My experience with culture shock in America as an American raised abroad

By: Bonnie Rose

Culture Shock. These two words have been part of my vocabulary from an early age. My American parents were living in England when I was born. I grew up moving around military bases in Europe until I was seventeen years old. My only regret not being fluent in a second language from moving frequently from one country to another. With each move I would enter the continuous cycle of transition. At first everything was new and exciting. It did not matter that I just said goodbye to my best friends in the last country or that I had to pack up my bedroom yet again. There was a new house, new school, and new surroundings to visit with my family. I essentially did experience culture shock and some point after the 'honeymoon' stage wore off. I would be stressed out in Italy for being teased for speaking British English words like 'pardon' instead of 'excuse me' by my American classmates. I remember going to a school dance shortly after moving to Germany and being upset because I had just moved away from the guy I had dated. Or having been so used to going into town by myself for shopping trips in Germany, and now living far from downtown in an Italian version of suburbia. However when you live in one place for a stint of just two to three years you bypass the crisis period quickly. I eventually assimilated to my new home and owned the culture as my own and focused on my life. Soon enough we would be planning our next move and having to say goodbye to that home after all. This is a good basic look on what it was like growing up as a military child whose parents kept choosing overseas assignments.

They say the definition of culture shock is "the trauma you experience when you move into a culture different from your home culture". Which is simple enough. When my father took a stateside position and moved the family to America we thought nothing of culture shock and readjustment. I may have not been born stateside but I carry a US passport. Aside from kindergarten and first grade I did not go to school in America, but I did attend DODDS (Department of Defense Dependents Schools) on military installations in Europe. Where ever we lived in Europe I was looked at as an American. So moving to my parent's culture should have been seamless. Yet living on military bases abroad is a whole culture in itself as I would learn later.

I have never experienced culture shock like I did when we moved to Arizona. I had a year and a half left of high school and I would not be able to graduate with my friends and classmates back in Naples, Italy. However I did have american programming without AFN commercials (only infomercials were show on our military tv channel and there was only one channel back then) and not to mention huge shopping malls. I must admit as a teenage girl I was probably most exciting about shopping at stores I had never been inside before. London only just got their first Victorias Secret this past year. But the excitement of new things wears off. Though I had an American accent and looked American I was not fitting in as seamlessly as my parents had hoped. Any pop cultural references from the 1980s-1990s was completely lost on me. Jokes went over my head, I didn't know the words to Fresh Prince of Bel Air and realized my parents had been fooling me when they said Taco Bell was expensive. To their defense I am glad they did not support an early addiction of eating at fast food restaurants.

My school was so much different than any schools I attended before. Race to me has never been an issue and its always been a huge melting pot of cultures and languages. Now I attended a predominantly white school even though we lived in a highly populated hispanic community. Seeing only a handful of african american students at lunch sitting by themselves made me feel like I had been transported back to the 1950s. Sadly comments from fellow students did not help to sway that opinion I had either. I had classmates frustrated with me on a school field trip because I had said we could take 'x' amount of students with us in our van. I was not counting seat belts but counting the number of bodies we would squish in our van when living in Italy where driving rules are but a suggestion. I was getting ready to enter my senior year of high school and here I was with a driving permit while my classmates had their own cars. I was used to the ease of European public transportation and now I could not get anywhere with out a car. With my family I tried to drink a glass of wine while out at a restaurant and my parents reminded me of the American drinking age. The America I thought I knew and thought I had grown up to belong to did not seem to exist in my mind.

The hardest part was being able to communicate with my peers because I was this hidden immigrant with a different world view. They would talk about something and I would try to join in. However all my memories and experiences involve places, foods, and names that most of my peers did not know. I knew my countries and capitals in Europe better than I did my states and cities. I felt like a puzzle piece trying to jam myself into this puzzle of America only to fit better somewhere else. Even with my family they did not seem to understand the culture shock I was experiencing. It was not like I was coming home from an extended vacation abroad and not exactly repatriation. The rules and expectations were different here.

I felt lost and alone and in pain for a few years after we moved to America. It was an undiagnosed form of culture shock related to being a Third Culture Kid. Most military families do not even know of the term and most families don't spend more than two tours out of the US. Technically I am a dual citizen of the country I live in now, England, and technically I am an expat. I'm constantly always caught between worlds. I now carry my experiences as past pain as scars and lessons learned as I raise my own third culture kids. I feel I may pay more attention than anyone else about their adjustments every time we move. I think its important to know about culture shock, prepare for it, and then handle it with love, understanding and flexibility. I still experience forms of culture shock when I return to the US and I say that to say it is a normal experience when traveling and moving between different countries and cultures. It is how deal with the culture shock and how we help others with the transition that can make a difference.

