16 Ways Reverse Culture Shock Kicks my Butt

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When I was in college, I often wondered what the heck was wrong with all my friends who were coming back from studying abroad for an extended period of time. They left as fun, talkative people and came back as silent edge-of-the-crowd lurkers. Did they not have a good time? What happened over there? Sometimes I felt like shaking them, “Snap out of it and say something!!”

hanging out under palm trees in costa rica

You want me to leave THIS?!

Well, I’m one of those people now. In the States, I’m the silent lurking type.

I should have known. My friends were experiencing reverse culture shock and although I’ve lived abroad before, I was young and never wrapped my head around the phenomenon until I started living in Costa Rica. It’s actually something I think about a lot now.

Am I totally screwing myself over by living among different cultures?

Right now, I’m sitting on the plane, headed to my hometown for an extended vacation away from paradise. It’s the annual expat pilgrimage back “home” for the holidays. I’m super excited about seeing my friends and family, and about enjoying some things I can’t enjoy in Costa Rica, like excessive amounts of delicious draft beer. However, every lengthy trip back to the States is accompanied by weeks of pre-trip anxiety over the reverse culture shock that every expat or long term traveler faces when going back home. I’m thinking that if I write about it and get it out of my system, it might not bother me that much…

16 ways reverse culture shock kicks my butt

i.e., 16 things that are going to make me really uncomfortable while visiting my hometown…

1. The cold weather.

Sure, I can bundle up in winter clothes and sit outside by the fire pit, but that is not the same as taking my laptop out on a sunny day and working under the shade of a palm tree that is surrounded by an abundance of colorful tropical flowers under a bright blue sky. Why don’t more people live in Florida?

2. Having to wear the same outfit 3 weeks in a row.

ropa americana costa rica

Having fun with the beach wizard outfit. I have big plans for this gem.

I only own one cold weather outfit and it is really only a tank top with a lightweight jacket and jeans. This means I will be borrowing clothes. I went shopping in Costa Rica for some long-sleeved shirts or sweaters and couldn’t find anything that fits. My arms fit into the XXX Large size, but the torso was always too wide (I could fit 2 or 3 of me in it) and it stopped short of my belly button. The Ropa Americana shops usually have leftover Goodwill gems that fit me, but the only thing I managed to find on this shopping spree was an amazing beach wizard costume. Huge success for life, major fail for winter holiday vacation.

3. Having more than two options when ordering a beer.

Food and drink menus in Costa Rica are predictable and often feature the same selection of items. The 2 affordable beers are Imperial and Pilsen. I’m an avid Imperial fan, so BAM one option. Easy.

4. The lack of tropical plants and animals.

I’ve grown quite accustomed to living in a tropical paradise and to walking through a rainbow cloud of fluttering butterflies every time I walk down the stairs of my treehouse.

5. The lack of dogs and puppies running all over the place.

I absolutely love dogs. I especially love friendly Costa Rican dogs who are so independent and always on a mission, but always take the time to stop to say hello.

puppy in costa rica

Just another day, another puppy :)

6. Getting sick.

In the States, I can’t just walk into a pharmacy and order a prescription or take a 5 minute, 5 dollar trip to the doctor. I stocked up on antibiotics… traveler’s health insurance isn’t applicable if you get sick or injured within something like 150 miles of your permanent address. I will be staying 0 miles from my permanent address. Fail. Fingers crossed I stay healthy.

7. Clean sterilized streets and stores.

This is kind of like the feeling you get when you spend an extended amount of time in a North American hospital. Everything is so clean and sterile and has that weird harsh chemical smell feebly attempting to mask organic smells. That is what it is like for me to be in a city in the States after being in the tropics.

8. Obeying traffic laws.

This sounds dramatic and rebellious, but really it’s just about common sense. For example, if the one lane road is wide enough to accommodate two cars, then drive to the side so two cars will fit. If the light is red and there are no cars coming or pedestrians crossing, drive through the red light. Don’t just wait there. Duh.

9. Street signs.

It’s incredibly disorientating to follow street signs and highway signs after becoming accustomed to cardinal and landscape-oriented directions in Costa Rica. I might need to borrow a GPS, so someone can just tell me where to go instead of trying to figure it out myself like I used to do.

avenida segunda costa rica

We don’t need street signs. I mean look at all those huge landmarks in downtown San José that are obviously more visible than a tiny street sign.

10. Having to arrive to places at the actual time I said I would be there and not 2 – 3 hours later.

I’ve always been that person who arrives late, but in Costa Rica it’s acceptable because we are all on Tico Time… and I am now a person that arrives early.

11. Mass consumption.

Why is there a Super Walmart and Target on every corner?

