There’s No Going Back: Reverse Culture Shock

Trekking in the Himalayas near Jomsom at age 10.

I moved back to the U.S. when I was twelve. I remember staring out the airplane window and thinking of all the old friends I would be able to see again. I pretty much pictured them as I left them, third graders. I knew that wasn’t quite right. There wasn’t much to go on after being away for almost four years. I thought about how much I had changed and wanted to share the highlights of Nepal from trekking through the Himalayas and rafting down rivers, as well as the diverse group of friends I had made. I could only wonder what experiences friends in America must have had that we could talk about. Maybe they played a lot of sports or built really cool sled jumps in the winter. I couldn’t wait to go sledding again. My mind filled with memories as the plane thundered on. Going back to America was going to be great!

If you have ever had to “go back” to a place you understand that you never go back. Reverse culture shock is the struggle of adjusting back to a culture you have previously lived in. Also, culture shock does not discriminate, least of all to naive middle schoolers.

At the wedding of one of my Dad’s colleagues.

The first day of seventh grade was a chance to see my old friends. The middle school cafeteria was loud and intimidating. My twin brother and I spotted a group of old elementary school friends huddled together. “Wow, they were all still friends,” I thought as we approached, “making friends was going to be easy.”

They gave us confused looks. They did look a little different, so I’m sure we looked a little strange to them, too. Puberty tends to do that. I figured we had to introduce ourselves again and remind them of who we were. They used strange words like sweet, dude, and my bad. I didn’t know if I had to say those words, too. Jokes were flying about that also didn’t make much sense. Maybe, best to observe and not say too much. A knot was forming in my stomach.

During the throws of culture shock, a significant amount mental energy is expended. Even typical subconscious choices are second guessed. Culture shock only wares off gradually as decisions slowly become more instinctual.

I had no time to collect my thoughts. The bell rang and everyone shuffled out to their assigned homeroom. The hallway felt like the thick Kathmandu markets. My brother and I stuck close together, fortunate to be headed to the same place. Being grouped by last name, we entered the room to find almost half the class of Asian descent. Slightly surprised, we soon figured out that Yang, Vang, and Zhang happened to be common family names for the Hmong people group. Despite feeling estranged with old friends, there was some solace in our homeroom of the last of last names. This transition may not be so bad.

We didn’t exactly fit in.

We counted what small wins we could that first year back in the states. Our cultural mishaps felt much larger in middle school as our confidence often waned. It helped to have a twin going through the same experience and there were a few friends who didn’t forget us.

I was recently told something that surprised me. Those facing the worst culture shock end up adapting best in the end. Being often more aware of their surroundings, they end up working harder at adjusting to the culture around them. Not that this advocates for a terrible transition process, however, during the stress and anxiety of trying to adjust, there certainly is some reassurance that hope is out there.

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