When culture shock reverses

By: Sarah Bennett

Stranger: "Are you having a nice day?"

Someone's just asked me if I was having nice day.

Me: "Erm, it's going well, thanks."

Stranger: "What are you doing for the rest of the day?"

Me: "Erm, I don't know." And why do you, a total stranger want to know this information and how are you even able to ask me?!

Oh, wait. I'm in an English speaking country once more and I can talk to people properly again.

Everyone knows about culture shock when they move to another country, but what about reverse culture shock, when you return somewhere that is more like your home country. What happens then?

I experienced this phenomenon when I visited New Zealand for a 3 week holiday over Christmas 2012. Heading back to a westernised country after an extended period of time in China was as big a culture shock as arriving in China in the first place. Here are the reasons why:
  1. I’d forgotten what seeing many “foreigners” felt like. Usually when I see a foreigner I make a beeline for them to ask them what they are doing in my city. I couldn’t exactly do that in Auckland airport otherwise I’d be approaching practically everyone and also risk not being let past immigration because I’d be acting like a crazy person.

  2. In my day-to-day life I generally avoid eye contact in China. I find that I get stared at enough, without inviting even more attention. Also, being brought up in the UK you never really make eye contact with people when walking down the street. Not so in New Zealand. Everyone I walked past in the local area I was staying looked at me and said “hello” as we passed each other. I felt uncomfortable to begin with, I’m not going to lie, but as it got easier, it got closer to departure day.

  3. I bring you back to the conversation at the start of this. People would genuinely be interested in my day and want to know how I was enjoying myself once they found out I was on holiday. I also forgot that when I was in a shop and needed help, the assistants could actually speak my language, oops.

  4. I avoided all Chinese food whilst I was in New Zealand. I want to point out that it’s not because I have the “it’s not authentic so I’m not going to eat it” opinion, far from it; I’m more than happy to eat Chinese food when I return home. No, I was set on stuffing myself as much as possible with fish & chips, pizza, sandwiches and above all, roast dinner… take a moment to enjoy that mental image while my stomach rumbles… for the barren months ahead when I returned to China.

Living abroad offers so many new experiences that we can often forget the “normality” of life at home, especially if it has been a while since you returned there. This writer would not change it for the world though and the above experiences just make life that little bit more interesting!

About the author

Expat Blog ListingSarah Bennett is a British expat living in China. Blog description: Sarah blogs about TEFL, life in China, travels and everything in between.
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Contest Comments » There are 5 comments

Laura Besley wrote 8 years ago:

When I was a child I remember going back to England for a holiday (we were living in Holland at the time). We were in a Little Chef restaurant not far from Harwich, where the ship from Hook of Holland had docked. I leaned over the table and whispered to my sister, "Those people are speaking English" to which she replied, "Of course they are - we're in England!" I can completely relate to the reverse culture shock! :)

Nigel wrote 8 years ago:

This opens up a real debate on how people not only accept change, but how they also deal and when that change is real and immediate. Not just a piece about following stereotypical activity and habits, but thought provoking on an individuals interaction with others when you begin to examine the deeper issues.

EmmaK wrote 8 years ago:

New Zealand sounds like such a wonderful friendly place. From your piece it sounds like my next 'go to' trip

Paul Harrison wrote 8 years ago:

Oh, how well you've captured New Zealand, Sarah! I can confirm the pleased surprise you feel when you realise that when a shop assistant asks you how you're enjoying your holiday he or she is genuinely interested and wants to hear your answer.

Bonnie Tall wrote 8 years ago:

Sarah, I can't compete with Paul's comments because unfortunately I haven't had the pleasure of the New Zealand experiences that you, he and Gwen have had as visitors! But I can identify with that strange feeling of returning to one's own country and feeling like a stranger! Way, way back, I had arrived back from a three month stay with my (then) Senegalaise relatives in Africa, and sitting quietly in the waiting area at Gatwick Airport to be picked up. I was just sitting there, people watching and had this strange feeling of being an alien; it was very, very busy, with people purposefully rushing here and there, but it seemed hushed, quiet, cold; and the people seemed like automotons. (No offence intended of course) I hadn't realised how easily and quickly I had become entrenched and welcomed into the sheer vibrancy, colours, sounds and smells, not to mention all those black, smiling faces. The crowds in the markets, the exciting music and dance, the welcoming, outstretched hands. The lively, playful children. It had been an amazing experience to have had the privilege of being treated as one of their own, their culture soon seeping into my psyche. It will remain there forever. I get you.

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