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Coming home after a gap year? Well, get ready for a shock…

Back in Hawaii, U.S.A. after nearly two years of living abroad

How did it feel being back in the U.S.?

I’m going to be honest.

It kinda blew.

I don’t expect you to get it. You’re thinking…GRRRL is in Hawaii! Palm trees swaying in the trade winds, year-round sunny beaches, exotic paradise… boo-hoo how could that possibly be bad?

Trust me, it blows, just as if my hometown were to be a small farm town in Iowa.

Afterall, I’ve been traveling Asia for nearly two years. For me, that was the epitome of exotic.

 

Returning to your old life after a gap year

Coming back to the U.S. was like a re-culture shock.

When I lived in Asia, I spent a good chunk of the years peeling off layers of culture shock, so I could acclimate to my new Asian environments and its lifestyles. Eventually, I adapted to the way things are done there and this new ‘thinner’ me felt comfy and snuggly.

Returning to the U.S. was like putting the old layers back on. Except one thing– they no longer fit!

I had slimmed down my lifestyle and beliefs about what basic necessities were truly worthwhile.

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I’ve experienced parts of the world, where…

•… life is drastically different: from economically rising and technologically-advanced to poor and technologically-backwards.

Public kiosk, which takes your pictures and mails it to you via. email in Seoul

• … I’ve met folks, who fed their families off of $2.00 a day …

• … I’d come to admire, respect and feel for laborers, who worked hard manual jobs, slaving in the searing sun, to make an honest day’s wage of a couple of dollars.

manual labor in developing countries

. Workers of Chandni Chowk

• …I’ve witnessed how cultures are different and yet, share a common practices…

doing laundry

Doing laundry in Nepallaundry in india …vs. dhobis (a caste of launderers) doing laundry in India

• … I’ve traveled to where folks live simply, genuinely, with open hearts and trust…

•… I’ve played with unspoiled children, whose only toys were crafted from affordable means and available resources…

•… I’ve been to places, where water must be boiled before taken…

handmade bow

(Above) Child in Laos excited about his handmade bow ; (Below) Son of Hmong village chief in the mountains near Muong Ngoi

•… I’ve been absorbed by cultures, where religious devotion and love for the family, preceded career ambition, prestige and money…

•… I’ve paid anywhere from 25 cents to $5.00 a day for a deliciously hearty meal, with ingredients prepared fresh from scratch.

thai curry and rice

Spicy Tom Yum soup with rice in Thailand was approximately $2.00

My expat/travel life converted much of my old beliefs about money, ambition and real wealth.

It made me both, extremely realistic and idealistic.

It spoiled me.

It set a new and bolder awareness of reality… of what I felt constituted a decent down-to-earth conversation, working a hard day’s work, recognizing sincerity and appreciating real beauty in others.

In many ways, I could envision having a very fulfilling and happy life in countries like South Korea, Thailand, Cambodia

So when I returned to the U.S, a lot of my American surroundings felt excessive, grossly gratuitous, inflated, superficial and largely …grotesque. I’m in line ordering a $9 sandwich in a cafe, while a tip jar filled with dollar bills stares at me with unnecessary guilt, as well-fed teens with new shoes and nice clothes stand behind the counter. Everyone has an iPhone (or some likeness of it) and 50% of the customers should be forwarding their money into Jenny Craig installments or an exercise program.

It was as if I were like an astronaut, resurfacing into the earth’s atmosphere.

I was an alien in my own land!

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My top four reverse culture shocks:

Warning: the following may be offensive. Although no harm is meant, if you’re sensitive to un-politically correct expressions, then do me a favor and don’t read any further.

Of course, there were much much more re-culture shocks that I experienced and that I’m still getting over, but for this post, I thought I’d arm-wrestle the first four that surfaced. They’re searingly honest, but also a bit funny in the way that they’re not what I expected to feel upon my return.

1) Wow, there are so many white people!

Ever wonder how a Caucasian expat or traveler might feel in a country with an Asian majority?

