Reverse Culture Shock and Other Myths

Early last year I moved back to the San Francisco Bay Area after seventeen years in Asia. The number one thing people here asked me about that was, “What do you think of the Niners this year?” because, when push comes to shove, most of them would rather have a biopsy than hear about my weird foreign adventures in Far Far Away.

Occasionally, someone would be reckless enough to express polite interest. In these rare cases, they often asked the same thing: was there reverse culture shock coming back to the United States after so long away? The answer they wanted was, “Yes. After my time in the far Orient, your customs and ways are strange to me. Please, what is a ‘Chipotle’?”  Unfortunately for them, the answer they got was: Maybe.

It all depends what you mean by “culture shock.” If you mean grand mal culture shock, that overwhelming alienation and disorientation that leaves you babbling and wide-eyed, the answer is no. I know what that kind of culture shock feels like because I had it when I moved to Singapore in 1995 and again when I moved to Beijing in 2004. In both cases I was incoherent for weeks. I spent my first months in Beijing staggering around in a daze with my language school classmates like a herd of stunned, white sheep who could communicate only by bleating and clustering together for safety. Just ordering successfully in a restaurant was a nerve-wracking triumph.

It was also a huge amount of fun. Culture shock is inextricable from adventure, and I’m nostalgic for that time. One reason I moved to Beijing was to recapture the excitement that faded over the years in Singapore.

As cultural stunts go, China was an epic win. I became competent at living and working there, but the sense of adventure never did fade. One of China’s charms is an enduring, vaguely hallucinatory quality that drapes over even mundane experiences, like a paisley bedspread over an old, vinyl sofa. It has a way of keeping you just a bit off balance, which makes life interesting.

Or maybe it’s just me. But, at any rate, after nearly a decade there I left and returned to Silicon Valley, which has hallucinatory qualities of its own. Hence, one might think, reverse culture shock. America! Guns, God and Google busses!

But for modern expatriates I don’t think reverse culture shock is a thing. Maybe if, in the days of the British East India Company, you spent six months sailing around the Cape of Good Hope and thirty years in the malarial subcontinent surrounded by glowering sepoys while your family died of cholera one-by-one, you might have reverse culture shock when you got home to find that James Watt had invented the steam engine in your absence.

But in the twenty-first century? Hallucinations notwithstanding, I had the Internet, regular visits home, and easy if not always entirely legal access to the bounties of American media and pop culture. Say what you will about Facebook, but it keeps you from feeling all that far away. When I moved back to Palo Alto everything was pretty much right where I left it. The town was richer, sleeker and more self-infatuated, but, under the surface, recognizably the same place I’d grown up in.

The essence of expatriate life in China is overcoming friction and petty annoyances. Air. Traffic. Dubious food. Spitting. Temporary residence certificates. Endless massage and pirate satellite TV flyers under the front door. Banks. God help me, the banks. Ability to reconcile oneself all of this, and even to find the humor in it, separated the foreigners who would thrive in China from those who would stagger back to Hong Kong or home after six months.

With a few exceptions, like a nonexistent credit rating, life back in Palo Alto felt frictionless. And we didn’t just move back to my hometown, we moved back into my actual childhood home. Specifically, my mother’s house, where I had last lived in 1988. We did this because we were advised to not change our address while Mrs. Imagethief was applying for her green card, an experience that is not hallucinatory in the slightest unless you hallucinate paperwork.

Extended-family living led to some tension, several awkward weeks and a few intense discussions about boundaries and space. I’d venture that family shock was more traumatic than culture shock for me and Mrs. Imagethief, who had to deal with that most delicate of Asian family dynamics, that of the daugher-in-law parachuted into the mother-in-law’s home turf.

Still, it worked out OK, and proximity to family has been one of the great joys of the return. Especially since we got our own place, which is, neatly, close enough to my mother to be filial, but far enough away that she can’t smell the sambal frying.

As I think back on my first year back in the Valley, there were really only two moments when I was flummoxed into total immobility in a way that happened to me on a more or less daily basis my first few months in China. Both times involved that particular American pathology, overwhelming choice.

The first time was in the beer aisle of the Noe Valley Whole Foods in San Francisco, on my way to watch the 2013 Superbowl at my father’s house in the city. When I left the United States there was no craft beer movement, per se. In college we drank two-liter Sapporo mini-kegs. The less said about that the better. If we were particularly flush we might pick up a case of Henry Weinhardt’s or Moosehead, which was exotic because it was from far Canada. When I moved abroad, in 1995, you could demonstrate your upscale credentials by drinking Sam Adams, or Anchor Steam, or, if you were feeling dangerously sexy, Red Hawk or Sierra Nevada.

In Singapore we didn’t drink beer because it was too expensive. In China all we drank was Yanjing, the local brew from Beijing’s northern suburbs. It was cheap, watery swill, but that meant you could pack it away pretty much all evening long without becoming too wasted. This had certain advantages when devouring some incandescent Hunanese feast on Beijing’s sultry, summer evenings.

In the Noe Valley Whole Foods I stood staring at label after label, each of which was some variation on the formula eccentric behavior + humorous animal + character-filled-location + IPA. Prancing Piglet Barn Brewed IPA. 10% alcohol by volume, 90% hops. Take that, you lager-sipping, orientalist pansy. I hope your skull doesn’t cave in.

I stood there gawping at the beer menagerie for five minutes. As god was my witness, I had no idea what to buy. There wasn’t a case of Henry’s in sight. Mrs. Imagethief suggested I, you know, ask for a recommendation. But asking a supermarket clerk for a beer recommendation is like asking another man to measure your penis. It’s just not something you do outside of the Frat House. I’m an adult American man. I’m supposed to know which fucking beer to buy.

