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!!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’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…