Probably a bit like an Asian, who spent their entire life living as the majority, until they moved to the U.S.!

I’m from Hawaii, probably the only state in the U.S., where over half of the population are minorities and come from Asian or Pacific Island ethnicities. Still, there were more Caucasians than I was used to seeing. Not to mention, their actions and confident command of space in the U.S. are vastly different from Caucasians in Asia, who often feel like immigrant fish out of water in their environment.
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2) That sandwich costs how much?!

$9.00?!!! Yow! Then add a 15-20% server or cafe tip upon it.

For what … it’s a friggin sandwich, made from factory manufactured bread?!

When you’ve lived a lifestyle, where meals are cheap, abundant and prepared fresh by hard-working hands, which don’t get tips, but make barely enough to feed their family, then the U.S. feels extremely expensive and over- privileged, by comparison. For me, this gross imbalance is kind of hard to stomach. I find it disgusting.

In some countries, people perform hard labor just to earn $1.00 for their service. An example, might be Thailand, where you can get fantastic one-hour massages for $6.00; essentially, 10 cents a minute!

You want to delve into how I feel about tip jars for U.S. teens, working in Starbucks now?…

Soon dubu jigae (spicy tofu stew) meal in Korea for under $5.00. Yes, all those extra side dishes (aka panchan) come complimentary to the meal.

3) When did America get so f _ _?

It’s that dirty “F” word that Americans don’t like hearing…

Fat.

Women in Asia fit on the thin and petite side; men generally follow suit. Living in South Korea, even I occasionally had difficulty finding sizes large enough to fit me and I’ve got a thin to average build to begin with. Additionally, I’ve gone from witnessing Indian laborers of sheer muscle and bone (and absolutely no fat), pulling mountainous cargo to 60 year old Koreans, with backpacks and poles, tackling ultra-steep mountains for weekend play. The fact that Americans buy a gym membership in order to lose weight, gain muscle or simulate climbing stairs, over maintaining a natural, active and fit lifestyle, just shows how we’ve let modern convenience and luxuries go to our waist.

I won’t be the first to say the Mc Donalds truth– Americans are unnaturally overfed.

Some call it luxury; I call it lazy.

America, do yourself a favor and grab a pedometer… please!

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4) Americans lead very cluttered lives.

Americans are hoarders.

After living out of a backpack, you discover that. You also discover that there’s very little you need for living, other than the survival basics, such as a few pairs of clothes, underwear, soap, a portable laptop and food. I was absolutely content living minimally; I felt freer, lighter… and most of all, happier!

American society assesses value by quantity vs. essentials and this adds to stress. Afterall, how many countries have off-location storage facility units that you can rent to stuff the excesses of your life into?

My household alone has 4 bedrooms, 3 living rooms, a kitchen, an office and an enormous garage, which stores household items, equipment and several closets and drawers of clothes, which my family will never use. The entireity of my house could stock, clothe and feed a small village in Laos!

Floating village homes in Cambodia

Have you ever taken a gap year to live abroad or travel? What were some of your reverse culture shocks?

83 Comments

  1. This is so true! I lived in Germany for a year between high school and college, and adjusting to life back home definitely took getting used too. I can only imagine that it will be even more difficult going from Asia to home, than from Europe to home. Good thing I have another two years to prepare for that!

    • @Mikaela: Two years will make it even harder… ha ha. Wow, I think if I lived in Germany for a year, I’d probably want to stay in that bubble for a long time before dealing with the U.S. The lifestyle values are such a shift, I imagine! Asia will produce another shift. I think it’s amazing you’re experiencing both ends.