Mrs. Imagethief broke the logjam by picking more or less at random. It was fine (though hoppy), and after a year of intense counseling from my brothers I’ve developed a working familiarity with craft brews that enables me to function in San Francisco social circles without making too much of an ass of myself.

The second time I was paralyzed in my tracks was the first time I ate at one of the free employee restaurants at a glamorous Silicon Valley company that shall go nameless. I finished my meal and dutifully carried my tray to the drop-off, where I was confronted with the most dizzying array of waste receptacles I have ever seen. In China there was pretty much one waste receptacle. About two thirds of the time, it was the ground or a randomly placed pile. In the rare places that had multiple receptacles discipline was loosely observed since everyone understood that, regardless of what you threw where, China’s informal economy was going to handle the sorting more efficiently than you ever could.

In the employee cafeteria I gawped at six color-coded bins like a thunderstruck hillbilly while sleek young people effortlessly navigated according to some politically correct recycling code that my decrepit, Yanjing-poisoned brain failed to resolve. I waited for a lull, checked to see if anyone was looking, furtively tipped everything into “landfill”, and sidled out while trying to maintain a facade of earnest, environmental conscientiousness.

Beer and recycling. That’s what counted for culture shock upon returning to the Bay Area. There have been other struggles, but most of them have been logistical in nature rather than cultural. Coming home doesn’t have the glamour or romance of hurling oneself into the smog shrouded, neon-lit nights of Beijing. In its own way, the Valley may be every bit as strange. But even after so many years away, it’s still home.

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10 Responses to Reverse Culture Shock and Other Myths

  1. Pingback: As Cultural Stunts Go | Simpson's Paradox

  2. 阿江 says:

    Just to be an @$$, I make sure people know I’m foreign by asking about Chipotle, but pronouncing it as “Chuh-poe-tuhl”. Then, watch their eyes widen, and jaws drop.

    But seriously, even if you started getting a hankering for things from China, there are so many Chinese enclaves in California. You got a 99 Ranch Market in Mountainview, you can get your 火鍋 fix in Milpitas (where there’s another 99 Ranch market), the only difference would be paying bay area prices–that’ll make your wallet cry.

  3. Jen Brown says:

    What a great post. Great description of the joy of serious Asian culture shock. I laughed out loud at the bit about real reverse culture shock being returning and finding that the steam engine had been invented!

  4. Michael says:

    A very thoughtful post. Well done. I have sometimes wondered what going home would be like. Well, only wondered. Not enough to actually pack up and return the way you have.

  5. John Pasden says:

    Loved this post! Thanks or sharing. I have no plans to return to the US anytime soon, but I often wonder what would “shock” me back there.

    I’ve experienced the craft beer reverse culture shock on trips home, too! Fortunately I’ve always gone to the grocery store armed with beer recommendations for friends, and didn’t get too beerstruck.

    Interesting about the cafeteria thing… Google in Shanghai has probably 2-3 waste receptacles in their cafeteria, which I imagine is a compromise between “normal China” and what happens in the California Google campus.

  6. Ryan says:

    Great post, 18 months was a long wait, but well worth it.

  7. Kate says:

    Great post! Most people that moved to California from China don’t seem to have culture shock, I’ve observed. Try moving somewhere else, it is a bit more difficult. China has a fuzzy, warm hallucination – any problems and ayi will take care of it. In the U.S., the hallucinations are like cold water in the face: Home Depot staff, insurance brokers. What language are they speaking? Good luck!

  8. FOARP says:

    Good post. Personally, if there was anything resembling reverse culture-shock, it was back in 2005 when I first returned to the UK for a few months after finishing my Chinese studies, when I discovered that:

    1) No-one wants to hear your humble-brag-laden expat stories.

    2) That protective blanket/fish-in-a-goldfish-bowl feeling you have as an expat is gone.

    3) People genuinely aren’t that impressed by the fact that you’ve lived overseas and learned the language. If anything it marks you out as a bit strange.

    Back in my Taiwan days, in 2001, when British beers and foods were almost impossible to come by, and when calling home involved standing in the middle of the street using the pay-phone at my local 7/11 waiting for my phone-card to run out, yeah it was just about possible to feel pretty far away from home. Globalisation and technological advances pretty much did away with that.

  9. Andy says:

    Interesting that your examples are both to do with choice. I also happened upon this TED talk today, that provides a window into cultural differences in perceptions of choice: http://www.ted.com/talks/sheena_iyengar_on_the_art_of_choosing

    For my part, I found that it was more of a ‘shock’ moving back to the UK from the US, than it was moving from China back to the UK. I put this down to my expectations of similarity – making the differences stand out all the more.

  10. GP says:

    Hi Will, we met a few years ago at AmCham’s MAP Forum through Zeke. I just moved back to Georgia a few months ago. Georgia feels pretty much the same as when we left. Most obvious changes to me were all related to food — similar to what you mentioned. My father-in-law remarked that his generation was all about the music. Ours is food. When in China, I loved calling myself a foodie. Here, I just whisper, “I love eating, that’s all”.

    Though my most embarrassing thing so far is going shopping, thinking I was signing up for one of those membership cards that give you discounts, and then exiting the store 15 mins later with a bloody new credit card, much to my husband’s chagrin.

    I miss China sometimes, but America’s pretty awesome. Have fun in San Francisco!