As I booked my plane ticket for my trip from Costa Rica back to the States, I started daydreaming about fluffy Q-tips, being able to throw toilet paper in the toilet, the feeling of hot water from the sink, dishwashers, smooth roads, clear windshields, intermittent windshield wipers…the list of luxuries goes on. But as soon as I landed and stepped in to the Houston International Airport, I could tell I didn’t feel comfortable in my home country anymore. The loud speakers blaring rude warnings about watching my bags and rainbow colored threat levels compared to the pleasant Latin music in Costa Rica’s airport was the first sign things were off. The second sign was my bewilderment when I tried to hand the clerk my credit card but was instead asked to slide it through a machine. ¿Que? And the third sign came as I stumbled over English words like it was my second language.
At this point, I realized I was experiencing what all my travel and expat buddies have been talking about – reverse culture shock. The phenomenon in which you come back to your home country after months or years of living in another culture, fully expecting to feel as if everything is the same as it was before you left. But it’s not. How can it be? Living in another culture and trying to fit in, learning about the culture, or at least making your daily routine in a land with new rules, a different landscape, and different people will change a person.
Living in Costa Rica has certainly changed me. I have become quite accustomed to driving like a madwoman among maniacs in our 1980s Ford Festiva — obeying all the traffic rules and following the US driving courtesies is now foreign to me. I also, surprisingly, have become accustomed to throwing toilet paper in the trash — I found myself doing this several times during my stay in the States (sorry Mom).
One of the most positive changes I have experienced is a new level of patience and calm. The things in life that I found difficult while I was living in the States are now easy compared to some of the challenges faced here in Costa Rica. In the States, waiting for Time Warner to show up within a 4-hour window was torture. Compare this to waiting for a year for ICE (Costa Rica’s cable, phone, and internet government-run company) to show up or standing in line for 3 hours to get phone service and Time Warner suddenly seems like heaven. Having a job with a defined window of work hours, overtime, paid vacations, sick days — these are all luxuries and mostly unattainable in Costa Rica. Despite government laws, it is common for a workday to exceed 8 hours into 10 or 12 without overtime compensation and for vacation days to be taken away with the threat of not having a job when you return. Having to deal with all that and more has forced me to sit back and chill and be pura vida — I’d die of stress if I didn’t.
One of the most difficult changes I am experiencing is with communication. I learned Spanish, and while I still struggle to speak it fluently, I am able to write, read, and understand 90%. What I discovered on my recent visa run back to the States was that there are quite a few words and phrases that come to me naturally and automatically in Spanish. For example, “digame,” which means, “tell me.”
Hey Erin, Guess what?
Digame! Doh! I mean, umm, what, tell me!
Or “regaleme,” which means “give me” or “hand me.”
Regaleme una cerveza. Doh! I mean please give me a beer :/
Or starting every question with “Que,” “Como,” or “Por que” as opposed to “What,” “How,” or “Why.”
My grammar is a mess, too. I oftentimes find myself speaking and writing in English words, but using Spanish grammar or vice versa. Learning another language is supposed to make you smarter — right? But all it’s done for me is screw with my head so now I sound like an idiot in BOTH languages! I suppose that will subside with time, hopefully. If it weren’t for the Costa Rican English language newspaper that I am working for, I might have forgotten English all together!
Finally, relationships with family and friends change, too. My life in the US was pretty predictable — work from 10 to 6, tennis and socializing from 6:30 to midnight, some yoga here and there. I now spend a good portion of my day cleaning dishes, cooking, hanging out with Julio, scheduling a 3 hour session at ICE to repair my phone plan, repairing or cleaning up after the latest disaster in our house, or traveling around Costa Rica to all the unbelievably amazing places this paradise has to offer. Conversations don’t go very well when all I focus on is how different life is in Costa Rica, or talk about all the amazing trips we take. People’s eyes glaze over. I can’t blame them – mine would, too. You really have to experience it to fully appreciate it. But what else do I have to talk about? No mucho.
So moving forward, I need to find a balance between the two cultures. If possible. I suppose that has been the challenge since day one. I’m lucky to have great friends and family who are very supportive. And having an amazing group of expat and traveling buddies has made this process a million times easier. If you fall into that group, share your stories of reverse culture shock or links to stories of similar experiences below. I’d love to hear them!