About the author

Expat Blog ListingBonnie Rose is an American expat living in England. Blog description: Blog about my life as an expat, a Third Culture Kid (TCK), and world traveler. I grew up in Europe on military bases until I was seventeen and now I am married to an American living in England with our family. Documenting our life abroad.
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Contest Comments » There are 16 comments

Bonnie Rose wrote 7 years ago:

Miriam: Its so interesting that though slightly different we shared such similar experiences. Wish I had known to ask or talk to you about it back when we were living on the same floor at Uni. Thank you for reading and commenting. x Toni: I agree about moving places in America being more of a culture shock. I think it must also be because America is so large and so there are so many more people that have never left the US, their state, or even their city. It can be really hard to relate to someone if you havent been out of that comfort zone. Thank you for taking time to read and comment. x

Bonnie Rose wrote 7 years ago:

Rachel G: I think thats natural. I get it every time I'm back there too. x

Claire McGill wrote 7 years ago:

Bonnie Rose has gone from the USA to live in my home town and I love reading all about it. What a wonderful piece - I understand completely :)

Emma Kaufmann wrote 7 years ago:

Fascinating to think that when you moved back to America you had an american accent yet no longer knew any of the cultural references so felt maybe even more isolated because people would assume from your accent that you would know all about the Fresh Prince of Bel Air etc! Very insightful piece.

Britishette wrote 7 years ago:

What a captivating experience. Thank you Bonnie Rose for sharing what you went through. It must have been quite hard at times. And yet, it made you who you are. I am French and have lived in several countries. And every times I come home, I feel a little more different than my friends. I love it, but it's not always easy. I loved reading your story!

Kristin wrote 7 years ago:

We've had very similar experiences! While I did spend time in the states as a kid, it was just a few years here and there and always on a military base- a completely different culture than off base. I viewed the states as "vacation land," not home, and while I love it I'm just as "odd" here in the states as I am everywhere else in the world. I feel more strange in the states because everything tells me that this land is the land I'm not supposed to feel strange in. Luckily for me, my outsides match my insides. I look racially ambiguous, so nobody ever knows "where I'm from" just by looking at me- I look like I could be from just about anywhere and I feel like I'm "from" just about everywhere. I love that as TCKs we all have so much in common!

Erin Gross wrote 7 years ago:

Ah, so much of this rings true to me as a former military child! I LOVE that we grew up with a melting pot style- it's made me such a tolerant and enlightened adult. Moving all the time did trigger my genetic tendency towards anxiety attacks, though, which I've struggled with since I was a child. All that instability has it's pros and cons.

Miriam wrote 7 years ago:

Oh my goodness, Bonnie. I know my experience was different - not a military child, and yet a TCK. I didn't move every few years growing up, but I lived in a world of known only to those also in it. But the culture shock of when I went to study in the States.... spot on! The feeling of lonliness when you think you should be able to fit in because somehow you thought you knew this culture of one of your parents... it doesn't go away. And now, like you, I am raising TCKs, this time due to military... Thank you for writing this! Some of this... it was like you took it right out of my heart and put it in writing...

Toni wrote 7 years ago:

My family did only two tours in Europe but I have to say moving places in America was definitely more of a culture shock then moving to Europe. The town I moved to most people have never been out of the county let alone the state and want nothing to do with other ways of life. It's been 14 years since I lived in Europe and still miss that way of life everyday. I am truly jealous you are able to live abroad as you do.

Rachel G wrote 7 years ago:

I also experience the greatest amount of culture shock ever when I moved back to the U.S. as a young adult--I don't think I'm quite over the culture shock yet, either!

Pamela Reisinger wrote 7 years ago:

I grew up overseas - Spanish mother, American father. I came to the US as an adult and I still clearly remember looking at my fellow "countrymen" as if they were foreigners. Having one foot in each culture can sometimes be a very lonely experience. Bonnie has done a great job retelling that experience.

Janneke @DrieCulturen wrote 7 years ago:

Oh yes a real third culture kid story, I can really identify with your story. Even though my culture shock was when I moved from Zimbabwe (Africa) to the Netherlands. I had never heard anything about the possibility of having a culture shock. Now I know I was a hidden immigrant, I looked alike but thought quite differently. It was awful. It's like you say being "caught between worlds".

Erin Moran wrote 7 years ago:

I love this post! You hear how difficult it is being part of a military family but never have I really understood the true difficultites that lie in being a third culture kid. Somehow those teen films where a girl goes to another country, rebels, and then falls in love with a local boy never really expressed the true issues. This piece really moved me.

Teresa Nystrom wrote 7 years ago:

As your mother, I wish I had been better prepared for return to the US. We had no idea. However, once I learned about TCK, it made sense. It also helped me understand the situation with kids in Tucson who live in the US, but have family in Mexico.

Jacquie wrote 7 years ago:

Great post!

Bob Aherin wrote 7 years ago:

Very well written and insightful about the issues one has to go through and address who has lived in several cultures. This helped me understand the challenges you and others like you face. I am sure this post will be helpful to those with similar experiences. It is also beneficial for those like myself who have somewhat limited experiences with individuals who are struggling at times to acclimate to a different culture. I hope you will forgive me for not being as understanding at times as I should of been.

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