All international students face a culture shock when we begin our studies in the United States. Getting accustomed to the different weather, being away from your family for the first time, having to speak a different language, and dealing with different customs of everyday life are all part of the culture shock. Homesickness gets the best of you as you begin settling into your life in the States and it’s okay. You learn to live on your own, you’ll make new friends, and you’ll eventually adapt to the way of life in this foreign country; at the back of your mind, however, you’ll always miss home.
Let’s fastforward to the end of your first year at university. You feel like an American, now that you know your American slang terms and pick up the accent. You eat rice a lot less and burgers and fried food a lot more now. You’ll be saying goodbye to your friends as all of you part ways for the summer and you’re excited to see your friends and family back home. But once you set foot on your home turf, home feels a lot different from what you had at the back of your mind. You notice the people act differently from the U.S. and you feel somewhat foreign again, except this is your home. You struggle to comprehend this incongruence.
This is known as reverse culture shock. It’s essentially the feeling of being foreign in your home country, usually after living abroad for a significant amount of time. I finished my third year of school at the University of Minnesota and I have only been home once prior to that. I’m now back home in Penang, Malaysia and I’m currently struggling with reverse culture shock too. It can definitely get frustrating, but it will be a good learning experience overall. I would like to share with you some of my experiences with reverse culture shock as I struggle to comprehend what doesn’t feel like home.
I’ve been in Penang for the past five days now. The first thing I notice is the Malaysia’s reputation for some of the most suicidal drivers. It’s kamikaze on the streets. Drivers swerve through lanes and motorcycles squeeze between cars at unfathomable speeds. The drivers have no sense of consideration for others and no respect for traffic laws. It frustrates me, especially since drivers in Minnesota are so passive and kind to motorists and pedestrians alike. The worst part is that I’ve known the driving culture here my whole life; it’s no different today from how it was three years ago yet it feels so different right now. This baffles me.
The other day, my flip-flops broke and I went to the shopping mall to get a new pair. I also checked out a couple of stores and the gym at the top floor of the mall since I had not seen the mall in three years. Immediately, I could not help but notice the difference in customer service and work culture between here and the United States. The staff at the store where I got my flip-flops were not very helpful when I asked them questions and they seemed almost dismissive. Other stores did not acknowledge my existence when I stopped by. At the gym, a customer had been waiting for an attendant for five minutes before someone came to serve him because no one was to be seen at the front counter. In the United States, however, retail staff are always there to answer any questions and are very helpful to find what you need. They’re also a lot friendlier. Like in the previous instance, I knew the norm for customer service the whole time yet it feels so foreign to me having lived in one of the most extroverted countries in the world.
Reverse culture shock doesn’t always sound as miserable; it progresses through stages similar to what you would experience in your very first culture shock moving to the U.S. Think of it as a roller coaster signifying different phases of culture shock.The first four stages indicate the first culture shock experience when you move abroad and the latter four represent the reverse culture shock when you return home.
It starts with the honeymoon stage, where everything nice about home appeals at first: the food, the ever-warm weather, the beach just half a mile away, and the cheap cost of living. No honeymoon lasts and before long, the crisis stage kicks in when cultural differences begin to surface; that’s what I’m currently going through as I write this. On top of the struggle to comprehend cultural differences, I feel bored too since I don’t know what to do here. I’d usually be rock climbing, juggling, going out with friends, or hanging around on campus back in Minneapolis but I don’t have any of those here. Following these two stages are the recovery and adjustment phases, essentially readjusting to life here in Penang. Hopefully I’ll hit the recovery phase soon and readapt to life at home.
Despite the frustrations I go through, I am starting to see some of the silver lining. Eating out for the past couple of days, I have come to appreciate Malaysian cuisine a lot more, along with the dining culture of roadside stalls and incredibly cheap yet authentic food. I remember telling myself: “I do miss this a lot.” All in all, such transitions are part of life. You can’t expect life to be a bed of roses where all life transitions go perfectly smoothly and without emotional distress. I will admit, the crisis stage is not the best feeling in the world but I need to persevere, just as you would when you live abroad for the very first time. These struggles will definitely make you more mature and will reflect your level of perseverance. After all, what doesn’t kill you shows how strong you really are.