10 realities of reverse culture shock

Reverse culture shock is returning home after living in another country for an extended period of time. In my case, I lived in Vietnam for two and a half years and returned to New York City last March. It has been well over a year and I still haven’t “recovered” but I don’t plan to. I was never homesick while living in Ho Chi Minh City. In fact, I loved the culture and found more ways than I thought to personally associate with it. I made several attempts to assimilate back into American culture but decided that the hassle wasn’t worth it. Here are my ten realities of reverse culture shock and how I chose to cope with each of them.

1. No one cares
Since my prime years of life were spent in Southeast Asia, I’m going to talk about it often. Unfortunately, people don’t care. Just ask Andy – she’ll tell you the same. Reuniting with family and friends wasn’t about telling my story, it was about listening to theirs and what happened when I was gone. And frankly, if they don’t care, I don’t care either. I’ve stopped trying to amuse people with my adventures because they’ll never get it anyway. You have to be okay with that and move on. However, if you find people who do care about your stories, cling onto them for dear life. Those are rare gems.

2. You’re automatically pretentious
The moment I start a story with, “When I was in [name of a Southeast Asian country],” I automatically become pretentious. When I tack on the name of any country in Southeast Asia, people roll their eyes, stop listening and go back to their phones. It gets worse if I mention a city where people are not familiar with like Kota Kinabalu or Luang Prabang. Now, I own up to it because if it comes down to this, I am pretentious. I lived through an exciting experience in a phenomenal region of the world. You’re jealous, I know. What are you going to do about it?

3. You experience expat withdrawals
Life as a foreigner in Ho Chi Minh City was incredible. Being an expat gave me celebrity status. I did my best to remain humble and appreciative but I can’t help reminisce about it because it’s not every day I am called beautiful for being Japanese and given special treatment. It was amazing to be able to afford a comfortable lifestyle where people went out of their way to help you. Currently, I don’t have a six-figure bank account and I live in expensive New York City where I have to fend for myself so life isn’t anywhere near comfortable. But I’ll get there. I’m working on it.

4. You wish you didn’t understand the local language again
I looked forward to landing in John F. Kennedy International Airport because I couldn’t wait to be surrounded by English. I hadn’t crossed immigration yet when my excitement evaporated. Now that I’m surrounded by fluent English-speakers, I understand every conversation around me and a majority of them are negative. In addition, people talk loudly and I can’t cope with that. During commutes, I stuff my ears with headphones and blast Gnarls Barkley. And if I have to talk, I’ll be loud and obnoxious so I fit in. I can’t unlearn English so I do what I can to block out things I don’t need to hear.

5. You’ll never be compatible with American culture
I’m not even sure if I was ever compatible with American culture to begin with. I assumed American culture was about embracing uniqueness so I didn’t think I would have a tough time with this. Unfortunately, coming home felt strange and alienating because people reacted to my behavior oddly. I guess I picked up more than a few habits that are not socially acceptable in the United States. But then again, non-Americans say Americans are sensitive so maybe that’s the problem. I like this and will use this as an excuse for my behavior.

6. Others only see the “wrong” changes
Apparently, I became more blunt, racist, sexist, snobbish, pretentious, closed-minded and everything else with a negative connotation. It’s irrelevant that I’ve significantly grown as a human being and my capacity to feel empathy for others has expanded. In addition, I’ve opened up my views on the world and the way different cultures react to different situations. If others only see the wrong changes, that’s their problem and not mine. People only see the things that they are capable of exhibiting to the world so if I look at people’s potential and growth, I know they will reciprocate.

7. Misunderstandings happen all the time
Someone should have told me I would experience more misunderstandings in the United States than in Vietnam. Realistically, how does this happen? My knowledge of the English language is impeccable on numerous scales but that becomes unimportant in everyday communication here. A huge part of the problem comes from people trying to interpret what I say rather than taking it at the face value. And since most communication happens over text messaging, it’s harder to convey meaning through it. I try to be as clear as possible. However, I can’t be bothered to envision how the other person will receive it. If they react poorly, then I will stop talking to them.

