Our Experience (or lack of it) with Reverse Culture Shock

I feel like all I ever read about these days on expat forums in “reverse culture shock.” It’s all anyone ever talks about, probably because no one ever used to talk about it. What it means is that while living abroad you adapt to life in your adopted country. You change a little bit. Maybe the pace of life slows down or you have become more direct in speaking or you discover a liking for salty licorice. Then, when you visit or move back to your original culture, you have to go through the culture shock process all over again. You assume it’ll be no big deal. After all, you grew up in this culture. But you’re surprised to find that certain things just don’t fit anymore. You hate driving everywhere or you can’t stand how friendly the waiters are or you can’t find your favorite candies at the grocery store because Americans don’t eat salty licorice. (And for good reason.) 

So I was all prepared on our trip back to the US in August – for a month! – to experience some reverse culture shock. I was braced. And then…nothing. 

Well, not nothing. There were a few little things. It was weird being able to understand all the conversations around you – and a little annoying, people talk about the dumbest stuff! I remembered how ridiculously frustrating traffic is when you’re the one driving and how annoying it is to have to drive everywhere. The weather was almost unbearably hot at one point. I had forgotten what the St. Louis humidity felt like.

But mostly, it felt instantly normal and kind of awesome. We were surrounded by our family and friends. I could talk to people in stores without stress, without cringing at my bad Danish or at my need to speak English. I could go to the grocery store and choose between 30 different kinds of cereal! (Who knew this would become such a big deal for me?) I could eat Saltines! I could get cheap, fast, casual dining or takeout and didn’t have to cook every night! (That last one is a big one.)

Now, we’ve only been abroad 1 year, so that probably isn’t enough time to fully adapt to another culture and lifestyle. Also, I don’t think you could say that I’ve fully integrated here. For one thing, I spend much of my day at home alone. (Imagine an old school housewife only lazier and without the retro housedress.) And during the “morning” sickness period, I felt so bad that I stopped going into my volunteer job and Danish classes were on summer break (thank god), so I don’t think I spoke any Danish for about 3 whole months. And it’s really true, the language barrier will keep you from feeling fully a part of the culture around you. 

So given all of that, I was a little apprehensive about coming back to Denmark. I was worried I’d have to adjust all over again. But then we landed, and I was so glad to get on the train from Copenhagen to Aarhus and see the familiar countryside whiz by. We got home, and we just picked back up with our lives here. Even if we’re not 100% comfortable here, it’s still familiar, and we’ve got our little routines and we’ve got our friends (all of whom I was excited to see) and we’ve got our life that we’ve made, just the two of us.

So I would say, the weirdest thing about this whole reverse culture shock experience is the realization that we have two totally different lives in two totally different places and we could go to either place and pick up with either life fairly easily. I’ve never had that before, and it’s a bit of a strange feeling. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it, but I’ll tell you one thing, it’s wonderfully reassuring to know that we have something to go back to and people at home who love us.

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11 thoughts on “Our Experience (or lack of it) with Reverse Culture Shock

  1. I have to agree! We went back to the states for 4 weeks in July and I fell in love with my city again (Portland, OR). and I miss it even more than when I first left! we also dined out allllll the time haha! but then again, i’ve only been living in Aarhus for a mere 6 months before that trip.

    by the way, congratulations on the baby!!! hoping you don’t suffer from too much morning sickness in the next couple months!

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    • Thanks! I’m feeling *a lot* better than I did before week 16, and my fingers are crossed that that nausea is gone for good! (Though it tends to come back still when I’m tired.) It’s such a strange feeling to miss your hometown while still enjoying your new city. People keep saying we might surprise ourselves and decide we want to stay in Denmark, but I think I just miss certain things too much to make the move permanent. There are HUGE pluses to Denmark (vacation time etc.), but…I don’t know. All my family is over there! 🙂

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  2. I think my biggest “reverse culture shock” was how enormous the cars are. Seriously, I stepped out of the airport into the parking lot, and my jaw just dropped. It kind of felt like being a kid again, haha!

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    • Haha, this is true, I forgot about that moment. I knew it was ridiculous before leaving, but when we visited I was always commenting on why everyone has to have these huge SUVs. They don’t even have any extra seats! I guess extra trunk space?

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    • hehe, I was worried about that line a bit. I don’t want people to think I’m ungrateful or…something. But it does sum up my life pretty well at the moment. I’m in charge of all things house and social, but I’m no where near as on top of things as the ideal housewives of the 50s. There’s no way I’m cleaning every day 🙂

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  3. I remember my first trip back to the States after moving to Norway. My daughters picked me up at Dulles and I was marveling at how flat the land looked. We stopped to get something to eat and I was marveling at how inexpensive it seemed. One of my daughters was driving and I marveled at how calm she was with all that interstate traffic.

    And then everything was normal and I just enjoyed myself surrounded by family and love.

    “… it’s wonderfully reassuring to know that we have something to go back to and people at home who love us.” I couldn’t write it any better myself!

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    • hahaha, it makes me laugh that you were amazed at how flat the land was because here it’s exactly as flat as the midwest. The train from Aarhus to Copenhagen feels like you’re taking a train from Missouri to Iowa 🙂 But I totally know what you mean. The prices – especially for food – were shocking at first, too. I can get a burger and fries to $8!?! It was fun to tell our family how much the meal would cost here every time we went out for dinner 🙂

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  4. I completely understand. I lived in Scotland in 1988. I vividly remember coming home after being away, jet lagged and exhausted and my parents insisting on taking me out to dinner at some new trendy restaurant. I couldn’t get over how loud Americans were. Everything was loud. It was overwhelming.

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    • hehe, that happens to me here whenever I visit Copenhagen and suddenly hear other Americans around me. It’s quite a shock. I’m always like, “ugh, are American accents really that annoying? Do I sound like that?!” lol

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