What is This Place? Notes on a Return Home

Everyone asks about culture shock, about strange foreign customs and scary food. But as strange as living abroad can sometimes be, particularly in Asia, there is one ugly monster that never fails to rear its head and make me scream while I try to run away at full speed. That horrible nightmare is also known as reverse culture shock.

Now, I’m no stranger to culture shock or reverse culture shock. I’ve been around the block, as they say. I’ve lived 5 months in Austria and had to readjust to the big, bad, high-school world in my hometown. I lived another 5 months in Argentina and had to come back to my University and deal with a mate deficit and loads of people who just couldn’t relax, in stark contrast to the Argentine lifestyle I’d learned to love. Arriving in South Korea and trying to figure out how life works wasn’t always a walk in the park. But coming back from 18 months of expat life? Now that’s some heavy hitting culture backlash. I knew what was coming but I definitely couldn’t have been prepared.

And to be honest, I may have needed all 18 months to be prepared for the return. Somewhere between six and sixteen months, a sickening feeling began to emerge every time I imagined a visit home. The stupidity of uneducated Americans, the ignorance about life outside of its borders and the thought of even having to discuss my “adventure abroad” all seemed like incurable diseases I didn’t want to face. But in the final two months I started having intense cravings for American food, missing Pittsburgh sights and attractions and looking forward to happy holiday times. Without these small bits of homesickness to overcome my fear of a return, I would have had quite a tough time getting on that plane headed back to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Home sweet home, after getting adjusted.
Home sweet home, after settling in.

But, I did. And I’ve been back. And unsurprisingly, it’s hasn’t been quite as horrible as I originally envisioned. Actually there have been some wonderful parts. And some weird parts. And an incident or two after which I realized that my social skills were a little rusty and maybe those Korean tendencies to be direct and extremely nosy weren’t really appropriate for conversations with USAers. But I’m pretty sure I can declare myself adjusted and look forward to fun times ahead.

Now that this serious talk is over and dealt with, let’s have some giggles at my expense. Here are five things that made me tilt my head and nearly curse with confusion, because I’d forgotten that’s what the USA is like for a hot second.

Cleavage, Everywhere

Korea is not so big on cleavage, and their standards of modesty are pretty much the exact opposite of what the USA calls modest. In the USA, showing your upper body (arms, shoulders, chest area, cleavage, back) are all pretty standard and accepted, provided it’s in moderation. In South Korea, those parts of the body need to be covered and if you want to be a little risqué, then a sleeveless shirt or a little collarbone will do the trick. In the USA, a short skirt screams sexy and if you can almost see someone’s butt, then you’re probably trying to force down super judgmental thoughts about that person’s life choices. In Korea, short shorts, skirts and dresses are the norm and there are plenty of times that I’ve caught a glimpse of someone’s undies.

Anyways, I’m rambling. The point is that I arrived in the USA and immediately thought “Oh my gosh, boobies are everywhere! What is this place?” and was very uncomfortable for a long period of time.

Flushing Toilet Paper

In South Korea, toilet paper goes in the trash can next to you when you’ve finished using it. We can debate the merits of this versus flushing TP all day, but that doesn’t really matter. After 18 months of being in the same toilet-using routine, I was pretty caught off guard during my return to the USA. It wasn’t really glorious, it was just weird and flushing toilet paper just felt… wrong.

People “Dressed Up” in Sweats

I understand that everyone has their bad days, but there has to be an end to this weird fashion trend of wearing sweatshirts, sweatpants and other junk clothing, just to straighten your hair and put it in a messy bun on top of your head. And then put on a face-full of makeup. I guarantee you that person showered, too. It’s just ludicrous. What’s so hard about clothes, again?

Wearing Shoes Indoors

“SHOES ARE DIRTY!” Korea said. And now I’m supposed to walk into my house, still wearing them. Because if I don’t, I’ll end up with a wet sock from some puddle of ice that someone else tracked in, while wearing their shoes inside. Because apparently that’s how things work in this weird country where I was born and raised. Whatever.

Massive Portion Sizes and Nothing Healthy on the Menu (Except Salad)

This one seriously drives me crazy. I cannot order healthy food off of a menu, unless it’s in the salad section, and even then, it’s questionable. Or unless I go to one of the “hipster” health food restaurants, which seems a little counter-intuitive to me. Why would I eat unhealthy food, when the whole point of food is to make our bodies keep working? Why are healthy meals not mainstream? Man, the USA needs to get its shit together so I can eat a sandwich that isn’t ten thousand calories or perfectly healthy but three times the size of what a meal should be. (Please note: the exception to this frustration of mine is Pittsburgh’s iconic Primanti Brothers’, where you arrive expecting to clog your arteries and almost explode post-meal. Then it’s okay.)

