feeling reverse culture shock: escaping to blackwater national wildlife refuge on maryland’s eastern shore

Wednesday, August 21:  In September of 2011, I wrote a post about Reverse Culture Shock: six months of reverse culture shock.  I wrote this after returning from Korea for a six month period before heading out to Oman for two years.  It is definitely a phenomenon that expats feel when they return home after living abroad for an extended time.

Bird House at the Dorchester County Visitor's Center
Bird House at the Dorchester County Visitor’s Center

Many of the issues I talked about in that post are really hitting hard now that I’ve returned home to the USA.  The two that issues that are a challenge for me now are these:

1) You find it hard to accept some of the ways people do things at home, and you find yourself questioning habits and customs that have been a part of your life for a long time.

sculpture at the Dorchester County Visitor's Center
sculpture at the Dorchester County Visitor’s Center

Right now, I’m having a hard time accepting the choices that my sons are making in their lives.  I’m unhappy with the way their father has allowed this to happen.  Even though he’s a good-hearted person and has good intentions, his acceptance of our sons’ every whim has turned out to be detrimental to their growth and development as young men.  A firm hand is called for.

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

Yet, because I have been absent for three years, I don’t feel I have much say in the unraveling that has occurred and continues to happen.  I have to take responsibility and accept that this situation is partly a result of my own lack of involvement with our sons’ upbringing.  It’s a difficult situation, because of course I’m partly to blame and cannot be too critical of their father’s parenting.

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

It’s heartbreaking to see both of my sons going backwards in their lives instead of moving forward to becoming mature and responsible young men.  I am therefore questioning my whole relationship with their father and with them.  Right now, I am in uncertain territory and am struggling to find my way.

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

Because of this very uncomfortable situation, I escape, as I often have, into dreaming about my time abroad.  Though I don’t miss Oman at all, I do miss living alone and not having to deal with these miserable family dynamics.  So the other Reverse Culture Shock issue in the forefront of my life at this moment is the second:

2) You wish you were back on your trip or living abroad, and you spend a lot of time keeping in touch with the people you met during that experience, or looking over your pictures from your travels, or reading your old blogs.  Or simply daydreaming about the parts of the life abroad that brought you immense pleasure.

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

I have decided to stay at home in the USA indefinitely, although I could easily get a job working abroad again.  I’m committed.  But I still feel that urge to escape because of the above situation.  Therefore, I’m committed to getting out to explore the world around me with a camera in hand.  I’m also trying to reconnect with my extended family however possible.  So I escape this week, one last time, before my job begins next week.  I head to visit my sister in Salisbury, Maryland, on the Eastern Shore.  Sadly, while traveling in Spain and Portugal, I missed her daughter’s (my niece’s) wedding on July 13.  I have a lot of making up to do to my family.

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

Yes, I know I’ve been living a selfish life, but it was the life of my dreams.  These three years were probably the only years I’ve had in over 50 years that I can truly call my own.

So, committed though I am to staying home and working out these issues, I still must carve out something for myself, for my sanity.  Travel within the USA, and dreams of travel, will still be my escape.  That I hope will never change.

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

On my way to visit my sister, I make a stop in Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge near Cambridge, Maryland.  Many years ago, when Mike and I were first dating, we visited here together on a cool, crisp November day.  I remember walking on boardwalks through the marshland and thinking it was stunningly beautiful.  Now there are no longer boardwalks and it’s mainly a drive-through.  It’s a little disappointing this time around.  I miss the boardwalks and don’t like having to keep stopping the car, pulling over and getting out.

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

On top of my disappointment with the place itself, when I first arrive at Blackwater’s Visitor’s Center, I get a call from one of my closest high school friends telling me that our other friend’s husband has just been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.  This same friend just lost her niece earlier this year to stomach cancer.  I feel incredibly sad for my friend and her husband and this colors my experience here.

