Reverse culture shock?
June 26, 2010 12:18 PM   Subscribe

My significant other is returning to the US after six months of teaching English in China, her first major trip abroad. How can I help her re-assimilation be as smooth as possible?
posted by cjemmott to Travel & Transportation (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Yow. I remember coming back from Japan, my culture shock was much worse coming back to the US than it was going to Japan.

My biggest problem was food. I could not eat an American diet, it made me sick. I had lost 30 pounds in Japan, and lost another 10 before I bottomed out and started adapting crappy, greasy, calorie-laden US food.

I suspect your friend will have a similar problem, and I hope she has learned a little cooking, so she can make her own foods and regulate her own diet. The Chinese food she'll get at restaurants here in the US isn't going to be the same. Maybe she'll know how to order what she needs, off the menu.

Now my second worst problem, I'm not sure it applies since I don't know if she was in HK or the Mainland. I had become adapted to traffic driving on the other side of the road. So I was always looking the wrong way at crosswalks, and several times, I nearly got killed walking in front of oncoming cars. It took me a while to get out of that bad habit.

I don't know if there really is much you can do except ask her what she needs or wants, and help her with that. She will most likely be disorganized, jet lagged, confused, and will have difficulty reintegrating herself into the little self-supporting routines that she has disconnected from here in the US. And she will wish for those support mechanisms she developed in China, but they cannot fully apply here. Try to help her adapt the best of what she learned into new routines and new ways to support herself, both physically and emotionally.
posted by charlie don't surf at 12:51 PM on June 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

I hope my own experiences are helpful to you.

When I returned to the UK after working in a very poor and conflict-ridden bit of Eastern Europe for several months, I found it hard to readjust for a while. The things that I found helped - which may help your S.O. too - were avoiding crowds and glitzy rich places (which just reminded me of how rich the UK is compared to where I had been), and having time just to spend with my S.O., without really trying to do very much, just giving ourselves space to readjust to being together. Countryside and fresh air helped - we had a couple of days away on a rugged coastline.

It'll take time for her to readjust and part of that will be the worry for both of you that she will have changed in that time to such an extent that it will damage your relationship. You both need to acknowledge that she's had this astonishing experience (with some bad bits, I'm sure, but hopefully some great bits too) and that you haven't, but that that's OK. To some extent you'll be getting to know each other all over again, but again that's OK. Give it time and be as patient as you can.

I'm guessing she'll have had to be very self-reliant out there, making decisions by herself and depending on her own judgement. Try to be sensitive to that - it will be strange for her to be trying to take account of your feelings and opinions when making decisions, rather than just getting on with it by herself.

The fact that you're preparing for it in advance and trying to think about how to make it go as well as it can shows a lot of care for her. Be patient with her and with yourself. I do hope things go well.
posted by monster max at 12:52 PM on June 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

I taught in Russia for a year, about four years ago.

I can tell you about the first 24 hours.

My friend H met me at the airport with a hug and some baggage relief. She took me to her place, where I had a hot shower. She had, almost unbelievably, remembered that I love peppermint soap. Peppermint soap was waiting for me by the guest towel. I felt clean and loved.

H then took me on an impromptu midnite trip to a Cub foods where I got fresh salsa with cilantro (I still remember prying open the little plastic bucket with my raw just-cut fingernails and smelling the tomatoes and cilantro together, I'd been craving it for months). I bought a lot of other misc. groceries that night. I felt fed.

After gorging on salsa, H and I had a long conversation about something I don't remember well, and she gave me a hug and we sat close for a while on the bed and watched Russian cartoons on my laptop. I dug some Russian presents out of my bag for her. I fell asleep at some point. It felt OK that I wasn't "on", that my brain was mush and my bones tired.

Her brother is also a close friend, and the next day (or day after?) we traversed the city where I landed (not my home city) and talked about the things we always talk about. At no point did he ask "How's Russia" or other weird-to-answer questions (Don't ask this or demand stories!). The stories came out naturally. I felt comfortable and unhurried.

That was the first 24 hours. Other stuff happened, but that's what I remember most. Beyond that, your SO may desire/need to take care of some things RIGHT AWAY. Be sure to do your best to handle these things immediately and above all else.

Over time, some of the reverse-shock wore off. I remember that most Americans looked really fat (sorry, America), and that the sound of a North Dakota accent was repulsive to me in a way it never had been. Be prepared for her to come back with some anger, displeasure, or judgment that wasn't there before. Most of those things faded with time, about 6 months, IIRC. A lot of the intense emotion of coming back disappeared in that half-year, but the memory of how H handled my return never faded.
posted by fake at 12:55 PM on June 26, 2010 [6 favorites]

When I returned form Japan, having taught English there for two years, the biggest shock I experienced was hearing a language I could understand everywhere I went. Because I never learned Japanese to any great degree, I was used to being able to zone out in crowds to the buzz of speaking around me. So that was a sort of sensory overload. I also tended to bow slightly when speaking to people, to the amusement of my friends and family.

