Anyone who has spent roughly a day in transit from one side of the globe to the other will tell you that it’s a disorienting experience. One day, you’re dodging chickens, street vendors, and motorbikes in the road, and the next you’re confronted by stopped motorists insisting you cross the street before they pass. Over the years, I coveted my trips from Vietnam to the US and back. Stepping off the plane, life takes on a surreal glow. It’s a novelty-seeker’s dream with heightened senses and intensified experiences. Basically, it’s like being high minus the trouble of scoring drugs and for the low low cost of a $1500 ticket.
This feeling can last from a couple of weeks to months, depending on the regularity of the trips. Once the dust settles, many suffer from culture shock as they adjust to a new country and culture. But there’s also “reverse culture shock” or “re-entry shock,” the shock of returning home after a number of years abroad. For some, this shock is the more jarring of the two. The fact that you have to adjust to your own country is surprising. The familiar has become unfamiliar. Previously an expert at navigating American culture, now you find yourself confused at the mention of car sharing, vine, real housewives, honey boo boos, food to tabling, Deepak Chopra, Zumba, the dwindling irony of mustaches, baby food diets, dragon babies, and ice dudes. Ok, Vietnam has internet access, so missing the viral videos is on me. It does make my heart smile to see Harvard baseball players being shamelessly dorky, but I digress.
My extensive research on the experience of reverse culture shock (i.e., this website), explains that part of the shock stems from having the expectation that your hometown won’t have changed at all upon your return:
Often students expect to be able to pick up exactly where they left off. A problem arises when reality doesn’t meet these expectations…things may have changed at home: your friends and family have their own lives, and things have happened since you’ve been gone. This is part of why home may feel so foreign.
In other words, it brings into sharp focus the harsh fact that you are not, as previously believed, the center of the goddamn universe. Adding insult to injury, not only has the world not paused for you while you were away, your friends and family back home actually don’t care to hear too much about your life-changing experiences overseas, with the exception of any funny anecdotes illustrating how people in other places are very different and strange indeed (which granted, I dwelt on quite a bit myself while I was away…they eat snakes! Ooooohhhh…click click click of camera).
Yes, the whole ordeal is a cruel check on one’s narcissism. Did I suffer from these symptoms you ask, or am I above it all? Me? Have a center-of-the-universe complex? No. Well…kind of. With the help of regular visits back home and Facebook, I was fairly aware that my friends and family carried on in my absence, making decisions without my approval and selfishly failing to fill me in on the minute details. That part did not surprise me all that much. What did surprise me was the evolution of the cities I had previously known, which in my mind were becoming sleeker in their urban landscapes. Everything appeared to have the sheen of newness, but with an organic, natural twist. Hand-crafted, local, premium, original, one of a kind. A backlash against the homogeneity and plasticity of commercial chains that have dominated cities over the past few decades. Even Walmart presents itself as a “neighborhood market” these days. I can only imagine that such Orwellian advertising is illegal in Europe.
There is a part of me that can relate to the expectation that life would pick up where I left it. While I didn’t expect my surroundings or the people to be the same, I did expect my own story to carry on as if it were still 2008. Almost as if I would arrive back in the US as a 25 year old, with all the time in the world to figure out the basics of being an adult. It’s akin to when you return to your childhood home for the holidays and revert back to the 16 year old version of yourself. For instance, you may find yourself shrieking at your father, “Stop controlling my life! You don’t understand my suffering!” or having to actually remind yourself that basic manners dictate that you, not your mom, should do your own dishes.
It’s a state of arrested development, or so I imagine. I can’t tell if I’m behind or in line with my peers on this one, as we’re constantly accused of having Peter Pan syndrome regardless of whether or not we’ve been abroad. I do feel that I’ve grown in many ways in the past six years, but I lament over how much further I have to go. That in fact, there is no end to this process, it just keeps going. I’m supposed to be comforted by this ‘life’s-a-journey’ perspective, but instead I am prone to petulant feelings such as, “Maa…why am I not just done with this growing up crap already, god, get on with it and be all sophisticated-like and stuff?” Part of this is surely the slowly-growing recognition that life is finite, and it’s incredibly difficult to keep focus on the very few things that actually matter. So many distractions, most of them manufactured by our relentless and neurotic thoughts. Perhaps this feeling is why I felt compelled the other day to stop my audiobook and write down the following quote from Edward St. Aubyn:
It might not have been obvious to anyone else, but he longed to stop thinking about himself. To stop strip mining his memories. To stop the introspective and retrospective drift of his thoughts. He wanted to break into a wider world. To learn something. To make a difference. Above all, he wanted to stop being a child without using the cheap disguise of becoming a parent.
[Note: Sorry to the parents out there, no offense intended. But I will admit that I have thought about parenthood as a possible shortcut to self-fulfillment. The reasoning doesn’t quite sit well with me, though. If I have children, it will be only for the purpose of passing on the genetic line of redheads, as we are a dwindling but dignified population.]
There is the possibility that by forcing us to realize, if only for an instant, that we are not the center of the universe, reverse culture shock is doing us ex-expats a favor. Alright then, I’ve earned that life lesson merit badge, onto the next one.
All photos in this post are my own.