  2. Josie Leung says:

    Agreed! I studied college in the states and am on a gap year traveling now. It’s always interesting to see Americans leave their country for the first time and how they react to cultural shocks

  3. Josie Leung says:

    Agreed! I studied in the states for college and am on a gap year travelling now. It’s always interesting to see Americans leave their country for the first time and having this cultural shock

  4. I love politicly incorrect posts! You are too true. I’m from Sweden, and we do live in excess as well. We have too much of everything. The world is unfair, yet we are still all unwilling to give. Essentially, why don’t we all give away everything that isn’t required for our ultimate survival? We spend money. On travel. It IS selfish, yet humans are selfish creatures and we are all the main characters of our own lives.

    Anyhow, great post!

  5. Paul says:

    I agree with a lot of what you say. For me it was that same realisation that you’re not the same person. You know how it’s possible to live a very fulfilling life that’s so different than you could have conceived before you travelled, and now you’re surrounded by people who just don’t get it. It can be very frustrating. Makes you want to change the world and really do something productive with your life.

  6. Great post, thanks for that! I’ve been through reverse culture shock several times and it helps to read others experienced. I even ended up doing my psych thesis on it…and at least came to understand how important the process actually is and how it can actually help you grow and thrive even more. Thank god too, it’s such an uncomfortable process to go through it’s nice to know something good can come if it! Wishes to you that it get easier everyday and lots of good things gained!

    • @LifeLessOrdinary: Thanks. I’m sure your psych thesis must be very interesting. I can relate to what you said. You definitely see how much you’ve grown and changed your way of thinking. The question is which will you ultimately choose. From your blog name maybe, I can guesstimate what direction you went. 😉

  7. Yosoyrebel says:

    Why no one walks ANYWHERE. I live in the west coast and literally you rarely see anyone walking the streets. A 15 minute walk is too much for people here smh. Also sitting down and enjoying a meal. When I first got back in June I went to a Smoothie place and there was a line of cars around the corning waiting for the drive thru and as I was trying to enjoy my meal inside I was being mean mugged by the employees and the other people who managed get out of their cars to get their food to go. It was so weird and completely different than Italy where I spent 9 months, for them food and eating is an experience that should be cherished at every occasion.

    • @Yosoyrebel: ha ha… At first I thought you lived in LA but then I realized you could be in any state! Americans have an aversion to walking. Wow, Italians, yes.. we so don’t cherish our eating time like the Italians or even French. I like that quality about Europeans.

  8. Kaylin says:

    I’m with you on some of this, but honestly, when I came home, I was like “Oh thank god I’m not the fattest AND tallest person in the room anymore!” I stuck out like a sore thumb in Korea. I rarely found clothes that fit, because my medium-large size 10 at home is practically obese there (if I had a nickel for every time an ajumma told me “no big size!” when I tried to walk in their shops), and I’m 5’10” so if I ever did find pants that fit my booty, they never were long enough!

    I had the OMG ALL THE WHITE (and black) PEOPLE moment, coming home into Atlanta airport, but I was conflicted. It was nice being able to finally *blend in* for once, but at the same time, now I actually was able to understand people’s stupid chit-chat which drove me nuts at first.

    I’m from Alabama, and one of the worst things about coming home for me was the lack of public transportation and (alternatively) HOW GIGANTIC everyone’s cars and trucks are!! I was scared to drive anywhere for days. I also agree about people having too much stuff. I had 2 suitcases, 1 big and 1 small, and a backpack to my name, and I felt like it was too much… especially after dragging it all around trying to get home, then I got home and found closets and drawers full of yet more of my stuff I’d left behind. What do I do with it all?!?!

    I’m living in Europe now and the culture shock is vastly different than going to or coming from Asia. I love lots of things about France, like the health care and the trains, but I’m also hating the prices! US prices are peanuts compared to Europe, esp if you’re living off dollars over here. Fortunately, I’m finally getting paid in euros!

  9. chad says:

    haha I agree with all of these. Although I still find the hardest thing about being back is listening to all the inane small talk. I mostly don’t listen to people these days and just smile at them like they are saying something brilliant while I take my thoughts to happier places.
    I hope you’ve got another travel dream you’re working on.

