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

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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.

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!


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?…

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!

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?

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83 Comments. Leave new

  • 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

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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. 😉

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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?

  • 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

  • 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…

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


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