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge sits about 12 miles south of the town of Cambridge, in Dorchester County. The Refuge includes over 27,000 acres, composed mainly of rich tidal marsh characterized by fluctuating water levels and varying salinity. Other habitat types include freshwater ponds, mixed evergreen and deciduous forests, and small amounts of cropland and managed impoundments that are seasonally flooded for waterfowl use.

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

Blackwater Refuge was originally established in 1933 as a haven for ducks and geese migrating along the Atlantic Flyway. The Refuge is a popular place during the November migration when upwards of 35,000 geese and 15,000 ducks visit Blackwater.

Blackwater is also a haven for several troubled species including the American bald eagle, the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel, and the migrant peregrine falcon. The Refuge is unique in that it hosts the largest remaining natural population of Delmarva fox squirrels and is also host to the largest breeding population of bald eagles on the East Coast, north of Florida (Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge).

a field bordered by cattails outside of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
a field bordered by cattails outside of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

Though I’m struggling with a lot now, and though this place isn’t what I remember it to be, I still do find some peace of mind here on this warm summer afternoon.

a lone barn in Dorchester County
a lone barn in Dorchester County

I leave here and meet my sister at her house in Salisbury, about a half hour further south.  It’s nice that no one else is home at her house, so we have an evening just to catch up with each other, without any distractions.  It’s truly lovely to spend time with her, sharing our struggles and experiences over the last year over a bottle of wine.  I also get to hear all about Kelsey’s wedding, and though it will never be the same as my having been there, at least I can imagine… and pretend I was there. 🙂


27 thoughts on “feeling reverse culture shock: escaping to blackwater national wildlife refuge on maryland’s eastern shore

  1. I’m so sorry you’re having such difficulties. but please don’t try to blame yourself. I imagine when you made the decision to work abroad that you made it together with your husband? and if that’s so, then it was the correct decision and not a selfish decision. If it wasn’t, well then erase what I just said! Heh. No truly, life is all about change don’t you think? Every day brings new experiences and challenges. I think we just need to do the best we can. Of course some days are better than others….as I sit here recovering from my latest bout of migraines…..grrr….in other words, I had no choice yesterday but to leave work since I could barely function! So, I could not do my best yesterday. And that has to be okay. anyway, really enjoyed your photos of what looks like a very beautiful place. thank you for sharing them. and even though it’s not the same experience as you had years ago, it still looks rather beautiful from where I sit. Chin up!! You will get through your challenges. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself 😉 (the challenges of starting a new job in my 50s……oh boy…..) p.s. I would LOVE the chance to spend alone time with my sister. For now we only get that when we visit our mother in Florida. ‘course this next trip in October (hopefully) we won’t get that as my daughter will be along. but it will still be good to see her!

    1. Thanks so much for your words of encouragement, Toby. My husband was supportive of my decision to work abroad, but we have actually been separated for over 6 years, and though I’d like to reconcile, I’m not sure it’s in the cards for us. In the next year, I’d like us to decide whether we will come together or divorce; a decision needs to be made. I can’t stay in limbo forever. We’ll see what the future holds. It is a struggle right now; hopefully we’ll make it through without too much trauma. 🙂

    1. I would like that Carol, but until Mike and I decide whether we’ll reconcile or divorce, that’s a move that would be difficult to make. We need to stand firm together in holding our sons accountable, and no matter what happens with Mike and I, we need to act together as parents right now. I hope we can focus more on what will happen with us once we get them going in the right direction. 🙂

  2. Cathy, this is such a sad and disillusioned post and yet the photos are as beautiful as any you have ever taken. Please don’t loose heart. There must be many more such lovely places in the U.S that you can share with us. Big hug 🙂

    1. Thanks so much, Jo, for your kind understanding. I’m trying not to lose heart; luckily work is so demanding that I don’t have much time to sit around feeling sorry for myself. I will try my best to keep sharing things in the U.S. It’s the only thing that will keep me sane. My wanderlust will always be a part of me! I’m so glad you like my photos. 🙂

  3. I’m sorry things are difficult now, and that you got bad news on top of that. The Refuge looks like a beautiful place, and your images are wonderful. This part of the country is all new to me so I’m feeling some culture shock (especially being south of the Mason Dixon Line again — it really is a different world in some respects).

