Monday, July 1, 2013

Culture Shock at Home

It was surreal. I wasn't firing on all cylinders. My mind felt hazy and heavy. Maybe on sensory overload.

The aisles were wider, longer, and taller than what I've been used to for the last 16 months. Though it was my local grocery store and I'd been there countless times over the years, it felt as foreign as the first time I walked into Yangon's CityMart.

American grocery stores are vast and filled with many options. We're kind of spoiled, really ... but that didn't occur to me until I walked down the enormous breakfast cereal aisle last week.

In Yangon, the cereal options were expanding, but you could still count on just a small 2' or 3' square space on the shelves to display availability. There were usually about four different choices or so - not much more than that.

At home, I was shocked to see the entire length of the aisle (at least twice as long as City Mart's aisles) filled with cereal from top shelf to bottom shelf. I could hardly move. My jaw might've dropped open a few inches as I stared.

I still can't get the image out of my head and it's been nearly a week.

Do people really eat that much cereal? Are the flavors all that different? Maybe there were several different box sizes?

Of course I've been down the cereal aisle in the US before, but you adapt to your surroundings: I adapted to limited options (options were treats!) in Myanmar. Often you didn't get options at all: Sometimes items were in stock and sometimes they weren't.

It felt indulgent to buy hummus and my daughter's favorite brand of honey Greek yogurt; but, the ice cream aisle with all the sizes and flavors and brands was almost too much to handle, so I only focused on the section that sold the smallest pots. I grabbed the tiny salted caramel gelato in hopes it would remind me of my recent trip to Italy (even though I didn't have salted caramel gelato in Italy), then got out of that section as fast as I could. My brain was already freezing enough as it was...

Reverse culture shock is as common as culture shock when you arrive to a new country. With each move back home after living overseas, I've experienced it.

Living abroad changes you. Living across the country (in your own country!) changes you. You begin to see things differently. Your values can change.

My idea of bad service at a restaurant is significantly different than what it was before ... so is my idea of bad traffic. At risk of sounding snobby, my tolerance for other Americans' views of bad traffic/bad driving or bad service is pretty low at the moment.

It's not fair for me to get judgy, though. Experience changes perspective. I suspect that after a year, I may give in to complaining about ordinary things that really aren't that important.

After all, I won't live on a road with several bamboo shacks and a garbage heap that the stray dogs eat from. I'll be free to say anything I want about politics or politicians without anyone blinking an eye (except to perhaps argue - but certainly without fear or uncertainty).  My house won't have rats or toads or centipedes or scorpions. I won't have to worry about it raining inside my house every time it rains outside. My concerns will be different. Not easier. Not better. Just different.

If you're repatriating here are a few articles you might want to check out:

Have you lived overseas before then repatriated? How did you handle reverse culture shock?  

p.s. Thank you for your patience during my June holiday! And thanks for re-joining me here to hear about repatriation back in the US and my continued love for Myanmar. 

To read about my journey in the United States as a writer (a single mom writer) and divorcing, then join me over on my professional writing site, Becky Cavender.


  1. It's nice to have you back home Becky. Happy adjusting. It sounds like it may take a little bit of time to get back into the American way of living. All the best getting settled in and finding your way as a single mom. xo

  2. Becky, I had never heard of reverse culture shock until my daughter returned from living overseas on exchange for a year. Moving from the cold winter into the middle of our summer was expected but the effects of moving back and the insights she saw about life back here were huge. Everything from digestion to friendships and a cultural obsession with weight gave her and us gratitude and appreciation for other ways of doing things. Time changes all of us and with a little help of some herbal supplement she slipped back. A year later the symptoms were gone, but that year of travel and those experiences will remain with her and us forever. Travel and time do wonders for the soul. Best wishes with slipping back. :)

    1. Thank you, Suzi! I feel like it's starting to happen now...

  3. My dear friend,
    Reverse culture shock when you come back home is a REAL CULTURAL SHOCK. And yes, as you said, moving and living overseas changes our way to see our country way of life. Yes, we change and we become indulgent. Yes,living abroad changes you. Living across the country changes you and you way to see things and people. And yes, you begin to see things differently. Your values change also.
    And I can tell you, in fact this is very positive. Now, you "fell" just different and you'll have to deal with this. Each time I came back I have had cultural symptoms for few months (or years...) and today I am still living with a little part of my heart in a foreign country I love...This is a part of me now. I wish you the best and may be a nice book about culture reverse shock. Lots of love. Valérie

    1. I love how you said, Valerie, that you now live with a little part of your heart in a foreign country you love. Isn't that the truth? That truly, truly happens. <3

      Thank you for validating the experience. Much love to you!

  4. Welcome back, Becky. You're wise to be patient with yourself as you readjust to our over-the-top American culture.

  5. Hey Becky, I'm glad you've left Burma - seems like it's not a place of too many happy memories. At the end of the day, there really is no place like home!

    1. Thanks for your words, Ninjakitten. There were some challenges in Myanmar, but I certainly have many beautiful memories, too, and I don't regret moving there for one moment. ;)

  6. Becky, Becky, Becky -- what a gem you are! I remember moving out here to Southern California as a teenager and it was SO different than Detroit! Nothing was the same, from restaurants to buildings. Now, of course, we have stores and restarant chains running the gamut of all 50 states. Even TREES were different. No palm trees in Detroit. Now we have cookie cutter store chains, restaurants, and suburban housing developments on all coasts. The only thing that remains different are our families. ;-)

    1. :) Thanks for reminding us that there is even culture shock *within* our own country. Moving is tough - no matter what. And there ARE cultural differences within our big country. :)

      Lots of love.

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