Most people who are looking to live abroad are familiar with culture shock, however the act of returning home from living abroad- reverse culture shock- is not talked about as much. So, what exactly is reverse culture shock? According to Julia Kagan:
“Reverse culture shock is the emotional and psychological distress suffered by some people when they return home after a number of years overseas. This can result in unexpected difficulty in readjusting to the culture and values of the home country, now that the previously familiar has become unfamiliar” (Investopedia.com).
Everyone experiences reverse culture shock differently. There are similarities, but everyone’s experience is different. Most of you probably already know that I spent two and a half years teaching English in Busan, South Korea. I’m going to tell you a bit about the experience of I, and two other friends I met in Korea experienced reverse culture shock.
While I was in Korea, there were some issues back home, and my family moved to another part of the state. One of my uncle’s owned a house in central Florida, so my mom and sister moved there for a while, before getting their own place. I’ve spent most of my life in Miami, FL. That’s where I was born and raised, and lived until I left to teach in Korea. So unlike some people, I was unable to return to the life, and familiarity I had known once I came back. In addition to this, my dad passed away 3 weeks after I arrived in America, and I had no permanent place to stay. I was bouncing back and forth between my mom’s place, and my brother’s house in Orlando when I first returned. Needless to say, readjusting to America was a unique experience that not many can relate to.
The first thing I noticed after landing in Chicago for a layover flight on my way home, was that everyone was speaking English, (duh!)) and it sounded really loud. My flight ended up being delayed a bit, and after awhile, I got really annoyed at being able to understand all of the conversation’s around me. I remember sitting as far away as one can in a crowded airport, and listening to music until it was finally time for me to board the plane. While I do know some Korean, and could get around alright with what I knew, I was far from being fluent. I had gotten used to being in public spaces, and not understanding the conversations going on around me. Being able to understand all of he conversations around me after years of not being able to was weird.
During the first few weeks at home, I was extremely jet lagged, (Korea was 14 hours ahead of EST), and struggled to focus when people were having a conversation with me. English was coming at me fast, hard, and at a higher level than I’d had to use for over two years! I could no longer use Konglish, (Korean+ English) when speaking with friends, it was full on sentences from here on out. This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but a few years being out of an English speaking country, and it becomes a big deal!
Outside of being jet lagged for weeks, and re-learning how to not mentally clock out during conversations, other things that have been difficult to this day, are being in crowds, and having to speak to strangers. Personal space as we know it in the States, does not exist in Korea. I was in close contact with people I did not know every time I left my apartment, so I think that’s why I’m not into crowds as much. Also, being a brown foreigner in Korea was like being a unicorn, so I attracted the attention of a lot of people, and was constantly gawked at while in public. I’m much better now with crowds, and talking to strangers, but if both can be avoided, I’ll take that option.
I’ve been back in the States for 3 and a half years now, and there are still a few things that I adopted in Korea and still do: when handing something to someone or receiving something, I’ll often use two hands, especially if they are older. I use chopsticks more frequently now, and even bought a set of them. Lastly, some friends say that I do more aegyo, (Korean term for “acting cute”) than I did before.
There’s more to my reverse culture shock story that I may share later on. To give you different perspectives, I reached out to Lee-Anne, and Claire, two friends I met in Korea, and who have also returned to their home countries. This is what they had to say about their experiences thus far with reverse culture shock.
Lee-Anne’s Story: The Initial shock
Landing in the UK, everything seemed like how I last left it – gloomy weather, sarcastic people, rich tasting good chocolate, I could slip right into the UK life as if I had never left.
That lasted the entire journey from the airport to my house an hour away. When I started interacting with people I quickly learned that hearing English continually was going to be an adjustment. British English is a much lower pitch and Korean is in the clouds in comparison. I definitely could not understand when people spoke to me because I was used to the latter. It did make me look silly whenever I would ask people to repeat themselves and I’d spend a few moments trying to figure out how to answer.
Honestly, reaccumulating to the UK took well over six months where customs I had unlearned to adjust to Korea (and China) were now priority but I couldn’t remember how to do them. Take for instance, critical thinking. Over and over again, you hear “that’s just how we do things” in as many variations as you can think of so you begin to lose the ability to challenge things because you’ve been constantly discouraged from doing so. Doesn’t work like that in the UK. Not that everyone is a critical thinker but there is space to question things and not be shut down immediately or seen as weird.
I unlearned my fashion style in Korea. Wearing bright colours and showing your shoulders took a moment to readjust when I reached the UK. Asian cultures prohibit showing your shoulders as female and so returning home where that rule doesn’t exist takes a moment because I literally had to buy new clothes – ones that reflected me and not earthy tones/colours that suited the Korean population’s skin complexion and values – white meaning purity for example.
Things I have adopted:
I still give with two hands.
If there are chopsticks available, I will eat with them instead of a knife and fork
Due to people always being in my personal space in Asia, I think I had grown anxious of crowds – lockdown did not help that matter either.
I lived in Taiwan for 2 and a half years, then Korea for 5 years. There was about an 8 month break between the two back in the States. I just recently came home from Korea in March, in the beginnings of a pandemic (great timing! lol). Part of what drove me to move home after so long was wanting to be a part of a culture I felt more at home in. Korea was very easy, for me at least, to get along in and find a rhythm. But, it was never my home. Little things, like knowing which store I could go to to buy certain items, were not second nature to me like they are in the States. Not a big deal, but still, after 5 years I wanted at least a break.
Since moving home, there have been some ups and downs for sure. Some positives to moving back to Texas, and my small hometown at that, was all the space. My hometown is surrounded by the countryside. I could go to my cousins house to hang out and all I could see around her house were cows, horses, and beautiful green fields. Not a neighbor in sight. All the nature and space I definitely missed. And the clean air 🙂 Other small town charms were also nice, like when I’d go on walks with my dog it happened more than once that someone would shout from their car as they passed, “Hey Claire!” And now that I am in a bigger city, I realize how much I missed the diversity of people here.
Now I had already planned my initial few months at home to be more low key and family focused, so the pandemic didn’t necessarily mess with that too much. But, trying to figure out what job to do and where, it definitely made those big questions in my life more complicated. When these kinds of things come up, I have close friends and a counselor that I have been able to talk things through with and lean on. BUT, they are all scattered around the world. The hardest part of this transition period is the lack of immediate, close-to-me community. I had it in Korea, but they are all still in Korea. Friends, church, etc. It’s simply a result of moving from one place to another, but it’s still hard at times. And with my new job and the pandemic, it will be a while before I can physically go out places to meet new people.
Side note: there was also kind of an annoyance that came up with this whole not knowing what I’ll be doing next thing, cause most people’s first question to me when they saw me was “So what are you doing next?” I get that it’s out of genuine concern/interest, or even just a logical question to ask, but if there is advice I could give people is to not ask this question to someone who has just moved home. Maybe that’s just me 🙂
Other little things that still blow my mind are portion sizes lol! Everything is bigger in Texas indeed…:-P I’ve had to adjust back to how big the portion sizes are.
When crossing the street, cars are much more courteous than in Korea. Some stop to let me walk, and I’m like “Oh wow, that is so nice!”
And yes, like Lee-Anne, I also still hand things to people with two hands, and even sometimes do a little bow of the head 🙂