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

Spread the love

Last Updated on October 22, 2012 by Christine Kaaloa

309251 397910940264147 975781587 n
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.


I’ve experienced parts of the world, where…

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

Seoul 9 40
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 NgoiIMG 5247 2520copy

•… 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!


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.

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?…

SAM 2441
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…


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!


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!

IMG 6631
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?

Related Posts

Gap Year Travel, Responsible Tourism, Trip Planning


  • 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.

  • 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

Comments are closed.