31 Days of American Culture Shock

Reverse culture shock is real, people.

But thankfully, it has not been as vicious as I expected it to be.

Culture shock is the emotional, physical, and psychological adjustment someone goes through when entering a new country or culture (or even city - just ask anyone who moves from a rural farming community to  the downtown of a large metro area - they will go through culture shock!) Although you might think it only happens when leaving your home country, it can also happen when you go back home.

Living in a foreign culture changes you. It changed me. My expectations of other people changed as I realized they had different expectations for me - how I spoke, what language I spoke in, what clothes I wore, the food I would eat. And it went much deeper than that - how conflicts were resolved (or left unaddressed), whether strangers smile at each other in passing, how I navigated relationships.

There is so much about America that I adore after living in a developing nation for three years: the beautifully maintained highways, the wide variety of produce in the grocery stores, being able to find clothes that fit, and fantastic coffee everywhere.

But there are also other things that leave me baffled. They get under my skin and irritate me, like a mosquito buzzing around my ankles.

Last month, I posted a daily photo on my Instagram feed talking about the reverse culture shock I went through during my first 31 days back home. I missed a few days here and there, but overall, it was so therapeutic. Culture shock isn't one or two huge issues. It's the countless little ones that make you frustrated or anxious or baffled or fearful or angry. Posting on Instagram gave me a way to count up the ways America made me want to sing and throw glass bottles at the same time - the good, the bad, and the ugly.

There were moments that made my heart sing and smile and think, yes, this is why we came back...

Enjoying sunshine and nature and parks (including Declan's first time sitting in grass), worshipping in our home church in English, and lots of time playing with Great-Grandma...

And there were other moments of feeling like I was back on a bicycle after ten years of never touching my feet to pedals - a sense of deja vu, like I should know how to do something, but I've completely forgotten...

Like loading a dishwasher, fueling up a car, choosing a laundry detergent, and checking out books from the library...

And then there were flashes of absolute incomprehension - moments where I have to swallow back my disbelief and anger at the wastefulness and ridiculousness of certain aspects of life here...

Like packaging that claims "boxed water is better" (which set me off on a tirade on poverty and inequality), a diet based on bottled and boxed and canned food, the ENORMOUS amounts of waste produced and not reused or recycled responsibly, and Americans' overwhelming dependence on whatever is most convenient, regardless of the money or environmental impact it would save.

Yet despite the rough spots and exhaustion and emotional turmoil we've experienced occasionally, our transition has not been as difficult as I'd expected.

A pair of missionaries gave us advice before we left Cambodia, and putting it into practice has helped us the most: It's not as important how you land in your home country, as how you left your host country.

Andrew and I were extremely intentional about leaving Cambodia. We called old friends, we cooked rice and stir-fry chicken, even sitting on the floor with plates in our laps when our furniture was covered with dust and half-packed suitcases. We drove out to village churches, and held our friends' babies, and took photos with everyone, even if we already had a dozen on our computer.

And I can honestly say I have no regrets. We left Cambodia with our hearts full and our bags bursting and minds ready to embrace whatever the next season held. Not everyone has that clarity of purpose during times of transition. And when we stepped onto the plane, we had no idea what the next chapter held.

But God was walking with us, coaxing us when we faltered, showing us just enough light for the next step. 

Even in this season of limbo, with our house half-finished and new jobs not yet begun, our lives have purpose: to keep abiding in Jesus, obeying him, and living our lives in a way that they would not make sense without Him. And that is what has helped us survive (and thrive in) culture shock.

Have you ever experienced culture shock? What are some things that helped you?