When someone moves to another country, they are forced to awkwardly navigate their way through a foreign culture, stumble through the process of learning another language, and learn about local politics and government. While coming to understand another culture, it is natural to compare it to the one from which they came. What many do not realize (until their first trip back home) is how differently they will view their mother country after becoming used to another one. Of course, this concept is called reverse culture shock.
As someone who has returned to the US for four summers since living abroad, my sense of reverse culture shock has diminished since the first summer I returned in 2012. I’m no longer surprised by the things that make America unique, but I definitely still notice some things.
Here are some things that, as a teacher working overseas, I notice or experience when I come home each summer.
1. Greeting confusion: Remembering what is normal when greeting someone can be tricky. In Kuwait, Ecuador, and many parts of Europe, you greet a friend by kissing them on the cheek. In Kuwait, I once saw a couple of Arab men kiss one another on alternating cheeks roughly ten times because it had been months since they had seen each other. When you spend most of your year greeting your friends with cheek kisses, it’s hard to remember that this is abnormal in the US! A handshake or hug suffices here.
2. Portion size surprise: Order a meal in the US after having spent enough time overseas and you’ll be both amazed and appalled at the portion sizes! On a recent trip from Topeka to Denver, I purchased a “small” drink from a soda fountain at a gas station. The smallest size I could get was 32 ounces! While I admit that I’m not sure how big gas station sizes are overseas, I know that in South America and Europe, when you buy a soft drink, you do not get unlimited refills, but of course, in the US, that’s a given. When at a restaurant, I almost always try to split meals now because they are often way too big. Perhaps it’s the plumped up portion sizes that cause me to gain weight every summer I come home…
3. The need to use recently acquired words that nobody else will understand: Whenever you learn another language, you are bound to fall in love with words that do not exist in your native tongue. For example, “yalla” is an Arabic word that translates to alright already/ hurry up/ let’s go. It rolls off my tongue effortlessly when I’m trying to get someone to move a little faster (or often, trying to hurry up myself!) “Yallll-uh!” There are countless other words and phrases from both Spanish and Arabic that are hard for me to just stop saying, so people I hang out with over the summer are forced to learn them as well or tune them out. Yanni, I can’t help it…
4. Appreciation for musical diversity: When living in a country where you speak a minority language, you will be lucky to find one or two English radio stations. In Kuwait, one station is meant to help people who want to learn English, so the broadcasters… speak…. very…. slowly. The other English station is all Top 40’s. When I return to the US, I take my time with the channel dial, marvelling over the plentitude of options. Sure, the country and oldies stations don’t interest me, but the fact that they exist (along with Christian, Spanish, alternative, indie, public radio, and rock) delight me.
5. Embarrassment about not knowing my own phone number: Okay, every summer since I’ve lived in Kuwait, I have gone to AT&T and purchased temporary SIM cards. These phone numbers expire automatically after ninety days of inactivity, so each summer, I have to get a new one. This means that for the first two weeks or so of each summer, when asked what my number is, I DO NOT KNOW because it is so new. I imagine people who don’t know me wondering why on earth I don’t know my own number…
6. Understanding of how huge the US is: Seriously! This country is massive. It would take five days to drive from California to New York state, and on that drive, I would see beaches, deserts, mountains, plains, hills, and forests. Kuwait is slightly smaller than the state of New Jersey, and if you were to drive from the northern border to the southern border, it would take about 2 hours. For $250, I can buy a round trip ticket from Kansas City to Philadelphia, or I can buy a round trip ticket from Kuwait City to Istanbul. In two and a half hours, I could drive from Kansas City to Salina, Kansas. While one of those cities is much more urban and diverse, they are both obviously American cities in which the same language is spoken. On the other hand, in two and a half hours, I could drive from Brussels, Belgium to Amsterdam, Holland. For as close as they are to each other, the two cities are different in their language, architecture, culture, and cuisine. The US is quite large!
7. Difficulty living in two different worlds (This applies mostly to international teachers who come back to the US every summer): I work, live, own pets, have a bank account, and have friends in Kuwait. It is where my life and social circle are. But for two months of the year, I come back to the place I used to live and sleep in a room I’ve had since high school. I enjoy catching up with old friends when I’m back in Kansas and marvelling at how their lives have changed (mine has mostly stayed the same: teaching overseas), but I begin to miss my regular life, especially the people I’ve grown attached to. My guess is that most of the people who teach overseas deal with this and that the discomfort you feel when you are “home” increases more and more each year as friendships that you used to have phase out with people getting married, having kids, and moving away. As much as I love the US, by the end of my summer, I’m usually ready to get back to Kuwait where my regular life awaits me.
8. The yearly closet purge: Every single summer, I look at the clothes I went ten months without and decide that 20% of them need to go. Every summer, I feel like I got all the ugly, unstylish ones out and that I won’t have to do it the following summer. Every summer, I do it again anyway. It’s pretty incredible realizing what you can live without and seeing how quickly styles fade.
