever you’re paying. Easy, right? Not in America. People actually use cash. Yes, CASH?! Seriously, why does cash still exist?
While I was there, I noticed a strong sense of loneliness. Sure, people would always ask questions like “How’s China?” But they really don’t have any desire to listen for longer than a few minutes. I found it difficult to talk to people about my life in Shanghai and most of the conversations I was dragged into made no sense to me.
People would say things like “Oh, you know, that guy from the Ford commercial.” Yeah… I haven’t seen American commercials in years… Or someone would mention something in pop culture that I was completely clueless about (it’s hard to keep up with that sort of thing when you live in a foreign country).
Things like drinking tap water, personal space, saying excuse me were all things I had to make a conscious effort to remember. That effort is mentally exhausting. I felt tired all the time just trying to remember how things were done. For example, I had to constantly remind myself to give people space when standing in line.
In China, the concept of personal space doesn’t exist. It’s perfectly acceptable to push people out of your way or stand really close to someone in line (if you don’t someone will cut in front of you). Also, saying things like excuse me doesn’t exist. There is a word for sorry, but it doesn’t convey the same sort of meaning as excuse me.
What makes culture shock so difficult is that you have to be conscious of all these new changes you’re faced with on a daily basis. It can be mentally draining. But everyone, to an extent, expects a certain level of culture shock. What you don’t expect is the reverse – when you’ve lived in another country for so long, everything in your home country seems foreign. The very moment I got back to Shanghai, I felt at ease – like I was home. Little things like hearing the language (though I don’t understand it) or forcing my way on a crowded metro were things I’d actually missed when I was in America.
So remember, if you’re an expat who’s lived in another country for a while, expect at least a little reverse culture shock when returning to your home country.