Returning Home: Reverse Culture Shock

Returning from Peace Corps service left Samantha split between two cultures: American and Moldovan. Image from cabincrewdreamer.blogspot.com.

I totally underestimated what it would feel like to move back to a city. After two years in South Florida, I ached for a life where I could walk to whatever type of restaurant I desired, have varied networks of friends, and enjoy the bustle of mixed cultures, histories, and intellects. Unfortunately, I forgot that with change comes stress — the natural not-necessarily-due-to-a-bad thing type of stress, but stress nonetheless. In fact, it has reminded me a bit of my return from Peace Corps service. It has, coincidentally, been almost exactly four years since I returned from Moldova and so the perfect time to reflect on that reverse culture shock experience.

Returning to America seemed harder than adjusting to Eastern Europe.

Of course, this may not have been the same for everyone. But, when I left for Moldova, I knew everything was going to be new. Granted, I was so exhausted by that newness that I slept for 14 hours a day, but I wasn’t surprised by it; I was excited by it. I had no idea what would feel new when coming back to the States. I didn’t know how to or for what to prepare. I didn’t yet know how I had changed.

Options were overwhelming.

When I got back from Moldova, American restaurant menus would captivate me for far longer than pleased my dining companions. I couldn’t choose. The abundant varieties of granola and trail mix at Trader Joe’s brought me to a halt. Yes, I was thrilled to have the option of seven sushi restaurants within an appropriate distance, but I was also overwhelmed by choices. This surprised me.

Efficiency was a liar.

Because life was supposed to be more efficient in America — an amusing assumption now — I would find myself frustrated when anything took longer than I wanted it to or when I was plagued by a trivial holdup.

Parking made me anxious.

I hadn’t driven a car in two years. And when I had ridden public transportation in Moldova, I frequently felt as if I was risking my life. So, back in L.A., going somewhere where I would need to look for parking, circle the block, and/or parallel park against angry commuters raised my heart rate noticeably. (Now I find driving the colonial streets of Boston to be significantly more stressful. But so do many people.)

I was simultaneously defensive and open about my experience abroad.

I wanted to talk about it. In fact, it was all I wanted to talk about. But I was sensitive to people’s responses and snapped at any hint of an assumption being made about either Moldova or my experience in it. I’ve since leveled out and have a much more multifaceted opinion (though the desire to talk about the Peace Corps hasn’t left).

Returning home from Moldova led to reverse culture shock. Image from crossed-flag-pins.com.
Returning to the United States from Moldova led to reverse culture shock. Image from crossed-flag-pins.com.

I saw wastefulness everywhere.

Knowing all that I had waiting for me in California made me feel unhelpfully guilty. I saw wastefulness in every recycling bin and trash can and was angered by people’s apparent blindness. I was shocked at American spending and, importantly, how quickly I slipped back into it.

I felt that I didn’t belong.

I didn’t know yet how to respond friends that had either moved on without me or who hadn’t changed as I had. It was a lose-lose when I let that perspective take over. I was halfway in one culture and halfway in another.

I also experienced great joy and insight.

This collection of thoughts reflects the biggest challenges I faced when returning, but I also found great joy in reflecting on my experience, sharing my stories with friends and family, and remembering what I had missed about the States. As I mentioned, my reverse adjustment to the States was difficult precisely because I didn’t anticipate these particular challenges. Peace Corps service was powerful exactly for the reasons that it was challenging and emotional, for the ways it questioned my values and gave me both a keener criticism of and a stronger appreciation for my home.

Change brings stress, but stress is temporary. What lasts longer is the more well-rounded perspective on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that traveling can give to you.

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