12. Houses without gates.

Gates keep people out of my personal space. I can hang out with my doors and windows wide open and not worry about peeping toms, thieves, or stalkers getting anywhere near me because there is a giant metal gate surrounding my property. Gates have become a symbol of comfort and security.

13. Not hearing Spanish all the time.

The last time I was in the States, I followed a Spanish speaking family around a CVS store for 20 minutes just to hear the language and feel more at home. It’s not that I think Spanish is better than English, it’s that I have grown to enjoy hearing the passionate language. Plus, it took (it is taking) a lot of effort to learn it – I want to use it! I’d be happy if Spanglish became the language of the future.

14. Ordering things or asking common questions in English.

It’s happening to me right now. I asked the native English speaking flight attendant for a Coke in Spanish. I asked my seat mate what time it was in Spanish grammar, with English vocabulary. “Do you have the hour?” Que verguenza. I’m tripping over my own tongue.

15. Not being able to talk about Costa Rica.

adventures in costa ricaIt’s totally normal to talk about what is going on in your environment. The environment that I spend most of my time in is Costa Rica. I can’t relate to how much traffic is on Assembly this afternoon vs. how much was there last week – I am comparing it to San José. I can’t participate in a conversation about how much it is raining without thinking it pales in comparison to the monsoons in Costa Rica. The new ice rink downtown is cool, but blades and giant blocks of ice just aren’t my thing. I’d rather be swinging on a rope like Tarzan, white water rafting, snorkeling, hiking through the tropical rainforest… basically doing anything outside that doesn’t involve winter coats. At risk of boring my friends and alienating myself, I will have to keep my mouth shut. So what exactly should I talk about? (nothing, be a silent lurker)

16. Not being able to speak openly about any of the things above.

For the past month, all my expat friends have been talking about how excited they are to go home and see friends and family, but also about how hard it is going to be. Writing this list has been my way of dealing with the reverse culture shock and hopefully getting it out of my system so I can focus on friends and family and not feel too weird about the rest of it. Maybe I’ll even find things to talk about…

Have you experienced reverse culture shock? What are some of the things that you notice about your own experiences?

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24 Responses to “16 Ways Reverse Culture Shock Kicks my Butt”

  1. December 21, 2012 at 6:01 am #

    Great article Erin!
    I’m always blown away at American prices when I come home. A latte and a muffin from Starbucks… $12.50. A dress shirt to wear to an Xmas party $100…. yeah just try charging those prices in Central America.

    Nevertheless, welcome home!

    • Erin Morris
      December 21, 2012 at 8:42 am #

      Good point. I just paid $12 for a burrito and cup of tap water. At least I got a meal out of my $12!

  2. Joseph
    December 21, 2012 at 1:17 pm #

    Erin, I lived in Bavaria, Germany for two years. When I came home, I was shocked at the huge variety of things for sale in stores. And being that I am Texan, the skies looked so blue and wide open. In Germany, it’s mostly grey skies. Also, everything looked new. I was used to seeing things date back to the 1400′s in Germany. Finally, the way people dressed was a shock. Loud, bold and blatant colors.

    • Erin Morris
      December 21, 2012 at 5:24 pm #

      Very interesting. I remember the grayness of Denmark, Germany’s neighbor.
      I was noticing the huge pine trees today in SC – so much taller than anything in Costa Rica.

  3. December 21, 2012 at 4:12 pm #

    After trekking in Bhutan, I was struck by how prissy American women can be. A few days after arriving home, I went to a 5K.held as a fundraiser for a local wildnerness park. Their bathrooms weren’t designed for a lot of women at the same time so the water tanks ran out as the lines of women grew longer. No one wanted to go in till the water had refilled so they could flush. After having peed behind bushes and some pretty nasty squat toilets in Bhutan, I thought nothing of contributing to some water that looked perfectly clean to me. The idea that everyone had to wait 5 minutes between each stall use really floored me. When I stated I didn’t have a problem with it and went ahead, I got a lot of disgusted looks from the other ladies. Americans take their public restrooms for granted!

    • Erin Morris
      December 21, 2012 at 5:27 pm #

      Wooowwwww. …well, at least you got to skip the line…

  4. December 22, 2012 at 2:36 am #


    What a wonderful post. I’ve been living abroad for nearly 20 years now in France mostly (my husband and children are French).

    I go “home” roughly every two years or so and each time I feel a little more foreign. Most of the friends I knew back there have moved away (or passed away) and it feels as though every years the connection which was so strong in the beginning is fading away. I think very soon I will no longer have any reason to go back to the US unless one of my children moves there.