    • @Chad: Wow, I think you’ve handled that very tactfully and well… and that’s not easy. My pet peeve is ego talk… people are constantly spouting their resume without an awareness they’re stealing my time with self-boasting monologues. No one likes to listen. I smile, but my respect for them drops. lol. So sad. In developing countries and travelers, it’s all human connection… very little to no ego. I’m feeling the U.S. out right now, but travel dreams– I’m working on a few. How about you?

  10. Tom Dokulil says:

    Fantastic story! Makes you wonder how people not just in the U.S. But in a lot of countries could ever get along without their computers and internet

  11. Thanks for sharing your experience with reverse culture shock, Christine. I’ve experienced it each time I come back from a long-term trip (four months or more). You’d think it would be easier each time, but somehow it’s just as difficult. It really is true that when you’re abroad you learn to live with less and really just enjoy life…something most Americans don’t know how to do. Good luck with your adjustment!

    • @Linday:

      …when you’re abroad you learn to live with less and really just enjoy life…

      I agree with you! That’s what makes it so hard to for me to readjust. I just posted a photo on my FB page reading: “Only after we lose everything, are we free to do anything”. You never realize that having less can be liberating and as western cultures, we don’t live very liberated from work, capitalism, consumerism, ambition, status, etc…

  12. Coming back is never easy… Good luck settling back in, Christine! Hopefully there will be lots of positives too. 🙂

  13. All I can say is I RELATE. I just paid almost $9 for bun thit nuong in California where I was used to paying about $1 for the same dish in Vietnam. Interesting point about #2. I don’t feel bad about not tipping at those sandwich shops or cafes. Most of the workers will be just fine without it.

  14. Katie says:

    I think how you readjust to returning to the US depends a lot on where you traveled. I spent 13 months in the former Soviet Union – Russia, eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia and I really haven’t experienced any of the shocks you’ve mentioned since I returned a month ago. If anything, I have just found things in the US to be refreshing and comforting. After feeling like a total slob living out of a backpack for a year (in a lot of places where women strutted around in high heels and short skirts on a regular basis), I absolutely loved getting back to a full wardrobe and having choices again – and being able to wear heels again and actually do my hair and wear my regular makeup! Yeah, I do cringe at the fact that my parents have 12 drinking glasses and manage to use 11 in a single day whereas I just re-use the same glass, but in a lot of other respects, I just really appreciate all that I have back at home.

    So many of the places I visited, people were overweight and ate huge portions too, so I haven’t been shocked by any of that in the US. My host mom in Tajikistan served me huge amounts of food at every meal and when I’d barely eat half, she’d be offended and ask why I didn’t eat more. Not to mention the huge amounts of oil and fat they use in their cooking and the lack of some quality fresh fruits and I feel like I’m eating much better in the US. I love being able to eat a salad again – there was no fresh lettuce anywhere I traveled!

    So no, no real culture shock here – just thrilled to be back and enjoying the comforts of home.

    • @Katie: I definitely agree with you. I think it does depend on where you’ve traveled and maybe the cultures that had a stronger impact on you or that you felt a kinship with. I can see in comparison to Eastern Europe, the U.S. can feel healthy. Ugh, no fresh lettuce. I think that might be an unconscious reason I’ve avoided Eastern Europe– the possible lack of veggie options. ha ha … although Asia had it’s moments too.

      I love how you’ve experienced something different and thanks for commenting– you’ve traveled a variety of places (mostly west) & backpacked it. It always makes me curious if there are tiny differences in the way RTw trippers experience travel vs. expat travelers. Both are interesting =-)

  15. These were exactly my four main thoughts that just kept repeating in my head when I was home in the spring, too!
    Such a great article, Ms. Grrrl Traveler. It’s definitely going in my Loveliest Links post for tomorrow! 🙂

    • @Our Dear Lady Expatriate: I’d imagine you might experience similar things. Living and teaching in Korea (and I think you’ve been longer than a year, right?) then moving to Cambodia are major adaptations to Asian lifestyles with different values and living. Had we lived in Europe, it all might a tad different. But it seems like you’ve become really amazing at adapting after KR. =-) And Phnom Penh… who knew it had such an expat culture too! Looking forward to reading your lovely links– will post it on my FB page!