Other than that, I think the most likely shock for your SO of coming back home will be needing to find a job, if that's an issue, and reestablishing herself. Culture shock is a very individual thing, but it was only a problem for me in Japan, not at home.
posted by smilingtiger at 12:55 PM on June 26, 2010

It's more about the crazy, extended travel back than anything else. If the person grew up here - no problem. Give it a day or so.
posted by marimeko at 1:06 PM on June 26, 2010

Ask around to find the most authentic Chinese food in the area, maybe even specific to the region you're coming from. Find out if there's a nearby restaurant with a special "Chinese" menu (it might even be in English). Find an Asian grocery store nearby and plan to take her there on the second or third day. Let her sleep a lot! There will be jet lag.

posted by amtho at 1:37 PM on June 26, 2010

What I wanted more than anything when I returned after a year in Russia was citrus fruit of good quality, several hours in front of a television set, a trip to a standard American diner complete with bottomless coffee, and to do a lot of walking.

Because I returned during the White Nights, I had all this extra energy. I was sleeping about four hours a night ( 1 am - 5 am) the few weeks before I left and feeling like I had slept 10. I was up by four in the morning for several weeks after, and had a really hard time adjusting to the evenings being so dark, even after an entire winter in Saint Petersburg. Burning off my energy by doing all the things I loved to do in my home country was a fabulous reintroduction into my American life. In particular, things I just couldn't do in Russia.

What were your friend's favorite things to do that you know she's missed during her time in China? Make some arrangements to do those things, even if they seem innocuous. Like going to a diner for breakfast.
posted by zizzle at 1:45 PM on June 26, 2010

It's only been 6 months, so the culture shock probably won't be as bad as mine was when I returned from Korea after several years spent living there. Also, it depends on whether or not she had a good experience. But, generally speaking, my advice is: allow her to complain about whatever she wants to complain about; listen to her; and ask her questions about her experience.
posted by smorange at 1:59 PM on June 26, 2010

When I returned form Japan, having taught English there for two years, the biggest shock I experienced was hearing a language I could understand everywhere I went. Because I never learned Japanese to any great degree, I was used to being able to zone out in crowds to the buzz of speaking around me. So that was a sort of sensory overload.

Of course this depends on whether you're fluent in the language or not, and chances are, with the dearth of fluent Chinese second-language-speakers, she probably isn't. But still, I just don't understand how people could live in Japan for 2 years and not become fluent. The spoken language is actually fairly easy.

Anyway, I had just the opposite problem. Since I was over there for language school (studying, not teaching) I was constantly on edge, trying to absorb as much of the language as possible, everywhere I went. Once I got home, I could relax, since I didn't have to try to learn from it or retain any of it.

I have heard stories (even from professional linguists) about native Japanese speakers, that say when they come to the US and speak English, they feel liberated from the heaviness of the formalities of Japanese. For some, it is actually too much to bear, they may feel adrift from the regularity of formalized interactions, and some actually become mentally ill. I knew one exchange student here in the US, he showed up one day in the class lounge, looking like hell. We hadn't seen him in weeks, and we asked where he had been. He said he'd been in the psych ward for weeks, he had a breakdown and was diagnosed as schizophrenic, and was waiting for his ride to the airport to return to Japan, where he would be in rehab for probably a long time.
I was astonished at how forthright the poor fellow was, but he had nothing to lose, I suppose. I was even more astonished because in my J Lit course, at that very moment, we were reading a book by Kenzaburo Oe that describes this exact same situation, an exchange student who goes insane in the US and is shipped back home to the "Happy Smiles Academy."

This usually isn't a problem with Westerners, although I did meet a few Australians in Japan who were quite insane. I never could figure out if they went insane before, or after they came to Japan. Probably some of both. But suffice to say, the foreign experience can be shattering to one's psyche, and some don't realize it until they return. I suppose this depends largely upon one's constitution, and their experiences abroad.
posted by charlie don't surf at 2:02 PM on June 26, 2010

Coming back from 9 months in China, my favorite thing was to get away from crowds and just walk around in the woods where it was quiet and clean. Just getting away from so many people/smells/traffic/etc. was amazingly therapeutic. Maybe a trip to a national park would be nice, assuming that she was in a city.

