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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I Really Should Have Done My Research

So a couple of fellow bloggers – specifically Marian von Bakel and Susanne from Fit Across Cultures – have brought something to my attention about the culture shock curve. Apparently, there is actual academic research that backs up my personal feelings of frustration with the curve as an inadequate model for the normative expat experience.

Despite being widely used and acclaimed in “so you’re going to be an expat” books and training, the traditional curve has never been conclusively supported by scientific research. In fact, its applicability, relevance, and usefulness has been questioned by the academic community for many many years. Though many studies have tried to validate it as a good model for the expatriate’s experience, they have repeatedly been unable to do so. The main complaints? The model is too simplistic, it assumes one mode and method of adaptation for everyone, and it assumes a honeymoon period (which many expats are unhappy to realize that they’ve skipped right over, going straight into stress time because, duh, you’ve just moved countries and have to set up a home and a whole new life all at once).

The Berardo Cultural Adjustment and Transition Training Presentation from Culturosity.com, which Susanne brought to my attention, was especially enlightening. It tells of the history of the curve, gathers together much of the past research on this topic, discusses why the curve got so stuck in culture shock discussions, and proposes alternative ways that we might talk about culture shock. (My guess is that it’s staying power is due to its simplicity. It’s easy to use and talk about, while describing the reality of culture shock would be messier and more complicated.)

So thanks to my readers for inserting some actual facts into this rather personal discussion! Maybe next time I’ll do some Googling before I post…

 

Let’s Take a Moment to Talk Culture Shock

So in between all this holiday cheer (because I have more holiday posts coming!), I wanted to take some time to talk about homesickness and culture shock because, let’s face it, even the veteran expats are probably getting a little homesick this time of year.

I saw this video come up on ExpatInDenmark.com the other day.

It’s a good video, and I like the way it succinctly describes something called the “culture shock curve.” But ever since watching it I can’t really stop thinking about it. Because I don’t think that this really describes my experience so far as an expat. (All 4.25 months of it.)

The traditional culture shock curve looks like this:

I drew my own based on the video because I can't find a simple one that I like online.

I drew my own based on the video because I can’t find a simple one that I like online.

It’s important for non-expats – for family and friends who are left behind – to understand that there are these multiple periods of culture shock instead of just the one initial period. Because from afar the expat life can seem like one big exciting adventure. You can see how there would be an initial period of adjustment, but it’s harder to understand from afar how the more serious period of culture shock may come later after you’ve superficially adjusted to life in your new country.

However, the way it’s usually drawn makes it look like a fairly natural ebb and flow, like a steady progression through stages. But there are two things that I would note:

1. Not everyone gets to the final “acceptance” stage. Some people get stalled in one of the various culture shock troughs. I read this in a “so you’re moving overseas” book before we left the US, and I will admit that it kind of freaked me out. Because I would be just the kind of person to get stalled. But I think it’s important to note that adaptation isn’t easy.

2. My personal experience is not represented by this graph. Rather, it looks a little more like this:

You are here...somewhere

You are here…somewhere

This may be due to the fact that I’m only 4 (.25!) months into my expat experience, so I may not be seeing the big picture or larger pattern. But it definitely feels like these culture shock periods come much more frequently than just twice in your whole expat experience, and they’re not necessarily so prolonged. The whole experience feels much more up and down rather than smoothly curving through sequential stages. I feel like I go through one whole cycle of this maybe once a month.

Also, I don’t think that these two states are mutually exclusive. I can be in the throws of a serious homesick binge when we have a good day and learn something really cool about our host country. Or I can feel like things are going fine when something happens and I feel like I’ve fallen back a couple steps.

So while the culture shock curve is a very helpful graph in introducing future expats and their families back home to the fact that there are multiple moments of culture shock and that adaptation is hard and may not come easily or right away, I think it’s a little too simplified. And as an expat who’s read many many articles about this “normal” curve, it’s starting to get a little annoying.

Not every expat’s journey looks like that. Your journey and how you handle the experience of moving abroad is very personal and unique. Comparing yourself to some standard of normal – or to what other expats are doing or feeling – can sometimes be more harmful than helpful. Just have faith in yourself and your ability to grow and adapt. Know that you will get there someday in your own time in your own way. Or you will go home, and that will be OK, too, because this is your journey.

