Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Reverse Culture Shocks

 People are generally prepared to experience culture shock when they travel to a new country. We expect that in a new place, lots of things will be different from what we’re used to, right? But when someone has lived overseas for a while and then returns to their passport country, you may be surprised to know that they often experience what’s known as reverse culture shock. They come back to a culture that should be familiar, but so many things are different! Different from what they remember, and different from what they’ve gotten used to where they’ve been living. It can come as a shock to their system in both big and small ways.

We’ve now been back in the US for 3 weeks, and I’ve been talking to the kids a lot to help them process the various reverse culture shocks we’ve experienced. I thought it would be interesting to share some of the things we’ve all noticed and been surprised by. I’m thankful that the transition has been fairly easy for all of us. We’ve been exhausted and overwhelmed, but I was prepared for it to be much worse.

One of the first things the kids noticed when we arrived in the US was how boring the roads are here, because there are no people or markets to look at. They’ve also been super weirded-out by how few people we see outside in general. In Malawi, there are people everywhere. Houses are mostly just for sleeping, and most people live their lives outside— cooking, doing laundry, hanging out, and walking to where they need to go. There are always SO many people walking on the roads there.

For the girls and me, one of the strangest things has been wearing shorts in public again! For four years, we’ve only been able to wear shorts at home, but when we leave the house we have to wear pants, skirts, or dresses below the knee. It feels super weird to show so much leg in our relatively modest 5” inseam shorts! It has been really nice, though, to be able to run in shorts again in this Kentucky July heat. In Malawi, even when it’s in the 90’s F outside, we have to run in capri leggings to keep our knees covered.

On a similar note, a positive reverse culture shock has been simply being able to run in peace. Nobody stares and/or shouts“azungu” (foreigner) at us as we pass.

I feel like the grocery store is the standard, stereotypical culture shock that everyone talks about when returning to the US. And I really didn’t expect it to be a big shock for me, because we have pretty big, modern grocery stores in Blantyre. But it wasn’t the sizes of the grocery stores in the US that overwhelmed me as much as the selection! Being gluten and dairy free, we have been pleasantly surprised by the availability of things we can have in Malawi, like almond milk and some gluten free treats. But we are used to just having one or two options. The other day I stood in the cereal aisle at Kroger, my mind boggled by all the gluten free cereal and granola options, and trying to compare prices so I didn’t pay an arm and a leg. I stood there long enough that an employee came and asked if I needed any help, and I just said, “no, thanks, I’m just so overwhelmed.”

For Josh and me, one of the biggest immediate shocks was driving! In Malawi we drive on the left side of the road, the driver's seat is on the other side of the car, and the turn signal and wipers are on opposite sides. It only took about a week for us to stop thinking we were on the other side of the road or hitting the wipers when trying to turn, but I still have to regularly remind myself what side I should be on, especially when turning. Another missionary friend shared with me the mantra, "driver in the middle, blinker by the door," and that's been super helpful! The switch from driving a stick (in Malawi) to our automatic vehicles here has us frequently reaching for the clutch and gear shift, but it's been nice to remember that cruise control exists.

There are other little things I could mention, like getting mail, not having to check our food for bugs, and cooking on an electric stove rather than our gas one that we love, but lastly I'll just mention how BUSY and full of PEOPLE life here is! We are used to a very laid-back, very slow pace of life. Some of us (the introverts) like that slow life more than others of us (the extroverts), but like it or not, it's what we're used to. We've all been very tired and in need of lots of down time to balance out all of the people time. My biggest introvert actually cried one day when I told her we were going to be seeing people again the next day. That's been a tough transition, and we've talked about ways to sneak off and have some introvert time even if we're with people.

Please don't read this wrong and think we aren't happy to be here, because we VERY MUCH ARE! It's been wonderful to see family and friends again, and to have easy access to so many yummy foods and fun things to do! It's just very, very different! I hope you've enjoyed reading about some of the ways it's different.

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