Thursday, February 26, 2015

Here and There -Thoughts on Reverse Cultural Shock


A little over a week ago I came back to the US from Thailand. Moving from country to country, continent to continent is something I'm used to. That said, I still get reverse culture shock every time I come back to the country of my birth. Though the world is always getting smaller, there are some big differences in the way cultures across the world think and operate. If you're an ex-pat, one of your biggest challenges is often having to readjust some aspects of your self to fit the particular culture you find yourself living in at that time.


I thought I'd share some of the recent experiences that made me a bit discombobulated as I try to put myself into America mode after being abroad for another two years.



-Instinctively Wanting to Say Thank You in Another Language Besides English


When I came back to the US last Thursday, I touched down in San Francisco so I could meet up with some friends. Staying in the Bay Area meant that I was in close proximity to a number of immigrant communities and a diverse range of cultures. 

In some ways this made the process of going back easier. At the same time, encountering so many nationalities behind the counter of a restaurant or store instinctively made me want to say thank you in one of the languages I've used over the years besides English. This was, I'll add, regardless of whether the person in front of me knew said language or not. I was able to catch myself most of the time though I still ended up saying 'Kup Khun Krap' in Thai to an Afghan man.


-Remembering that Trains Do Arrive On Time Here

It's not just trains though. Everything here arrives on time...or they're supposed to. Planes, trains, automobiles. They're expected to be fueled up, checked out and ready to go when you are. People are flustered or outraged if there's a long delay. 


A timetable in a train or bus station in Thailand or Egypt is often outdated or only followed half-heartedly. It's a surprise in those corners of the world if anything takes off on time without some sort of delay. 

As such, I tend to be skeptical or schedules and timetables everywhere, though they're far more revered in the States than in the other places I've lived.



-Being Awkwardly Cautious when Crossing the Street 


The fact that laws and regulations are regularly enforced in the US makes me extra cautious. That's especially true when I cross the street. Unlike other parts of the world you can't always bolt across in the middle of traffic. For the most part, pedestrians in the States use the cross-walks and drivers stop for them as they move. I'm used to this system now, just as I'm used to bolting in other countries. However, for the first few days that I'm back on US soil, I find myself standing awkwardly on certain sidewalks resisting the urge to suddenly sprint through the gaps between two cars to get to the other side.



 -Seeing Impoverished White People

My longest experiences abroad have been in countries where there the majority of the population is not Caucasian. While I'm living there, the only other White Westerners I see are people working abroad like myself, retirees tourists. All of them are okay financially, in contrast to some (not all) but some of the local population. Put more simply, you don't see white people begging or sleeping on the street in Bangkok or Cairo.

In Oakland or DC or Chicago, that's not at all the case. It can be jarring to remember that not everyone is as well off in the West as you might think.

-Understanding Everything that Everyone is Saying 

I have smatterings from a variety of languages stuck in my head, from Thai to Arabic. However, I'm only fluent in English. As such, when I'm outside the US I can only understand bits and pieces of conversations that are going on around me in another language. 

This all changes when I'm back in the States. Suddenly, everyone around me speaks the same language I do and it can overwhelm my ears.

-The Bluntness of American Speech

Americans are direct and very blunt. This isn't in and of itself a bad thing. However, when you come from Southeast Asia, where hospitality and politeness are extremely important and vital matters are handled in a roundabout way, it can be a little shocking. 

-You Can't Really Tell Who is a Foreigner and Who Isn't at First Glance 


Americans are an extremely diverse people. A person being of Asian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, or African descent isn't an accurate gauge for whether someone is or isn't American. This a beautiful aspect f American life and it can also be a challenging one for those re-assimilating after being gone for a while. Even though you're American and even though the internet still makes you feel connected to the States, you do miss certain developments in the culture. And at a first glance, you're expected to know how to act and how to speak all the time

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