My first real experience of culture shock was probably when I returned to the USA, which is called reverse culture shock. I was ten, and had been living in the Philippines for two years. I remember noticing that people didn’t seem as respectful to their elders, once all of those titles were missing, and I wasn’t sure how to address anyone. Table manners and other types of etiquette were really different, and I was afraid of doing something rude. Americans didn’t smile at each other nearly as much as Filipinos do, and so I didn’t feel quite as welcome in my home country. Kids couldn’t do all the things I was used to doing– for example, taking public transport with another child to wherever we needed to go, or building fires in our back yards. I was scandalized by the very short shorts girls wore. Everyone was talking about movies or TV shows I’d never seen, and I felt really out of it. I particularly remember being fascinated by the “lights” down the middle of the roads– my dad explained that they were reflectors, and I felt silly for not knowing something so simple. We were only “home” for several months, but I was glad to get back to a more normal life in the Philippines.
I only went back to live in the USA one more time before I graduated from high school and flew back over to live in my “home country” long-term. It was disorienting enough being a college student for the first time, but I had to also face American culture simultaneously. I remember feeling depressed that people weren’t friendlier, and that I felt like I was in a completely new world when I should have been “at home.” Fortunately, I had wanted to return to the States, unlike some of my classmates. Knowing that I would eventually move back made my experience at boarding school in Manila often feel more like a holding tank– I knew I would leave it all behind eventually, and as graduation drew closer, I had to loosen my grip on just about everything and everyone in my life.
|Here I am, culturally ambiguous at 16. I went to my junior prom wearing a sari I had a dorm sister from Bangladesh pick up for me when she visited her parents. I also pierced my nose (just for the weekend, since it was against school dress code.)|
But in California, I felt like I didn’t know how to do anything, or how to be me in a completely new context. I couldn’t figure out how to dress– I never seemed to be able to look like everyone else. There were no answering machines in the Philippines, and whenever I got one when I was making a call in the States, I would freeze up. I didn’t know how to pump gas because, even though I had a Philippines driver’s license, we never had to pump our own there. Also, I failed my California drivers license test three times! (Undoubtedly in part due to learning to drive in the Philippines!) Using a debit card kind of freaked me out, as did many other automated situations. I could go on and on about the things that I just didn’t know how to do. It didn’t matter that I knew how to wash my own laundry skillfully by hand in a plastic basin, or that I knew how to care for pigs, goats, chickens and turkeys. (OK, monkeys, parrots, geese, and owls too!) That I could kill and gut a chicken myself, and cook it for dinner. That I knew how to check someone’s blood pressure, and that I had cleaned and dressed a hundred wounds in poor areas throughout my adolescence. No one in my new life knew that I spoke another language like a native, and that I could also get around pretty well in Tagalog. Or that I was skillful at squatting for long periods of time and eating neatly with my fingers. It wasn’t relevant that I was frankly pretty amazing at climbing trees. I felt completely inept in the skill set I needed for my new American life. Plus, I basically looked the same as everyone else, so no one treated me like a foreigner that needed help.
I eventually figured it all out… But it took a long time, and as I have mentioned before, I never felt completely at home in America. I felt more like an immigrant with roots. Having overcome that major transition, and having since spent time in several other foreign countries, I thought I would probably have a pretty significant leg-up on culture shock. In fact, I felt naively un-shockable. But lately, I have realized that I am dealing with culture shock here in the UK, and it has taken me by surprise. I will write more soon about the things that have thrown me for a loop here, but I wanted to get the conversation started.
What has your experience been with culture shock or reverse culture shock? If you haven’t lived overseas, do you have a story to tell about helping someone else transition to your culture?