    1. Thanks so much for your kind words, Robin. The Refuge is beautiful, but I think it could be better enjoyed in the fall and on a bicycle. That’s how I’d want to do it next time. You know I’m like you in my dislike of heat and humidity.

      I think any time you relocate, you feel some culture shock. Even within the same country. I feel really uprooted right now, despite being in the same house where I’ve been for 20+ years!

  4. You’re not alone I feel a little this way about my nieces who seem to have lost their way (maybe it’s a young person thing or maybe because we have seen so many with so little) and because I too made a decision to follow my heart to Turkey I feel that I no longer have the right to intervene. However, I don’t think anyone should make us feel guilty for choosing a moment for ourselves either!

    1. I’m glad someone else understands this reverse culture shock, Dallas. I feel so depressed and disoriented right now. I’m sure your nieces feel you have no right to intervene, but I still believe it’s a good thing to follow your heart. 🙂

  5. Oh, you’re trying to deal with so many issues at the moment, Cathy. Your sons are grown men now, but it must still be very hard for you to not try and change things. I do hope things work out okay for you all as a family. Your photos are so tranquil and peaceful, and I wish for you that your mind could be the same. I’m really sorry about your friend’s husband’s illness. Hugs to you.

    1. Thank you so much for your understanding, your kind words, and especially your hugs, Sylvia. My boys are good-hearted boys, but they have some unusual ideas and seem to be lacking direction and motivation. Right now it’s a struggle, but I hope since Mike and I are united in our demands for them now, they will get their acts together. I’m really struggling at this moment as my job is all-consuming and I barely have time to blog or read other blogs, which is the thing that gives me happiness and escape. I hope things will sort themselves out soon. 🙂

  6. I’m not surprised you’re having trouble feeling at home back in Richmond – even a move to the next town leaves one feeling disoriented. In the past 3 years you’ve lived in Korea and Oman – both very different cultures from the US and from each other.
    From my experience even small trips to another country brings about so much “self-growth”. You need to give yourself *time* become who you want to be.

    You’ve already got a job? My congratulations!
    I wish you lived nearer to me. I’d love to hike with you.

    1. Hi Rosie! Sorry it took me so long to respond. I can barely keep up with life now that I started my new job! So stressed!!

      By the way, my daughter lives in Richmond, but I live in northern Virginia. I WISH I lived in Richmond; it’s one of my favorite cities.

      I’m working as an ESL instructor at Northern Virginia Community College; I worked here one summer between Korea and Oman, and was welcomed back. But the ESL world in America is much different, more stressful and less lucrative at home than it is abroad.

      I wish I lived nearer to you too, Rosie. I would love to hike anywhere with you. I’m still planning on coming to California after Christmas. I’ll let you know the dates in a couple of weeks!

      I’m really having a hard time adjusting, Rosie. Thanks so much for your kind words!

  7. Hi Cathy – it seems that reverse culture shock is even harder than the other kind; you think you know what to expect, you think you know a place, its culture, its people – and then you get slammed because everything is different that what you expected. And even worse, no one can really fully understand what you’ve been through while away and how you’ve grown (because they still got the old you in their mind, and you’ve got the old ‘them’ on your mind). I’ve found it helps to spend time with other people who have travelled.
    Trying to relate to people who only know their own culture (and they don’t really “know” it as in being able to describe it and being able to talk about it – it’s more like fish that take the water for granted because there’s nothing else they know) becomes really tedious and boring to me. I find myself scaling down, putting a large part of myself on the back burner because it just isn’t useful in those kinds of interactions. You are part of a small tribe of people – the multinationals, the transculturals, or whatever you want to call it. So, find your tribe and don’t expect anyone outside of it to really understand or even wanting to try… Sorry, this sounds really jaded but it’s been my truth. Much love, Annette

    1. When I read these words, Annette, I know that you understand what I’m going through. It really makes me feel like crying. I do need to find where I belong here; and it is really hard to relate to people who only “know” their own culture. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been thinking: Maybe I should just go away again!! I want to be connected to my family, but right now it’s difficult, if not downright impossible. It is tedious and boring to be around people who don’t understand the multicultural experience. I hope, like you say, I can find my tribe, because right now I feel suspended in limbo, between two worlds, and not belonging to either one.

