When an American living abroad goes back to America

I’d heard about culture shock – you know, getting used to eating rice at every meal, the community-style eating habits, and the special reverence of those older than you – but what I hadn’t heard of before was reverse culture shock. As in, the shock of coming back to the culture you lived in after being abroad for some time. I recently went home for my sister’s wedding, after spending about 8 months in Daejeon, Korea. And I realized nothing wakes you up to how much you’ve changed like going back to the place you came from.

1) Airports

Airports. I’ve been through dozens of airports in my life, and the most dramatic thing that’s ever happened is that I’ve had to take off my belt as the metal beeped through the big detector machine. But this time, in the Detroit airport, I noticed something different. I always thought some American airports pushed people through security like cattle going through the gates; the prodding, the questioning, the mass generally shouted instructions.

It’s not a pleasant experience for anyone, quite frankly. But now I realized how much more of an unpleasant experience it would be for someone who’s first language isn’t English. In fact, it could be downright daunting to go through the mess of people shouting “laptops go in a separate bin, people!” and “have your passports ready!” who are already annoyed from having to facilitate hoards of people all day.

I heard a security guard question an Asian man in front of me “I find it very suspicious that you’re traveling by yourself..”. I came along, and promptly offered “I’m traveling by myself”, which was met with a polite “have a good time”.

My Korean friend Jihae told me she was once taken to a back room to be questioned about why she was traveling to the US. Although fluent in English now, she was still learning it at the time, and found it incredibly difficult to answer tough, fast-paced questions under the pressure of being alone in a private with multiple US security guards. She missed her flight, had her luggage searched, and now has a fear of going through airports, despite being one of the bravest, strongest women I know.


2) The bible belt/South

I don’t consider myself southern. I don’t have an accent or any kind of southern drawl, and I didn’t know what grits were till high school. But the truth is, I live smack dab in the middle of the bible belt, despite having grown up in a German culture and educated at a hippie liberal arts college. My state recently passed a controversial law stating that if you’re born with physical female reproductive parts, you must use the female restroom, and some goes for those born with male parts. I’m sure you can think of many ways this can be problematic, not to mention completely gender binary.

I was outraged and ashamed to be from the state that passed a law that completely disregarded and endangered folks who didn’t fit into this stiff gender binary. I knew as many people who supported that law as Trump fans, which was zero. Until I went back home and heard the following:

“Sure I’d bake a gay couple a cake… but I’d charge them extra for it.”

The woman who said this has loved me faithfully my whole life. I know her like I know my mom, and she loves the Lord.

“Private business owners should be allowed to refuse business to anyone they want. That’s freedom.”

“Gay rights protesters shouldn’t be making laws. If they don’t like a business or something, they should just boycott it. Or leave.”

The thing that shocked me the most about this is that these weren’t homophobic strangers. These were people I knew. This was my best friend’s family. These were people who’ve made me meals, prayed with me, quilted blankets for me, and took me to second-hand stores. It’s easy to say “those homophobic republicans” as if they’re one big, messy, bad group of smelly old men, but it’s a different reality altogether when these remarks come from people you love, who love you.

And after 24 years, nothing woke me up more to the fact that I was in a starkly republican-minded state than that.


3) The Doctor’s Office

Same problem as the airport. Language. When I mentioned to the nice receptionist how difficult it’s been learning Korean, and the prevalence of English being used in Korea, she responded with her own interactions with foreigners.

“Sometimes we get a lot of Mexicans here. You know, it’s really hard to understand them. I’m like ‘uno?’. I try to be patient, you know, and they even have translators sometimes.”

I shudder, thinking about the multiple times a day in Korea where friends and strangers alike meet me more than half way to communicate with me through rough English/Korean. I thought about the time I had a free personal translator at both the dentist office and the doctor’s office so I could communicate to the doctors. Time and time again, it’s more common to expect Koreans to know basic English than to expect foreigners to know basic Korean. In America, it’s flip-flopped. If you don’t know English, you’re in for a world of difficulties. And I guess I never realized that before.

4) Freakin’ Supermarkets

They’re HUGE. I mean, really? We need how many different types of cereal? How many kinds of pop tarts? Does each local supermarket really have to go on as far as the eye can see? I like choices as much as the next girl, but maybe this is fringing on extremism.

5)  Media

I picked up a magazine at my house. The cover was of a very pretty white girl. Flipping through, I realized most of the pictures were of very pretty white girls. A couple African Americans were in the mix, and only a single Asian was featured on all of its pages. I viewed a movie on the flight back to Korea, and realized all of the characters were white, with a single exception. One of the bad guy’s friends was African American. But that’s it. It was an end-of-the-world movie, but I guess the director wanted more of an end-of-white-suburban-America feel. I’ve watched a lot of movies in my life. But I guess I’ve never realized the racial make up of the cast, or have even been aware of it, until now. I blame Korea for waking me up to all of this, and hope my eyes stay open as I go back to America when this program ends.


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