Friday, July 24, 2015

Expat Problems: Dealing with Reverse Culture Shock

The clock struck 4:30 as I found myself ordering a handful of appetizers to share, essentially tapa-ing at a time when I'd normally be finishing up lunch. I took a sip of my glass of wine, which cost about the same amount as a decent bottle back in Madrid. The waitress checked in on us what seemed like every ten minutes, constantly offering us everything from extra snacks to more ice water. "What is this?" I wondered to myself silently. "I'm fine. Just leave me alone!" Then the check arrived with our second round of appetizers, and I just about lost it.

Nothing says reverse culture shock quite like happy hour.

When I come back to visit the States every summer, I'm brutally reminded of the differences between my two worlds. As I bounce between Madrid and Seattle, sometimes I can't help but feel as if I'm living a double life. While there are certain things that I adore about America - like air conditioning, one-stop shopping and oaky Chardonnay - there are too many things that I automatically balk at.

I try to catch myself, constantly reminding myself not to act like a haughty, I-think-I'm-superior-because-I-live-in-Europe expat, because nobody likes that girl. (And just because I live in a foreign country doesn't mean that I'm better than anyone else.) So I suck it up and make small talk with the barista, internally cringe when I have to tip 20%, and smile and nod when someone asks to meet for lunch at 11:30 am.

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My reaction to American customer service norms (and eating octopus in Galicia).

Disoriented dining

Gone are the days of wanting to eat dinner at 6 o'clock, pining for free refills of ice water and appreciating quality customer service. No, no. I've become Spain-ified.

When I first studied abroad in Spain, I abhorred the meal schedule, the slow service, and the aloof waiters whose attention you could never seem to grab. And what was all about that sobremesa business? Sitting around the table, just talking for hours after a meal? Who's got time for that?

And then Madrid happened. The tables have turned, and I now live for the 9 pm dinners and the delightfully cheap wine. Bringing the check with the food is an unforgivable offense, and I find myself unreasonably put off when friends aren't in the mood to sobremesa. Like, c'mon guys, where's the fire?

You can only imagine how well this goes over in the world of American dining.

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Cheap wine and phenomenal rooftop views are just a few of the things that Spain does right.

Nobody cares that you live abroad

I love my friends in Seattle. They're my rocks, the friends that I see being my bridesmaids one day, and the people I hope to grow old with. But sometimes I don't know what to talk about when I come home, because you can only start so many sentences with "In Spain..." without sounding like a total dick.

But my whole life is there. I live there, my job is there, my hobbies are there, everyone I've dated in the last two years is from there... how could I not talk about Madrid? Some friends and family members ask me about life in Spain, but surprisingly, most don't.

In the past two weeks, the person who has asked me the most questions about my life in Madrid was my eye doctor. I'm not offended, but it still makes me uncomfortable. I can't help but wonder if people would be more interested if I had moved someplace more relatable, like LA or Chicago.

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How some of my friends from home feel about my stories from abroad.

It's a great big world out there

Every time I come home, I'm always amazed by how big everything is. Two weeks ago I spent an entire day just wandering around Whole Foods and Target, admiring all of the things. And speaking of Target, I forgot how good it felt to get everything you need in one store. What a concept!

Even more shocking? Stores that stay open after lunch. The ability to run errands at 2 pm is actually blowing my mind. I might just go celebrate with a green smoothie tomorrow after lunch because I can.

That said, nothing gives me anxiety quite like driving, and in Seattle I find myself growing more and more resentful that I can't just hop on the metro and visit my friends via public transport. Seriously, America? It's 2015. The lack of efficient transportation here is not just inconvenient, it's also embarrassing.

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Efficient public transportation: just another example of how America should copy Spain.

The silver lining

In just over a month I'll be back on a flight to Madrid, where I can enjoy all of the late dinners and metro rides I want. Reverse culture shock aside, I still have four weeks to make the most out of the things I truly love about America and enjoy every minute spent with the people I love here. That's why I came home in the first place.

Sure, maybe I don't completely fit in anymore, but Seattle will always have a big piece of my heart. Little things about the USA may bug me and seem ridiculously strange, but I'm lucky enough to visit as often as I do - and I need to remind myself of that.

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As much as the little things bother me, I still really love this place.

Fellow expats, do you ever feel reverse culture shock?
How do you deal with coming home?


  1. I SERIOUSLY feel everyyyything in this post. I'm back in America for the first time in 14 months and I just completely agree with every single thing in this post!!!

  2. Uggggg this is my life to a T!!! For whatever reason the “reverse” culture shock never really throws me for a loop as I can easily switch between 12pm/6pm and 2pm/9pm lunch and dinner times…but the main thing I miss is walkability; the entire city of Barcelona could fit within my sprawling hometown suburb of 250,000! Although to be fair I am actually taking the bus to work this summer and am looking forward to riding DART rail to downtown Dallas to play tourist in my own ‘hood.

    I love how honest you are about the awkwardness that comes with wanting to simply talk about your life (which just so happens to be abroad) without coming across as a pretentious twat. While everyone else is getting married, having babies, getting promotions, and buying houses, we’re over here trying to figure out where the best tortilla is in town, trying new vermouth brands with friends, and daydreaming about the next weekend trip in Spain/Europe. But us expats have each other—that’s what we’re there for :)

  3. I love that you spent all day walking around Whole Foods and Target. I think I'd do the same thing!

  4. Yes!! This is how I felt when I went back to the states last fall. There are things I appreciate about it and things I don't like as much. I did love that you can get water for free there, but hated having to tip!! And meals do always feel so rushed. And yep, most people don't want to talk about your travels. Which is fine with me (I can talk all I want about it on my blog!) because I have a fear of seeming braggy. And Target!!! I admit I miss it!! Another thing I do miss about the States is that the shopping is generally cheaper there too!