      Thanks so much, Annette, for your words of encouragement. 🙂

      1. Yes, I know what you are experiencing. But you are lucky to be in the DC area which is so cosmopolitan; so, I am sure you’ll link up with like-minded people soon.
        Looking forward to meeting you soon so we can talk at length!

      2. Oh, and another thought: the students you are teaching ESL to, they must be experiencing culture shock, too. so maybe interacting with them and mentoring them along can make you feel more useful here. They definitely NEED someone like you who understands what they are going through; maybe help them describe culture shock, let them write a journal, make a collage, whatever it takes…. just a thought.

      3. Yes, Annette, I do relate very well to my students about our shared expat experience. Being with my students is definitely the most rewarding part of my life right now. This has always been one of the benefits of teaching ESL, and one of my best abilities in the classroom is developing a great rapport with my students. We definitely share our culture shock experience, whether regular culture shock or reverse culture shock. 🙂

  8. Oh Cathy, there I have been happily wandering with you in Lisbon when all the time here you are feeling pretty miserable about life. I am so glad I stumbled across this post whilst discovering more about your journeys in recent years. You always look so happy and smiley in your photos, and your photos of the world around you are fab, even here on a post where you are obviously feeling sad and confused.

    I don’t know you, though i feel that we could easily be good friends from what i have seen of your life, but I might understand a little of what you are going through. When I was very young I travelled a lot through Europe and worked abroad a couple of times and whenever I returned ‘home’ it felt as though nothing had happened, everyone I knew had stood still, their lives were the same whilst mine was most definitely not. I couldn’t understand why they didn’t want to travel and experience different cultures, food, landscapes even, and I understood that I no longer fitted in. Not fitting in has taking me to places I wouldn’t wish on anyone, but life goes on, and I don’t think I have done a bad job overall. I’m still keen to do more travelling, but my current husband (he is the third and last I can tell you 🙂 ) isn’t so keen. I may have to drag him kicking and screaming to New Zealand next year, but if not then I WILL go on my own. It is my dream, and one I shall fulfill before I am too old to get out of bed!

    This is becoming a post in itself. Perhaps I will email you instead, if you like. There are other things I’d like to share, but maybe a bit too personal for a public blog. Anyway what I really want to say, is try not to be too hard on yourself, as others have said you have stepped back into a culture vastly different from Europe, Oman and Korea and even the UK!! It will take time to find your feet, don’t beat yourself up whilst doing so.

    Jude xx (I’m not a gushy person with ‘lots of hugs’ etc. but on this occasion I do offer you a virtual hug – hang on in there)

    1. Hi Jude, Thank you so much for visiting this post and for your thoughtful and kind comments. It is really hard to come back home after being abroad, and not many people here can understand that. Like you said, it seems they have all stood still while you have been all around the world and on a journey of self-discovery. I feel like none of my old friends “fit” anymore and though I don’t want to discard them (not a nice word, right?), I haven’t made much effort to see them either. I feel that some of them judge me for leaving my sons behind (20 and 22); others are envious of the life they imagine I led abroad, and others just don’t care. No matter, I guess, because for me it’s been a grand adventure and that time is something I will carry with me always.

      I think we could be good friends too, from all that I’ve seen of you. Maybe if you can’t drag your husband kicking and screaming to New Zealand, I will meet you there! It’s on my list but from where I am in Virginia, it’s as far as far could be. Now, if I went to work in China…… !