My diet at American restaurants: bread, bread, bread and bread.
My diet at American restaurants: bread, bread and bread.

It’s not all weird, head-scratching moments, though. I’ve encountered a few things while being home that I forgot were so damn awesome about the USA. And I rejoice every time I’m able to partake in these luxuries.

The 24 hr Pharmacy

I know that Korea has really cool convenience stores, but RiteAid, CVS and the like are America’s version of the same kind of awesomeness. I love walking through the aisles and staring at garden gnomes, Valentine’s day chocolate boxes galore, twenty-five different kinds of hair brushes and my favorite section, the drink refrigerators with Arizona Green Tea. They’ve even got all the candy you could ever need, ugly Pittsburgh magnets, horrible stationary and cards and the print-it-yourself photo booths. All open 24 hours. It’s glorious and I love it.

Delicious Beer, On Tap

Oh, Korea… if there is anything you cannot do for the life of you, it’s all things made of wheat. Your bread is sugary and lame and your beer tastes watery and sad. In the USA, there is a beautiful beer culture where you go to a bar, order a delicious, flavorful beer that you’ve never tried before and then you enjoy it. Sometimes it’s a locally made craft beer, sometimes it’s a local chain, sometimes it’s a popular beer but only in Michigan. In any case, I am soaking up every moment I can with amber ales, dark lagers, bright hoppy brews and all of the other incredible, tasty and wonderful beers that the USA has to offer.

(Oh, and I can’t WAIT to go to Germany again in April.)

Drip Coffee

I’m a coffee addict, and South Korea tried to placate me with those sugary instant coffee horrors. It didn’t work, Korea, you hear me?! I am enjoying opening a bag full of aromatic beans, grinding them, filling the coffee maker with either six or eight cups (depending on my mood) and enjoying cups of coffee all morning, while I’m still in my pajamas. And visiting the coffee shop or a breakfast restaurant and getting cups after cups of delicious diner coffee, instead of an Americano.

Yeah, I probably couldn’t have worked this out in Korea if I had tried harder, but I didn’t and I really missed it.

Although I did have the best coffee of my life in Korea. An exception.
Although I did have the best coffee of my life in Korea. An exception.

Full-Sized Towels

No one will understand why this is so great until they’ve lived somewhere that forces tiny foot towels upon you for all of your post-shower drying needs. May I also remind my readers that I said “foot towel”, as in a towel that is only sufficient for drying feet? And that my hair needs a foot towel of its own, since it hangs only a few inches above my waist? Full-sized towels are angelic, warm, fluffy awesomeness that blankets your cold, shivering and wet body and then makes life happier and full of rainbows. Also known as a bath towel. Also known as the kind of towel the world needs to start using after baths and showers, everywhere. Cough, cough, Korea. *Points an angry finger across the ocean*

Cheese

Korea, why couldn’t you do cheese correctly? I’m so glad I can eat delicious mozzarella and melted cheese that actually stretches and add cheese to scrambled eggs without ruining them. It’s great. And enjoy sharp cheddar and the cheese that’s both orange and white and fresh cheese from a block instead of in slices.

And there are a few things that I miss, now that I’ve departed kimchi-land (and one of those things is not kimchi). I’ll just list them, as they don’t need much explanation.

  • Pat Bingsu
  • Saunas
  • Rice
  • The Korean Won (and prices in 100 won instead of 1 cent increments)
♫And I----I, will always love youuuuuuu.♫
♫And I—-I, will always love youuuuuuu.♫

Time has flown by this month, but it’s now to move on to warmer pastures, literally, because I’m going to Spain in a few weeks. And then I’ll have another five months of travel and I’ll have to face the reverse culture shock beast all over again in July. But hey, I’ve done it before and there’s not a bit of doubt that I’ll be facing it plenty of times over in the years to come. Because in the end, reverse culture shock is the reason we travel. It causes us to question what it is we once accepted as par to the course and it creates appreciation for small things we never realized we would miss. It’s what we’re scared of and overcome, because we have to. Friends and family and loved ones are waiting on the other side. Your life doesn’t change by going abroad, your life changes when you go abroad and come back. That’s the hard part. That’s the part that makes us who we are.

And I wouldn’t change that monster hiding under my bed for any reason.