    Things that still perturb me when I go back to Seattle: huge stores, people who don’t know me smiling at me, no nonsense cops you can’t charm (no Systeme D in the US), how everything is so explicit and how everything is explained to you three times over until your eyes are rolling in your head and you have to read and sign a document of 20+ pages before you can get a tattoo, how inexpensive everything is (I can buy a lot in the US with my Euros) and finally all that space in American houses with the multiple bathrooms and huge living rooms (feels cold to me and I find I prefer smaller cosier spaces)……

    • Erin Morris
      December 22, 2012 at 10:25 am #

      Hey Victoria, Thanks for sharing your interesting perspective! I’m with you on the cops thing – it’s unnerving.

  5. December 22, 2012 at 2:35 pm #

    Hi Erin!

    Great article! Boy oh boy! Can I ever relate. After 10 years here, heading back “home” is often a big shock!

    Wishing you luck – and the happiest of holidays!


    • Erin Morris
      March 28, 2013 at 8:56 pm #

      I can’t imagine what it would be like after 10 years, I’ve only got 3 under my belt!

  6. Jamie
    December 25, 2012 at 7:47 am #

    Merry Christmas, Erin!

    This is a great post.

    Living here in the very rural Southern Pacific of Costa Rica, it is easy to talk about all the things we miss from the States, but we often do not talk enough about the things that we love here and what we miss when we are not here.

    Thank you for providing a different perspective. It reminds me yet again all I have to be grateful for.


    • Erin Morris
      December 25, 2012 at 10:33 am #

      ohhh it’s gorgeous in the Southern Pacific!! Merry Christmas!

  7. December 28, 2012 at 12:59 pm #

    Very interesting, just remember it’s not a bad thing!

    I’ve felt the same thing when coming back from Nicaragua. Though I wasn’t an expat I spent enough time there that the symptoms hit me. The smells, the way somethings have changed but most hasn’t.

    • Erin Morris
      March 28, 2013 at 8:58 pm #

      It’s not a bad thing but it’s definitely a challenge.

  8. Heather
    March 28, 2013 at 5:35 pm #

    the biggest thing that got me was landing in Miami and hearing my peers all talking about the trashy reality shows…….

    • Erin Morris
      March 28, 2013 at 9:00 pm #

      ugh YES. Everyone was going on and on about Honey Booboo and I looked her up on youtube – I saw the highlight reel and was disgusted. Or the housewives series… man, that junk just spreads negativity.

  9. May 7, 2013 at 3:32 am #

    After being overseas for a long period of time I had a mini melt down in a supermarket in suburban NJ. I could not understand why there were so many different kinds of jarred spaghetti sauce – there were like hundreds of different varieties. Just too much. But, I love your comment about the beers. I love being overseas, particularly in the developing world, and a bar or restaurant only has one kind of beer, or maybe two. It’s just a beer – give me one cold and I’ll be happy.

    • Erin Morris
      May 7, 2013 at 9:27 am #

      Totally understand the supermarket mini melt down. Toothpaste and toothbrush options freak me out.

  10. May 16, 2013 at 1:00 pm #

    Haha, great post! I’ve spent the last year backpacking and using Puerto Viejo as my home base. I can sooo relate to every single of one these when I’m in the states. The best is when you start talking about life abroad and people stare blankly and politely say “you really like it down there.”

  11. February 10, 2014 at 3:14 pm #

    I love this!! You inspired me to write my own blog about reverse culture shock! http://annasadventureblog.blogspot.com.es/2014/02/reverse-culture-shock.html

    • Erin Morris
      March 1, 2014 at 9:43 pm #

      :) nice post, hahahahaha I had the same reaction – what the heck is Duck Dynasty?! Everyone was talking about it and boring me to tears!

  12. Schobes
    March 10, 2014 at 2:41 pm #

    Great article that is totally relatable! I am from Seattle but did a year and half stint in New Zealand and when I returned to Seattle it was hard to relate to even my closest friends. I had a hard time contributing to conversations as I kept wanting to start sentences off “oh well in New Zealand…” It was fine at first then I could sense that people didn’t really care that a Kiwi’s version of a hot dog was a meat pie so I just kept my mouth shut. But, after a while, I got a Netflix account and a 9-5 and began to be able to talk to people again!

    • Erin Morris
      March 19, 2014 at 9:04 pm #

      “a Netflix account and a 9-5″ :O noooo, so sad. Well, at least you have friends!

  13. Brooke
    April 15, 2014 at 3:57 pm #

    I’ve been reading your blog inside and out and I love how specific you are! I’m seriously considering moving to CR and I’m nervous about how different it will be! But in a good way! SOOO much to plan. Anyways, love your blog! :):)

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