  5. Such a great post Courtney! I always feel that reverse culture shock is so so so much harder tjan culture shock and makes you question so many things that you never thought of before! I also agree about friends not asking much about life abroad, when I moved back from Chile I found that too but it felt so weird because everything that had happened in the past year had happened there and I wanted to talk about it. But I found myself biting my tounge and not talking about it because I too didn't want to start with 'In Chile...' It's a minefield, isn't it?! Enjoy your month at home :)

  6. Danielle @ Seoul TapperillaJuly 25, 2015 at 5:04 AM

    Oh man, reverse culture shock is a TREMENDOUS thing, and it comes when you least expect it. The first time I got it was during my first time home after 1.5 years while ordering an iced latte at Starbuck's. I felt so pressured to have my money out and spit the words out perfectly and promptly. It was so weird and I felt like a freak. I can also wholeheartedly say that the 'nobody cares' aspect is 150% true, and not intentional. I've found that there are the few people who genuinely want to hear your stories and where you've been, but in the grand scheme of things, life has just been going on for everyone. It's weird, because like you said, my best friends at home are my rocks and I couldn't live without them, but there is also something so special about the people you meet abroad. You will always have those people who uprooted their lives just like us who completely understand it all. Hang on to those people and hope you see them way sooner rather than later!

  7. I only fly back to the U.S. once a year, and, yes, I definitely experience reverse culture shock when I'm there. I feel like I'm living in limbo as an expat -- not quite feeling at home in Europe but not quite feeling like I belong in the U.S. either. And it's difficult to talk about it with more than just a few of my very closest friends because people seem to take offense at not my being absolutely in love with my hometown anymore. I heard somewhere that once you're an expat, you're always an expat, even once you repatriate to your home country. Perhaps there is some truth to it. I guess I'll find out in due time. Until then, take heart, Courtney, you're not alone.

  8. It's so tough coming back! I'm glad I'm not the only one who feels this way! Are you back in the States for good, or are you coming back to Madrid?

  9. You are so lucky that you can take the bus to work and get downtown without driving! For being as Earth-friendly as Seattle claims to be, their public transportation situation is a disaster. Especially for people like me who are stuck in suburbia for the summer!

    I'd take vermouth and tortilla over weddings, babies and mortgages any day ;) Thank goodness for the expat (and travel blogging) community!!!!

  10. I couldn't help myself :) They're just so big and grand! (And also open on Sundays, hooray!) :D

  11. Totally! I get that people who don't travel don't want to hear about my travels - just like I don't have a baby so I don't want to hear all about other people's babies - but it's weird that they don't want to hear about my life. I'm still not comfortable censoring myself, but I'm the same as you, I don't want to sound braggy either! Thank goodness for other expats and especially the travel blogging community, because I feel like I can actually chat with people who are not only interested in what's going, but can also relate and keep the conversation going!

  12. Yes, it's totally a minefield! I'm glad you can relate, this makes me feel a little less crazy! I'll probably never get over how strange it is that so many friends from home don't want to ask questions about my life, but thankfully I have you guys to commiserate with :)

  13. Wise words chica!! And oh my, your Starbucks story is so on point. Also, today I paid $5 for a coffee there and my soul pretty much died. WHERE ARE THOSE 2€ CAFE CON LECHES FROM TOMA?! For real though.

  14. I totally agree, at times it really does feel like a life in limbo. The hometown sting really rings true with Seattleites too - every time I talk about loving Madrid so much because of the weather (since there's WAY more sun than in the rainy Pacific Northwest!) people here get so put off and defensive. But thank you for your wise words - I'm glad I'm not alone! :)

  15. That’s really just too bad that public transit in Seattle is the pits. And you’d think conservative Dallas wouldn’t have much to speak of, but in fact it has the largest light rail network in the country! Suburban sprawl, however, is another story…

  16. Yes to so many of these things! We have Target here but it is not remotely the same. I love wandering the aisles when I'm home.

  17. Seriously, American waiters make me feel like I might have social anxiety haha!! Like, leave me alone already!! I'm really terrified of moving back home. I have become a different person and I am not quite sure how to return to how I used to be. I love this post and I hope you enjoy your time back home!

  18. Danielle @ Seoul TapperillaJuly 26, 2015 at 2:03 AM

    Hahaha tell me about it! I also meant to add in the supermarket bit too lol. Every time I'm home I walk aimlessly thru Trader Joes just to see what's new on the shelves. I'm glad to know other ppl do the same silly thing! :)

  19. Aw definitely feel the culture shock every time I'm in and out of the country! And what you said about no one caring that you live abroad really resonated with me - I noticed recently that people think I'm like a rockstar for having done the jump and living abroad, etc. (which makes me feel proud) but they don't really want to hear about it and you are so right, starting every sentence with 'In Scotland,....' sounds douchy!

  20. I'm going back to LA until January and then hopefully moving to Israel! So I'll have a whole new culture to shock me soon :)