Culture shock. It’s a term you’re most likely familiar with and, if you’re lucky, you’ve had the opportunity to experience this phenomenon. World travelers, students, and expats sometimes feel displaced when encountering different lifestyles, unfamiliar ways of doing things, exotic foods, and foreign languages.
My first culture shock experience was while hailing a cab in London and feeling a nervous rush as the driver sped down the “wrong” (a.k.a. left) side of the street. It was unfamiliar, nerve-wracking and exciting all at once. I couldn’t wait to see what other surprises were ahead of me in my travels.
As an American who has visited other countries, I have graced my way through a variety of new and unfamiliar situations by observing, learning, and figuring out what to do or say so that I’d blend in. My practices weren’t always perfect, but I enjoyed the challenge and the opportunity to step out of my comfort zone.
Reverse Culture Shock
I recently returned to the US after living in Germany for three years. Although most of my life has been spent here in my home country, something felt off. Home didn’t quite feel like home. I couldn’t successfully put my finger on it because it was a culmination of several moments, both obvious and subtle. All I knew is that this once familiar place felt incredibly foreign to me.
What happened and why? It’s known as reverse culture shock. My European experiences and newly embraced lifestyles had become a part of my identity and daily routine, yet suddenly they didn’t quite fit in with my home country. I found myself constantly comparing things between the US and Germany, not knowing exactly where I fit in. I was not the same girl who left for Germany, and I needed to acclimate to living in my home country once again.
A Surprising Struggle
While in a foreign country, I anticipated that I’d step out of my comfort zone. Between subtle nuances such as languages, traditions, and culturally accepted social behaviors, I knew I was going to see, hear and do things I hadn’t done before. I was open, adaptable and willing to learn.
What I didn’t expect was that I’d come home and feel like I didn’t quite fit in anymore. I had the benefit of being sculpted by new life experiences and came back enhanced and enriched. Some of the skills, language and behaviors I had acquired while overseas had absolutely no use and no place here in the States. I discovered that I have another side of me, a European side if you will, that now barely sees the light of day. This is simply because my surroundings are different and aren’t always conducive to the European lifestyle I grew to love while abroad.
Feeling displaced and not quite knowing where I belonged was a bit unsettling.
Finding My Place
After I got over the feeling of being overwhelmed by the fast-paced lifestyle in the States, and I stopped accidentally speaking German, and stopped making comparisons, things started to feel normal again.
I embraced the culture of convenience that my country provides such as drive-through services (for anything from purchasing gas, to food, to coffee, to handling banking), to loving that many stores are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
I especially appreciate my proximity to family, old friends, and familiar sights and sounds and tastes.
Hopefully this sense of normalcy won’t disappear after my next trip back to Europe. If it does, I’ll know to expect it and will do my best to integrate what I love from both of my homes. I will become a true citizen of the world.