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13 thoughts on “What is This Place? Notes on a Return Home”

  1. Hey Sally!

    Katie and I are still enjoying reading your blog. Despite the unhealthy food we both really are excited about visiting America. We are 5months in to an 11month trip and the reverse culture shock is a bit of a worry! Much love from Burma x

    1. If you’re going to be visiting America and not staying in America, then I think you’ll have no big problems with reverse culture shock. Very exciting that you’re in Burma, have a wonderful time and thanks for following along with my blog! All the best. 🙂

  2. Thank you for writing this post, because I definitely needed to read it. I’ve traveled enough to know that reverse culture shock is indeed a real thing and it can be a beast to deal with. I actually felt like there were some eery parallels between what you were writing and my own situation, particularly the bit about needing 18 months to come to terms with the reality that you would be going home. That’s where I am right now—we’ve been on the road for 18 months and we will be returning home in the summer. I keep saying that I’m not ok with that right now, but I have about 5 months to get ok with it. I really don’t want to dread going home, I think that will only make things worse, but I can’t say I’m enthusiastic about the prospect right now. Knowing that you returned and lived to tell the tale (and actually enjoyed yourself) gives me hope!

    1. I think when it comes to more constant travel, like the kind you guys are doing, it must be way harder to think about home. Not because you don’t miss your friends and family, and not because your life is this grand ol’ adventure (though in retrospect, definitely!), but just because when you left, I’m sure you had to deal with a lot of naysayers and people that just didn’t really get it. And on the road you can truly be free from those. You’re in a sort of awesome twilight zone free of negative opinions about your lifestyle. And going home means entering that space where people voice their opinions about what you’re doing, and that’s terrifying, because what they have to say is likely nothing you want to hear. Even the positive,”I envy your life,” is annoying as fuck because those are the same people that insist they’ll never be able to do something like you’ve done. So I imagine the the prospect of home is much scarier for you than it is for me, since I was free of the “wait, so why would you be in Korea?” question… the answer of “money” seemed to win everyone’s approval, even if it’s not the whole story.

      For you guys, some coping mechanisms that might help the transition be a little smoother: make lists of delicious food that you’re missing and you will consume, come up with vague answers that satisfy light curiosity and win approval of extended family/strangers that don’t really need to know your full business, even if it does exclude a lot of the big picture, remember that more people will probably tell you they are jealous than question what it is you’ve been doing, try to be vague on future plans so at to curtail detail-oriented and judge-y questions that might appear and last, make sure you have your next trip planned so you have a goalpost of how long you should keep your shit together, in the case that people be cray.

      But I think you’ll be fine. The fear of is usually way worse than actually going back, and uncomfortable moments are usually just that, moments. You’ll be fine! 🙂 🙂

      P.S. I wrote another blog post in that comment, LOL… sorry about that hahaha

  3. I was with you up until you mentioned putting cheese on scrambled eggs. I can’t even deal with how bad that sounds!!

    Otherwise, though, I like what you’ve said. I’m going to the US for the first time in June and I’m excited to get to experience some of these things as a first-timer (as opposed to a returner like yourself).

    1. WHAT! I don’t even like scrambled eggs unless they have cheese in them (or just spinach and mushrooms galore). This blows my mind!!!

      Can’t wait to see what you think of the big ol’ USA! I love seeing outsider’s perspectives on my own place…

  4. I think it’s a testament to how adaptable we humans are that we can become so accustomed to a new culture that upon return we find our home culture shocking. So you’ll re-adapt then leave and do it all over again. Flushing TP after a stint in a non flushing country throws me off every time! Also you can get a bag of mate in some of the Mexican grocery stores around town or I believe Dobra Tea in Squirrel Hill actually serves it in legit gourds.

    1. I haven’t had mate in so long, I think I made it twice once I got home in 2011. It would be wonderful to have it again, I’ll have to check that out!

      And that’s a really good point, although if evolution was to work at all that would have to be true. Successful species adapt, or die… it’s nice to be at the top, eh? Haha!

  5. Noted that I should remember to pack my big bath towels.

    I know what you mean about reverse culture shock. I’ve been home for 10 months now and still catch myself getting easily confused with a lot of things. It’s amazing how 18 months away can mess with your head isn’t it?

    The flushing paper thing? Yeah. I got paranoid about clogging the toilet!

    I also have to say that I do hope the US doesn’t change it’s big portion thing – I always see visiting the US as a holiday when I go there because I can just eat LOADS of food and enjoy it. haha. But, yeah, I’ve never managed to finish a meal. The portions are bigger than your head.

    1. Haha seriously. So expensive in Korea. And reverse culture shock seems to occasionally have weird flashbacks for me, too, mostly when I spend a lot of time in that foreign language. I’m resigned though; it’s going to be my entire life hahaha.

      The big portion thing is alright when you have one extra day of leftovers to eat, but when it gets so big that you could spend three days eating one meal? Kind of out of control. It’s a nice vacation thing, I agree, but I live here and it drives me crazy!!

    1. Hahaha it does feel wrong, and Koreans waste so much TP wrapping their used tissues up in twice as much clean before throwing it away.

      Hopefully they update their plumbing pipes soon so we can flush the paper already, and stop having such smelly bathrooms… *fingers crossed*

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