9. Value the organization and efficiency of the US: In Kuwait, all road space is fair game for parking (I never see people get parking tickets, even when they park in places like street corners or lanes of roads- yes, they do that). When someone in your work place tells you that something will get done “Inshallah” (God willing), what they mean is “I’m going to take my time on this and it will be done when it gets done.” Often in Kuwait, people with some “wasta” (power/ privilege/ connection) get what they want while people without any wasta have to stand in line or pay their ticket or follow the rules. However, in the US, there are deadlines. There’s a strong, notable American work ethic. Police enforce traffic rules. There are usually time-tables, and “Arab time” does not exist. While I’m sure bribes and cheating take place, it’s not as rampant as in Kuwait. Living abroad makes one marvel at how direct and timely life is in the US.
10. Appreciate little things that others take for granted: For people who go to Asia and have to live without dairy, they return to the US and gorge themselves on cheddar, feta, and gouda. For those of us who live in the Middle East, we want all the bacon and booze we can get. When I fly home for the summer from Kuwait, I marvel at NATURE and take in all the thunderstorms and greenery I can while I’m in America because I know that once I’m back in Kuwait, all I will have is sand and sea. When I was living in a rural town in Ecuador, water was regularly turned off and in order to bathe, I had to give myself sponge baths using pots of water heated on the stove top. Upon returning to the US, I relished my long, steamy showers, appreciating them like I never had before. Face it, Americans: you have a lot of modern conveniences that much of the world has to do without. Feel grateful, and don’t mind us expats when we rejoice over what you may consider to be small things.
11. Increased sensitivity to SKIN: This one really only applies to people who, like me, live in the Middle East. While I do NOT have to wear a head scarf in Kuwait (a lot of people ask me if I do, and the reality is that even many Muslim women do not wear hijabs in Kuwait), I do abide by unspoken rules of modesty. I never go out with my shoulders bared, and I only feel comfortable exposing south-of-the-knee leg. Therefore when I’m home for the summer, seeing people so comfortable with exposing skin always kind of shocks me. During my first post-Kuwait summer closet purge, I tossed many summer dresses that hadn’t felt indecent a year before, but after having been in the Middle East and gained a sensitivity to skin, I couldn’t imagine wearing anymore. Even after three years of understanding that there are differences in the dress codes of Kuwait and America, it’s not uncommon for me to put an outfit together then run downstairs to ask my Mom if it’s really okay to wear in public (she always looks at me weirdly and says, “Yeah!”). Living in the Middle East will make you question your wardrobe! You will realize, though, that nobody cares what you wear, and that’s an awesome feeling.
(I just google image searched “Things that people wear to Walmart” in an effort to make my case that you can get away wearing whatever you want in the US, but the pictures were so horrible, I couldn’t bring myself to post them! I know- you’re gonna look for yourself now… Don’t say I didn’t warn you!)
12. Constantly hearing the words: “Do you feel safe there?” During the summers of 2013 and 2014, my answer to this question was a lot less complicated. ISIS hadn’t gained as much territory and media coverage as it has this summer, and Kuwait was untouched by its terroristic grasp. For the first time since 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait, an explosion went off in Kuwait, killing 27 people and injuring over 200. ISIS proudly claimed responsibility. Even though this horrible event happened, I do still feel safe there. ISIS has thrived in unstable countries that do not possess strong leadership (I wonder why there was a void of leadership in Iraq…). Kuwait, unlike Iraq and Syria, has a leader that many in the country admire, and the people in Kuwait are comfortable and happy to live there. After the bombing, Kuwaitis did two things that made me proud: 1. They flooded blood drives in an effort to help the injured in any way they could 2. That evening, Sunni and Shiite Muslims gathered in the same mosque and prayed together, showing how united they were in the fight against terrorism and sectarianism. Terrorism is not something that belongs in Kuwait, and I do not foresee it becoming more popular this next year. I feel more afraid of being the victim of a random mass shooting here in the US than I do of being caught in a bomb in Kuwait.
13. Recognition of things that are definitively American, for better or worse:
I admire the following uniquely American things: craft beers, pies, 4th of July celebrations, corn on the cob, Target, the belief that all people are equal (unlike Kuwait where there is a strong belief that Kuwaitis are considered better than Ethiopians and so on), freedom of speech and freedom of religion, inexpensive clothing (blame it on American commercialism, I suppose!), good Mexican food (!), and the undeniably strong American work ethic and sense of innovation.
There are some things that I enjoy avoiding ten months out of each year: gun violence, lobbying groups affecting the integrity of our democratic republic, expensive political campaigns (Someone remind me why the presidential election has been covered for the last six months and will continue to be covered more and more intensely until November of 2016?), the existence of systemic racism and racial tensions, Americans who insist that America is THE BEST country in the world, political and religious extremists who refuse to listen to other points of view, bipartisanship, the media’s biased take on the Israel/ Palestine conflict, personal individualism (vs. many other countries that are more family-centered), and obsession over test results in our education system.
There you have it. A peak into what it’s like to leave the US for an extended period of time and return with a different point of view. International teacher friends, did I miss anything? Feel free to add any observations or experience you go through each summer to the comment section!