  16. Ruth says:

    Couldn’t agree more! I’ve also just returned to the UK from 2 years in Asia. I couldn’t believe how much stuff I had at home, my first job when I got home was to go through most of my belongings and donate them! Living out of a backpack really makes you realise we don’t need much stuff to live! I’m still acclimatising 2 months after being home, but I don’t think it’s possible to go back to living with so much stuff after having your eyes opened by travelling.

    • @Ruth: I love hearing stories like yours and @Carl, where your travels affected such a positive impact in the way you see life now and are readapting to keep parts of what you love with you! Cheers to that! =-)

  17. Carl says:

    I had huge reverse culture shock when I arrived back from just three months in Asia recently, let alone 2 years! Mind you, I also realised how little you need to be comfortable from that trip and have since stuck half my life on eBay, and don’t miss any of it one bit! Also means that I’m already saving for the next trip!

    • @Carl: Awesome for you! Seems like you adapted and learned a lot on your 3 month trip… so where next? Ha ha… you made me remember back to my more short term trips (like two weeks) and you’re right, “returning home” can always feel like a reverse culture shock for some of us! 😉

  18. Chris says:

    I hate reverse culture shock!
    Although it is the drives that keeps me travelling heaps now though, I much prefer exploring new places than being shocked and bored at the way life in the UK goes on.
    The sandwich comment made me chuckle heaps – after 6months inn Asia I just landed in Switzerland….it’s soooooooo expensive!

    • @Chris: LMAO… after writing that, I thought distinctly thought- well, someone who traveled/lived in Europe might have a different scale of costs. I’d really like to go back to Europe but I know Asia has spoiled me & I’d come back with a hole in my wallet!

      Also, total agreement w/ you! The culture shock of new & foreign can be addictive and much more engaging. Boredom is something I do deal with a lot in being back. Making life interesting can feel like much more of an effort.

  19. Noreen ZR says:

    I lived in Hawaii for about 10 years before coming back to Malaysia. I totally understand the culture shock you experience although I guess its rather different from you. A total opposite, in fact. I have been back in Malaysia for 3 years now and I still miss Hawaii. Even after being back for 3 years, I still have not gotten used to the life here. I’ve been told it takes time.

    • @Noreen: Wow… 3 years. I guess Hawaii is still a strong part of your heart. Well, you know what they say about when a girl breaks up in a relationship? It takes her 1/2 the amount of years that she was in it, to get over it. ha ha… You might have 2 more years to go. Either that, or you’ll find a way to move out here again! 😉

  20. James @ Best Islands In The World says:

    Sounds like what i experienced during my three week stay in the rural Philippines back in 2011. Although my trip wasn’t as long as yours, travel to that part of the world can be very thought provoking. I really like this post a lot.

  21. Jen says:

    HAHA! I agree with you. I haven’t lived away from Hawai’i for two years like you, but after backpacking in Europe for a month, I felt the same way. I mean, I get it…we living in paradise, but it’s not paradise to us. It’s home. I totally agree with your re-culture shocks, especially the $9 sandwich comment. I can’t wait to go to Thailand and buy myself a 5 course meal with my $9.

    • @Jen: Yeah, as a fellow Hawaii girl you know what I mean. We travel to experience places that are exotic in the way Hawaii isn’t. Actually, it’s funny to think about it but I’ll bet even mainland people get culture shock from visiting Hawaii. LOL. Looking forward to following your journey to Thailand. I’m curious as to what you’ll seek out to experience there.

  22. Possibly the biggest culture shock I had was arriving in California from Tibet. My shock was the abundance of food and choices that I had in California. I remember being in Starbucks a day after arriving and just standing there for five minutes trying to choose between all the pastries and coffees on offer! It was so much easier in Tibet, only having to choose between having a butter tea or a glass of water!