Other things that helped:
- Mom's home cooking in small portions
- Mexican food (at the time, not available really in China)
- Having some time to just chill out on the sofa in a nicely air-conditioned room with a TV with lots of channels, and a drinking some kind of drink with lots of ice
- Time with friends and family without having to talk about China
- Playing Monopoly and other board games with my cousins, just hanging out together doing sort of brainless things
- Late night walks, getting used to the smells and pace of home
- Taking time to myself, to process all the new things I saw about home through my "Chinese glasses"
- No pressure from anyone for a little while, getting time to get re-acclimated.
posted by gemmy at 2:14 PM on June 26, 2010

I've lived in rural Africa for 15 years. I grew up in the US in New England and return to visit once each year or so. Charlie don't surf's tale reminded me of something that happened about five years ago when I returned to western Mass during wintertime.
I was visiting friends who live in a rural town. One day, we had a beautiful snowfall and I decided to drive to town to pick up some groceries. I drove down their rural mountain road and turned onto the town road going into the village center. I didn't see another car for a while, probably due to the snow. The plows hadn't been out yet- there was about 10 inches of snow everywhere- just gorgeous.
As I drove on, I saw a another car coming towards me about half a mile ahead. As the white pickup truck drove closer to me, I noted he was not really driving in his lane- more in the center of the road. Well- it was snowing, and the road was covered- so I thought everybody's just driving wherever they can. As he got closer now, I noticed he was actually driving on my side of the road. Okay.... Well, maybe he fears ice or something- but he soon had better move the hell over, I thought. Getting closer now, what the hell is he thinking?! Buddy- are you going to get into your lane? Finally, he moved over into his lane, (phew) and we passed each other safely. As he drove by me, he was gave me the oddest bemused expression. Strange... It was then I realized that I had been driving on the WRONG FUCKING SIDE OF THE ROAD. I stopped the car, while the blood drained from most of my body. Jesus Christ...

Now whenever I go to the west and get into the driver's seat, I always say out loud to myself "Keep right- keep right", holding out my right hand as well. This does not exactly go over well with my passengers.

I still occasionally have these little moments of utter panic in the west, usually coming out of parking lots or other unusual traffic flow passages- I turn around an traffic island and then for a split second cannot for the life of me figure out- where the hell am I supposed to go!! It passes quickly, and I always get it right...

As for culture shock, it was more pronounced in the early years. Now, I've gotten pretty good at it. But I still usually have at least one good moment of stifling--something. Usually in stores- there's so many things to choose from! Lordy, how did I ever do it? I'm the idiot who gets to the front of the line at a fast food place and stares pie-eyed at the bewildering and endless combinations of beautiful and deadly foods available to me.

The biggest shock ever was flying from Africa to a connecting flight in St. Louis en route to Minnesota. I stood on the conveyor belt, having followed apes around the forest only hours ago, and around me were giant sneaker clad humans in too bright whites and colors, everybody over 200 pounds, moving through space on the people-mover with wires in their ears, wearing lost and sullen expressions. I much prefer working near cobras than this, I thought. Blimey.

My advice: take your friend to a quiet place, and let her rest a few days before taking her out in public.
posted by MacChimpman at 2:19 PM on June 26, 2010 [6 favorites]

But still, I just don't understand how people could live in Japan for 2 years and not become fluent. The spoken language is actually fairly easy.

Lest the OP think this might be true, I'll just say that it isn't, not by any objective measure. It's not true for Japanese, and it's not true for Chinese, not for English native speakers, especially for those who live and function in a largely English environment, like the OP's girlfriend. If the OP's girlfriend didn't speak Chinese before she went, she won't have learned it in 6 months, and it'll be a bit of a shock to come back to a place where everyone around her speaks English.
posted by smorange at 2:55 PM on June 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ask around to find the most authentic Chinese food in the area, maybe even specific to the region you're coming from. Find out if there's a nearby restaurant with a special "Chinese" menu (it might even be in English). Find an Asian grocery store nearby and plan to take her there on the second or third day. Let her sleep a lot! There will be jet lag.

Actually, I'd advise the opposite. Unless there is an incredibly good restaurant that does food from whatever region in China she was in, it will be worse than what she ate there. Even if it's perfectly done, though, it might make her feel more homesick for China, not less. Instead, focus on the stuff she's been craving that she didn't have access to in China. (For example, Europe and Asia tend to not have much good Mexican/South American food; I can't tell you how incredible my first burrito back in the US was.)
posted by ubersturm at 3:19 PM on June 26, 2010

Chinese restaurants in the US never have enough rice.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 7:00 PM on June 26, 2010

There is a lot of good advice here.

I've done 6 month stints in Asian countries a few times and this is what I want when I come back:

- I want to be around crowds of people. This is contrary to what others have posted above, but one of the things that always bothers me, no mater how good my foreign language gets, is that I miss hearing English spoken. It's such a pleasure to be surrounded by language that I don't have to think about at all to understand!

