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June 12, 2013 / A Mindful Traveler

Expatriation 2.0: Reverse Culture Shock

I didn’t have any plans on the first autumn Sunday after I moved back to the United States from Ireland.  Therefore, I casually asked my roommate what was on television.  “It’s football season,” he replied with the same surprise as if I’d asked what language we were speaking.  In the ensuing decade I redeveloped the interest in watching American football I’d had growing up.  I even continued to play in a fantasy league during my first year living in Korea.  This past year, however, I didn’t even watch the Super Bowl, although my teaching schedule permitted it.

I’ve always felt far more American when I’ve been abroad than at home.  It’s only outside the United States that people draw attention to my nationality.  Each inconsistency between my expectations and reality serves as a further reminder.  Every experience I have as an expatriate automatically gains the country’s name as an adjective.  Polite bus drivers become polite Korean bus drivers while during my college years, helpful policemen became helpful Irish policemen.  Notwithstanding these positive examples, there’s an equal if not greater tendency for such nomenclature ,when applied negatively, to lead to stereotyping and possibly outright xenophobia.

Having lived abroad for a while, I’ve found that returning home is what gives me a case of culture shock.  Living abroad permits me to choose which elements of American culture to preserve in my life.  Indeed, in both Ireland and Korea I’ve found that local people tolerate a far greater degree of eccentricity in expatriates than among their compatriots.  On returning home, however, this equation gets reversed.  As I share the same accent and passport as those around me, they expect me to share other characteristics as well.  They find the ready availability of high quality cheese unremarkable and the concept of drinking vinegar bizarre.

Do you live outside the country where you were born or grew up?  If so, what are the strangest things about coming home for you?

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5 Comments

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  1. tiramit / Jun 13 2013 3:26 am

    Thanks for this post. Interesting, I recognize the situation, the people at home expect you to have the same understanding as they do, but your world view is different because you live in another culture. And the people in your host country expect you to see things the way they do because you’re living in their country, but that’s a learning process and ongoing. So, there you are situated between two cultures, not really belonging to either; just somebody passing through – it’s a nice feeling. I also was interested in the bit about drinking vinegar and will look into this. There’s a Korean shop here in Delhi.

    • A Mindful Traveler / Jun 13 2013 4:16 am

      Thank you for the kind comment, you summarize my feelings (and I suspect the feelings of many expats) beautifully. The drinking vinegar is quite tasty (it’s sweetened) and you dilute it 5 or 6 to 1 with water. To avoid damaging your teeth from drinking too much of it, I recommend chewing Xylitol gum afterwards. (The Korean Lotte Xylitol Ice Mint brand is the tastiest – the original flavor is green apple, a bit strange for gum, to my tastes anyway!) It also acts as something of a hunger suppressant – which helps me to sit in the evening on an empty stomach. (This is also why it’s popular in Korea, the only rich country in the world where women are on average underweight.) I like the Pomegranate and Raspberry flavors, I believe they also sell it in blueberry.

  2. willc88 / Jun 13 2013 1:17 pm

    Spot on! I moved to Mexico 18 months ago and went back to the UK for a couple of weeks last summer to catch up with mates and family. I loved being back but it felt weird, I tend to imagine the UK now as this magic land where everything is brilliant but that’s not true. Not much seems to have changed, and I don’t complain about the weather nearly half as much as I used to while I noticed that it still remains topic of choice back home haha. Now I’m used to kissing everyone when I say hi… Tried that at home and just got stared at like I was trying to hit on everybody! It’s funny just the little differences that make you feel out of place at home!

    • A Mindful Traveler / Jun 13 2013 6:40 pm

      Thank you very much for your kind words willc88! I’m glad that the post spoke to you. Do people in Mexico kiss on one cheek (like Argentina) or two (like France)?

      • willc88 / Jun 13 2013 7:38 pm

        It’s a one cheek kiss here. I kissed a friends mum and she got all flustered hahaha!

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