    • @Elle: I’ll take the glass of water! I’ve not tried butter tea but I’ve seen Tibetan monks take it and …I guess I worry about my waistline! ha ha..Wow, that’s an extreme transition!

      Your story reminds me of when I went from Nepal & India… to New York City. Re-entering the city was such a trip! First culture shock– every pedestrian looked like a walking fashion closets– shoes on their feet, fully dressed in jeans, stylish coats, hats, glasses, etc… and I had come from folks ranging barefoot to flip-flops and simple /cheap clothes or saris.

  23. Liv says:

    It really can be a struggle to adapt in both directions really, both returning home and leaving in the first place. The wealth of world experience it brings to travellers who have taken note of other cultures though is wonderful.

  24. Jessica Wray says:

    Recently, I lot of these things have been in the back of my mind. Questions about how long I’ll travel, and when I will go back to the U.S. to “settle down” are frequent. The way we live our lives in America really isn’t “normal” and it is such pressure to get a car, a house, a desk job (and basically hoard like you said 😉 ) It is sad that this is the norm.
    So much I could relate to in here, thanks for posting it!

    • @Jessica: I absolutely agree! A LOT of us expats have that concern/fear about returning. It’s a fear I had before I even started life as an expat. What you said almost made it into this post, but the topic was too deep and so I’ve been finding a way to work it into my next post. The social pressure part hit me hard; it’s something we don’t have when we live abroad but when we return, we immediately sense and unconsciously conform to. That’s “the elephant in the room” challenge.

      • cleinmari says:

        @Christine: I can so feel you. I already felt the social pressure about finding a decent job and supposebly having to know what the f*** I want to do with my life and so on. Now I have been to South Korea for one month and people from back home, when they are not asking if I am still alive because I didn’t write a new post in my blog yet, already keep continuing with the old tune. Sometimes it makes me really afraid to think that I might not be strong enough to get out of these enormous social maelstrom called “western life”

  25. Furio says:

    It’s funny, last Xmas I got almost the same reverse cultural shock back to Italy .

    Especially the “Wow Italian are waaaay too fat” was a huge discovery to me.

    The good side was the corollary realization “Wow Italian girls have such a big bubs” (is it politically correct to say that on GRRRL? haha)

    As usual you are able to give a fresh point of view to a difficult topic.
    Thank you!

  26. Cathy says:

    Oh Christine! You are back in the U.S.A! I really enjoyed your post because of the many experiences I also had in relation to reverse culture shock. In fact, I still experience it today and I’ve been back in the country for 5 months now. Americans are definitely hoarders…lazy about eating habits..and just spoiled. No offense to other readers out there but after traveling to poorer countries such as Vietnam and Thailand – – I don’t feel the need to throw out my dollar bills to Starbucks tip jars anymore. Lol!!!

    • @Cathy: Hi-5 for agreeing on the Starbucks! I think the reason it’s all such a shock is that we’ve finally embraced beliefs and values that we’ve come to belief in and respect or admire. Being raised in the U.S., we have no choice but to accept the capitalist and materialistic sensibilities– there’s never been any alternative lifestyle to compare it to… until now. Glad to have a sister in arms.

  27. Megan says:

    im living as an expat in scandinavia and i could agree with you more on #3! every time i travel home from long trips or just from living abroad i notice it.

    • @Megan: Wow, interesting. I wouldn’t have thought #3 for expats in Scandinavia, although I’m a bit embarrassed I don’t know much about the culture there either. I keep naively thinking it might be a sausage, potatoes and gravy kind of culture like Germany. Perhaps they make up for it by being more outdoorsy?

      • Megan says:

        its strange because they stay quite thin here and eat crappy (i think)…but they are very active…so that must be how they keep it off! 🙂

  28. Naomi says:

    GOD YES. No offense taken. I haven’t been back to the States in over two years with no plans to return, but when and if I do I’m sure I’ll feel the same way!

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