      Life is a struggle sometimes, isn’t it? Even while I lived abroad I had my struggles with loneliness and frustrations with the cultures where I lived. I try to make the most of the life that I have, wherever it is, and whatever the struggles, but sometimes it does get me down. Feel free to email me if you like. I don’t want to put my email address on here, but if you write me through the contact form on my about me page, I’ll certainly write you back!

      Thanks again, Jude, for your understanding. 🙂

  9. As the adult son of a mother who dreamed of being “anywhere but home,” (and sometimes acted on it, with dramatic consequences), I see this from several angles. First, from yours. My mother grew up in a strict Catholic family, met my father at 19, and while he had a dream career, she stayed home until we were in high school (that’s when the changes came about). Problem with all of that (for her) was that she really did not want to be a mother, let alone a stay at home mom. Different era, I guess, where women could so easily be pushed into that role, regardless of their desire to be in it. So…..I get it. I don’t approve, but it isn’t my life to approve of. Your sons will get to that point also. They’ll be OK with your choices. They can’t ask more of you, but you can’t ask that they celebrate your choices, because they were personally impacted.

    When it comes to their side….I lived it. My dad was a workaholic, so when Mom would disappear on a whim, he’d disappear to work to escape, and I (as the oldest son) would be responsible for everything from helping my brothers with homework to feeding them dinner, to working enough closing shifts at fast food to get them some lunch money. I was 16, so I missed out on a lot of what growing up is supposed to be. Several years of this made a permanent impact that is very difficult to discuss with my brothers, despite the fact that we are very, very close (and age 35-40 now). We all made it out, but it was hard, and much of it was preventable. My mom’s honest is opinion is, “Well, I apologized for that, so get over it.” I hope your approach is much different, and if not, please consider it.

    And sadly, really my only harsh words are that no, you do not have much of a say in criticizing what happened while you were away. What happened while you were away were a set of consequences partially (1% – 99%, depending on situation) derived from choices that you made. You have a right to be disappointed. I’d argue (from my own biased standpoint) that you don’t have a clear right to express your disappointment to those who were left behind, kind of like a post-modern version of the 1950s “working man” who would come home and complain about how his home-bound wife cooked bad food, didn’t keep the kids quiet, and didn’t clean the house well enough while he was gone, fulfilling his ambitions at work all day. The situation is parallel – it doesn’t matter that the “working man” DESERVED to be able to chase his dreams at work all day. He has an obligation to honor and defer to those who pick up the pieces of his life behind him. If men acted that way in 2014 (in most social circles), their male friends would absolutely give them a hard time, or even stop associating with him. Bear that in mind.

    Your choices are your own, and that should never be taken from you – you only live once!!! But in this life, all of our choices have consequences and impacts, and it sounds like you may be settling in to start to process exactly what those impacts might be. Accept them as reality – that your choices had consequences that you did not design or desire -and try to move forward, that’s my best advice.

    1. Thanks so much for your perspective, Kirk. Believe me, I already am fully aware of the impact my decisions had on my sons, and I am apologetic to them. However, life sometimes unfolds as it does, and when I finished my Master’s degree in 2008, after two years of dedicated and hard work, I applied for 250 jobs in the USA. Needless to say, I didn’t get a job, and it was most likely because of my age. If this country wasn’t so blatantly discriminatory against older people (I was 52 and had devoted more than 15 years to raising my boys!), then I wouldn’t have had to make the decision I did. As life unfolds, sometimes we take the bad with the good, and sometimes good things happen out of the bad. On my end, I had the adventure of a lifetime that was not something I actually sought but just came about because of the circumstances. My sons, though hurt by my leaving for 3 years, also admire my adventurousness.

      Oh well, what can we do? No one is perfect, and I daresay, even when you think you are doing all the right things, you will find your children notice every mistake you make. But they will learn to deal with life, full of its disappointments and joys as it is.

      Thanks for sharing. 🙂

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