More Sense Making and Danish Fashion

 – author of How to Live in Denmark podcasts – does it again and explains something that I just wasn’t understanding.

Ever since coming to Denmark, I’ve been looking for rain gear. Because it rains an awful lot in this country that is bordered on three sides by ocean, and when you don’t have a car you have no choice but to walk and/or bike in the rain.

I was having no luck finding a rain jacket. I wanted something cute and fun, maybe a bright color or pattern. Cause, you know, it’s a rain jacket, you wear it when it’s gloomy outside so it’s nice if it’s a pop of color, and if I was in the US that’s what I would be looking for. Something like this:

Ooo how fun and cute!

Ooo how fun and cute!

The problem – and you can tell if you look closely – was that all the fun rain jackets seemed to only be available in children’s sizes. It seemed a little strange, but I thought that maybe I was just looking at the end of the season and everything was already picked over. Because, they couldn’t possibly offering me rain coats in nothing but variations of muted blues and browns and lots and lots of black:

The most exciting in this line up: the polka dot.

The most festive in this line up: the polka dot.

Could they? Can this be it? I look over at the kids section, and all I see are polka dots and stripes, zigzags and geometric designs. That means these colors exist. Why can’t I find any in my size?!

The answer came with Kay’s podcast:

“But what is true is that Danes dress to match the Danish landscape. That means grey. And brown, and green, and some blue. Maybe some beige for the adventurous types.

But if you find yourself wearing purple or orange, or hot pink, you will stand out in Denmark. Those colors are worn by children, or sometimes by middle-aged ladies trying to make a statement.”

Apparently, in Denmark I am either a child or a middle-aged lady. Because this is the jacket I ended up with:

My eyes! It's so bright!

My eyes! It’s so bright!

Yes, that’s right, I ended up finding and purchasing a fairly bright purple rain jacket. I look at it as a kind of compromise.

At least it’s not patterned.

Lakrids

While we’re on the subject of shopping, let’s discuss another culture shock.

Culture Shock PicMonkey

#4:

Danes are gaga for licorice.

When we first got here, Brian and I saw this section in the grocery store where you can choose and bag your own Haribo candy:

Candy Aisle

omg so much candy nom nom nom

We thought it was interesting that it was inside a grocery store – in the US, these types of things are found in independent candy stores, typically in malls – but we didn’t really think anything of it.

Until we started seeing similar displays everywhere. Literally, EVERYWHERE.

In every grocery store. In gas stations. In stores that are more like Targets than grocery stores. And they’re super popular, especially on Friday afternoons, when apparently everyone gets their weekly candy fix.

And next to this giant bag-it-yourself display of candy are other displays full of premixed candies.

Toms candy display

Toms candy display

You might think that this sounds awesome. Constant access to candy! But what you don’t know is that 90% of the candy in these displays is licorice of some kind. Seriously, 90%. (And I’m only exaggerating a tiny bit!)

To Americans, licorice is a very specific, very unique, very strong flavor. It is used sparingly and eaten rarely. In fact, our licorice candy is usually not even really licorice flavored.

But the Danes are very serious about their licorice and apparently need a multitude of ways in which to consume it.

And some of this licorice… wait for it… is salty. SALTY!

Salte Fisk

And it’s literally the saltiest thing I’ve ever eaten. I couldn’t believe what I was tasting the first – and only! – time I tried one. It boggles the mind that this is an acceptable flavor, one that people like and seek out. Who first thought to put salt and licorice flavor together?

This may be one thing that I will never be able to adapt to. Rugbrød is one thing. That’s more like coffee, an acquired taste. But salty licorice? I’m pretty sure that if you haven’t grown up eating it, this is a taste that can never be acquired.

Culture Shock PicMonkey

#2:

It seems that there is one person in every Danish organization/company who can perform/is in charge of any given task. If that person is out on their 3 week summer holiday or out sick, no one else will be able to help you because they are not the one responsible for that task. You must wait until the specific person who is returns.

This blends into culture shock number three.

#3:

Things seem to take a loooooong time here. I don’t know if it’s because of the above or because Danes like decisions based on consensus (which leads to many many meetings to make sure everyone’s opinions are heard and everyone agrees) or if it’s something different. Maybe a pace of life thing. For certain situations, that is fine and even pleasant. For other situations – say you’ve just moved countries and you’re trying to get your utilities or internet turned on – that is not very pleasant.

Ah culture shock.