As frequent travelers, we’re used to clearing immigration and customs after a long international flight, and hailing a ride. We’re used to landing in a new country where everything feels different, the food isn’t what we’re used to eating, and the people are speaking a different language.
After having visited 50-odd countries on six continents, we’ve learned to take that all in stride … but not this time. We aren’t used to traffic moving at lightning speed on eight-lane highways. Where’s the bumper-to-bumper snail’s pace that we’ve grown accustomed to? Where are the car horns? And why are all the cars staying in their own lanes?
As much as I expected things to be new when I went to another country, I also expected things to be the same when I returned home to America. But it isn’t. Everything seems different.
Except … It’s not. I’m the one who’s changed.
All the symptoms of culture shock, reversed
We’ve been back in the US for weeks now and I still find myself noticing things I never used to pay any attention to. I have just come to realize that I’m experiencing reverse culture shock symptoms.
Wait … what … me?
Culture shock can be defined as “the personal disorientation a person may feel when experiencing an unfamiliar way of life due to immigration or a visit to a new country, a move between social environments, or simply travel to another type of life.”
Guilty. I’m displaying so many of the symptoms of reverse culture shock, it’s scary. (Geez, it sounds like a mental disease or something!)
So then I wonder—is that always a bad thing? What’s so wrong with noticing the quirks in your native culture? What’s wrong with missing people and places from abroad? Is it all that terrible to change your values, goals, priorities, or attitudes? Isn’t that what they call personal growth?
When we visited our old stomping grounds in western North Carolina, we felt out of place. It wasn’t that we didn’t like the town anymore, or our old house, or our old friends. It’s that we saw ourselves differently. We don’t really fit into that world like we used to. Many of our old friends have never been out of the US—and in fact we knew some people who had never left the state. Our life experiences are so different now.
Although I love America as much as ever, watching foreign news for years has altered my opinion of its place on the planet. I’ve come to realize that other nations are fully capable of managing their own affairs. America really doesn’t need to rush to their aid at the drop of a hat.
And while I may have once believed that America was especially blessed by God, my journeys have taught me that God has given other nations special blessings as well.
I’m now amazed at the insane amount of money people waste on crap, the same useless junk I used to buy for myself. We’re talking about things that I thought I needed … and later had to dust around. We’re talking about things that aren’t even available overseas and that we easily did without.
I marvel at the markets Madison Avenue has created for pre-measured pods of laundry soap and all-in-one tablets of dishwasher detergent with rinse aids. Seriously, people, is it really that inconvenient to measure it yourselves?
And suddenly my mind returns to the mountain river that runs through the town where we lived in Ecuador. I remember watching local folks wash their clothes in the river and laying them out one by one on the river bank to dry. Sure, it was a lot of effort, but these women had a wonderful time chatting while they worked.
And oh, the prices! Have they gone up that much since I left? This self-proclaimed coffee snob can no longer bring herself to enter a Starbucks. Years of living in world-class coffee producing nations have spoiled me with their freshly-roasted and -ground beans at $3/pound. And don’t get me started on how much food we could buy for a song!
Of all the changes, one of my biggest surprises is how turned off we have become by drive-thrus and microwaveable foods. Popping into family-run shops for a 2-for-$5 homemade almuerzo (lunch) will do that, I suppose. We have no desire to patronize the grocery aisles with their chemical-laden packaged foods. Never would have seen that coming.
But then, I’d never thought my native land would look so different to me, either. My, how I’ve changed.
What travel has taught me
Traveling and living abroad certainly challenged me, but it helped me grow. I have learned to adapt to new situations, to function and thrive even when I feel uncomfortable or find myself in the midst of a big transition. I have enjoyed many cultures, embraced many differences, enjoyed many new tastes and experiences. I’ve adopted a few new ways of doing things. I even learned to use a squat toilet (though my knees and legs never will enjoy it).
Returning to my American culture after being away for so long, I’ve been noticing new quirks in my own culture. In contrast to some of the other places we’ve been,
- Americans are really picky about cleanliness. They wash their bodies frequently, care where they throw their trash, and always keep their produce and eggs refrigerated.
- They ask “How are you?” without waiting for the answer, and give the same “Fine” in response, whether they are or not.
Wow, who knew those are culture-specific?
Travel changes your perspective.
Traveling has certainly broadened my perspective and changed many of my priorities. I used to think “They should…” all the time. But now, when they do something differently, I ask myself why. Occasionally, I have found myself accepting that their way might make more sense—at least for them.
Foreign news is different as well. I remember hearing an Aussie tell us, “Yeah, mate. We come to Bali to find out what’s really going on in Australia.” Light bulb moment. Every country controls what gets reported. Things that might upset the populace are either buried on page 10 or suppressed. Because, nobody wants a riot.
And now I know that t’s impossible to get a clear perspective on world events if you only watch CNN. You need multiple sources, like Le Monde, Pravda, The Straits Times, and Al Jazeera, too. Why? Because a reporter’s cultural background can’t help but influence how he views things.
On reflection, every day overseas has been incredibly worth it. So worth it, in fact, that I can hardly wait to go back on the road again.
Because you know what? There are a whole lot of amazing places to see, foods to eat, and people to like out there.
This is why I created this blog: to share all of our travel “as we saw it.” I want you to enjoy the thrill of discovery as well. It’ll change you—and growing in love and understanding is never a bad thing.