- I want a patient ear. Virtually everyone who lives abroad for a few months will talk constantly about how things are better/different/worse there when confronted with every-day tasks. Even after doing it a bunch of times I still do it for a week or so after I get back. It's good to have a friend to talk to who isn't going to roll their eyes or change the subject when I complain from my lofty world traveler's perspective. Also stories are going to come flooding back the first couple weeks after the return, and the mind gets a bit jumbled, so you'll hear the same stories repeat, or they won't seem interesting because you don't understand the context.

- Everything everyone else said about diet is true. Most American food looks disgusting after 6 months in Asia, and the portions are ridiculous. And it can really mess with your insides if you haven't been eating it. Try and help her find food that she's going to like. That mostly means listening to what she says, because she's the only one who knows. You might be able to find the 'most authentic'* Chinese restaurant in the city, but if it's not what she want's it's not where you should go. Take her to the biggest Asian grocery stores in your area. (Or if you don't have any, the stores with the biggest Asian section.)

* It might be authentic, but China is a huge country with lots of different cuisines and huge regional differences in food. So 'authentic' and 'what she's used to eating' can be entirely different.
posted by Ookseer at 7:25 PM on June 26, 2010

Are you kidding? Your SO is going to be happy to be home! China can be brutal! There's the coal dust and polution that gets all over you, the racism and constant cheating of anyone foreign, and of course the staring and pointing and shouts of "laowai" everywhere you go. Don't get me wrong - I loved my time there, but dear God was I happy to be home after nine months in Beijing.

The worst part will be the 12 hour jet lag flip flop - I would get her something like a book of crosswords, or some magazines - something quiet she can do at 3am when she wakes up ready to start the day. And just be cool when she nods off at the dinner table. It has taken me up to a week to get over the time change. Another idea would be to rent some of the latest dvd's - Western films only really make it over there in pirated dvd form.

Also, I agree with finding a good Asian grocery store -the food there is amazing! Look for pork dumplings (w/red wine vinegar for dipping) and bbq pork buns. They are easy to prepare and all the expats live off of them!
posted by ashtabula to opelika at 9:05 PM on June 26, 2010

- I want to be around crowds of people.

I wanted to be around crowds of Asian people. This was my precise moment of culture shock, the first time I got into a crowd of Americans after I returned. I got off the flight from Narita to Sea-Tac. The flight was almost 100% Japanese people, and me. We disembarked from the plane, boarded a van to the terminal, and disembarked at Customs. It was orderly and efficient, like every other public transport experience I had in Japan. We got off the van, and walked single file into the terminal, at the normal speed of pedestrian traffic in Japan. I had adapted to that speed of walking, or else I would have always been stepping on peoples' heels, since I was so much taller and had a longer stride.

The moment I got through customs and into the terminal with the Americans, I stopped instantly. It was too chaotic, I felt dizzy. People weren't walking the right speed. They went in crossing directions, with no regard for anyone else in their path. This wasn't the usual pedestrian "social compact" that I had obeyed for so many months. I just couldn't deal with it. I wanted to get on the plane and go back where it was "normal." Then I realized my sense of normal had changed. I had to get outside the terminal, away from the crowds for a while, to recover my wits.

It took me quite a while to become adapted to the activity of crowds in the US again. So don't assume the woman returning either wants to be in a crowd, or wants to avoid it. If she does want to go somewhere crowded, I suggest her companions be prepared to bail out, instantly, and without making a big deal out of it, if she even suggests she wants to get out of there.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:05 PM on June 26, 2010

Ookseer: "I want a patient ear. Virtually everyone who lives abroad for a few months will talk constantly about how things are better/different/worse there when confronted with every-day tasks."

+1. Try not to take it personally when he starts complaining about how incorrect the local Chinese food is, how things are done differently/better/etc. overseas.

Also, this obviously varies by person and region and lots of other things, but it's not uncommon for people in China to scrub themselves with a towel and a basin of water (Google says "sponge bath" but that's not quite right) in lieu of taking a shower. Like, maybe you shower every other day and wipe off the rest. Your SO may have picked up this habit, or any number of others which will persist after his return to America. Try to humor him.

(Also, what's with this hatred of American food? Yeah, McDonald's is bad for you, but nobody actually lives on McDonald's. And I'll take a surfeit of nutrition over the alternative any day.)
posted by d. z. wang at 8:05 AM on June 27, 2010

What I've heard from study abroad students in China is that while they're there, they miss good quality cheese. Apparently you can get cheese in China, but there isn't much variety/quality unless you pay an arm and a leg. Everyone going everywhere (except Mexico?) seems to come back craving Mexican food.

The re-entry/reverse culture shock is a long-term process. I'd say she'll probably first want to experience all the things/foods she couldn't do/get in China, and then within a few weeks, she'll want to find all the Chinese things/foods. So you may want to be prepared with ideas for events/activities/foods that fit into both categories.
posted by srah at 7:27 AM on June 28, 2010

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