8. People assume things
Expats have bad reputations for being complete losers back home and behaving like savages when they go abroad. To an extent, this is true. However, if I am one of those people, then someone should tell me because I lived life believing I’m not. People have also assumed that my teaching life didn’t provide solid skills to succeed in the next chapter of my career and have denied me jobs because of it. This was upsetting in the beginning but I made it my mission to tell my story in a compelling way that makes me irresistible. And since I have given up on trying to convince people of anything, I’ll let them believe what they want to believe.

9. You become too direct for people
You know, I really like you and appreciate how honest you are. I wish everyone could be as raw and blunt as you.” Aside from the fact that this is a lie, I agree that people should be blunt. Being honest is something I picked up as a result of living overseas. When faced with language barriers and cultural miscommunications, the need to be as clear as possible becomes real. Even as a teacher, I had to be straightforward with students when they were saying things incorrectly. This skill got me what I needed and avoided uncomfortable conflicts. It also taught me the value of asking for what I want. Unfortunately, being upfront is a curse. But since I’m too comfortable in my bluntness, I refuse to change and I will stick to being who I am.

10. Sometimes, you don’t even know who you are
You really don’t. I’m not quite American because I’m not a citizen but I grew up here. I’m not quite Japanese because I’m not bowing all the time but I still use chopsticks and eat natto for breakfast. I’m more than okay with being someone born into the human race and living as a global citizen. People have this obsession to stick you into their mental gridlines and then assume you’re an asshole if you go outside of it. Before, I used to take this extremely personally because I was sensitive and wanted to please others. Now? I try to examine what the other person’s gridlines are and try really hard to go far past it. Their reactions are priceless and I live for that.

After a while, I said, “Screw it.” I gave up trying to adjust back to American culture and decided to embrace the odd, quirky human being that I’ve become as a result of my overseas experience. Over the months, I realized that reverse culture shock isn’t really the problem but the people I surrounded myself with and how I approached it. Why should I suffer through the process of coming back home when I don’t have to? The biggest lesson I learned from this process was to approach my post-overseas life not as a backwards thing but to continue on the path of self-betterment and do whatever it takes to be Riri awesome.



Showing 6 comments
  • Sol Blog

    Riri, you are AMAZING. I understand you and relate to everything you share here. Being a blunt Argentinian, I often feel misunderstood, but I also feel liberated in who I am and how I communicate with the world. You can be blunt, and also be incredibly caring. What you see is what you get, a strong, real, confident and delightful human, hungry for experiences, and in love with life. You are incredibly unique, and, the thing is that uniqueness, sometimes, creates discomfort in others. Good listeners and people who will sit with you and tune in, and listen and care about your experiences are out there. It is a wonderful thing, when we find those friendships and audiences. I find the outspoken, confident types, fun to be around, engaging, inspiring…I want to learn more, share, laugh, and exchange…Keep doing You!

    • Riri Nagao

      Sole, you worded this so beautifully and I can completely relate to how you’re feeling. I genuinely appreciate bluntness, which is probably why I always went back to you for capstone support. You’re absolutely right that being unique and quirky creates discomfort in others. I’ve learned to not take it personally and boldly proclaim my uniqueness. Let’s keep setting examples of what global-mindedness looks like!

  • koobazaur

    Hah pretty much all of it rings true for me e after my travels as well. And American loudness was the first thing i noticed after Japan too lol

    • Riri Nagao

      I definitely wasn’t prepared for the loudness!

      • koobazaur

        Also, definitely was saddened about the “nobody cares” point. Even my own family, after my 2 months of backpacking, didn’t even inquire where I went or what I did 😐 But boy were they eager to talk about their travels…

        • Riri Nagao

          That, to me, was the hardest reality to swallow. People really love talking about themselves and barely asked about my life. Nowadays, I rarely mention living in Southeast Asia unless the conversation takes me there. Even if people don’t care, you know that you had an incredible time and I’m comfortable with that.

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