reverse culture shock: the elusive “american dream”

Sunday, December 15:  I’ve been home now for almost five months, after having lived abroad for two years in the Sultanate of Oman (a nomad in the land of nizwa) and a year in South Korea (catbird in korea), with a six month return to America in between.  During this resettlement time, I’ve been contending, once again, with reverse culture shock, that uncomfortable and disoriented feeling you get when you don’t quite fit back into your own country after spending an extended amount of time abroad.  I wrote about this when I returned home from Korea in 2011 (six months of reverse culture shock), and then again briefly in August, a month after returning home (feeling reverse culture shock: escaping to blackwater national wildlife refuge on maryland’s eastern shore).

Reverse culture shock is a real and well-documented phenomenon.  People who have never lived abroad, who have remained firmly grounded at home, have a hard time understanding it. I would relate it to the feeling you might have if you died and were able to come back to life after being gone for an extended period.  You would find, I think, that everyone you knew and loved had somehow moved on without you.  The void that you imagined existed in their lives by your absence would have been filled with other people, other activities, other stuff.  All of you that existed would have disappeared into a big black hole, never to surface again.  Maybe, just maybe, given enough time and enough effort, you can pull yourself back out of that black hole and wiggle your way back into people’s lives.  It is said that it takes over a year to do such a thing, and it doesn’t happen easily.

it can be bleak being back home
it can be bleak being back home

I have experienced all of the documented symptoms of reverse culture shock, and then some:

1) You feel disconnected from the people you love because their lives have gone on in the same predictable ways, while meanwhile you have been flitting around the world.  Your family members don’t understand your restlessness and you find yourself becoming frustrated with their firm grounding.  A huge gap exists between you and them.  

The first thing that hit me a month after I returned home was the news that a fellow blogger, Anita Mac, committed suicide after struggling with a broken heart.  Her post, What do you do with a broken heart?, was the last thing she wrote on her blog before she killed herself.  I don’t know the details of her death, and I never knew her personally, but her last post really broke my heart.  The sad thing is, I could identify with everything she wrote in her post.

She wrote: After all, while I am an adventurous wanderer with a thirst to explore, I also have some homebody tendencies.  I love having that home base to come home to with my people, my things and memories.  I love having that partner – you know, the one you can’t wait to share your stories with!  Your victories and your defeats…the shoulder to cry on and the person to share the Sunday paper with (guess who always reads the travel section!!!)

I can understand Anita’s words.  I am adventurous and have undeniable wanderlust, yet I also have some homebody tendencies. My husband Mike, from whom I’ve been separated for almost 7 years now and with whom I’m hoping to reconcile, doesn’t share this wanderlust.  Whether we reconcile or not, we will likely remain friends forever.  But there is no doubt that we are opposites in our personalities.  In our relationship, he is the anchor, and I’m the boomerang that wants to fly off into the world, returning home at my whim.  I have a hard time understanding his tendencies to be settled, and he has a hard time understanding my restlessness.  My relationship with Mike sounds much like Anita’s relationship with her partner, the partner who eventually broke her heart.

At the time Anita wrote her final post, her father was dying of cancer and her partner of six years broke off their relationship.  She wrote: Can a travel writer find the balance between life on the road and a life at home? I am tormented by the situation.  I would not have been able to live with myself if I had denied who I was and my passion for travel.  Life is too short to fake it.  You have to be true to yourself.  But what do you do when you are the one who wants to have a home life and a life on the road….such a conflict.

Anita’s Travel Destination Bucket List was an inspiration to those of us filled with wanderlust.  It breaks my heart that she took her own life.  Yet.  I can understand her feelings perfectly.

I should add that I’m not the kind of person who could or would take my own life, but I DO relate to Anita’s struggles as she shared them in her final post.

gray days
gray days

2) You’re only vaguely interested in catching up with your old friends, and if you do, you feel like you don’t have so much in common with them any more.

I admit I’m guilty of this.  I don’t even know who I feel like hanging out with anymore.  I’m too busy at my job to find time to spend with friends, and frankly, I don’t even know who my friends are anymore.  People I thought were my friends ever since high school have judged me for choosing to live abroad rather than staying home with my family; others have chosen to cut me out of their life and death struggles, despite my efforts to reach out; others have not bothered to contact me at all to welcome me home after two years away.  In return, I haven’t felt like bothering either.  I wonder, What is the point?  If they don’t care enough about me to welcome me back and include me in their lives, why should I bother?  I feel like I need to start anew with people who can understand me, or with people who WANT TO MAKE AN EFFORT to connect with me.

finding the path back home
finding the path back home

3) Nobody cares about your travels, but you’d really love to tell them.

I find many times I’ll say, “When I was in Korea….” or “In Oman…” and people glaze over, totally disinterested.  I find sharing travel stories with like-minded people much more intriguing and fascinating than talking about boring and mundane life in America.  When I mentioned to one long-time friend that I was already bored with my same old routines in America, she said, “That’s life.”  As if I shouldn’t expect anything different.  As if I were foolish to want more.  I couldn’t help but say, “That wasn’t my life for the last 3 years.” Though many parts of my life abroad were also mundane and repetitive, at least I always knew adventure could be found around any corner.

confused and frustrated
confused and frustrated

4) 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. 

I find myself irritated by America’s consumer culture.  What used to be the start of the Christmas shopping season, Black Friday (after Thanksgiving), is now encroaching on the Thanksgiving holiday itself.  Stores open at 8 pm on Thanksgiving or at midnight on Thanksgiving night, and I have seen newscasts of people actually fighting over products on the floors of Walmart (a place I have never been tempted to shop!).

I get off work at 5:30 pm every weeknight, and what is a 25 minute commute in the morning is an hour-long commute coming home.  Traffic in northern Virginia at rush hour is incredibly frustrating.  I find myself wishing for my half-hour, traffic free commute in Oman.

I used to spend a lot of time running errands, driving on automatic pilot from one end of Fairfax County to the other.  Now I minimize my errands.  I would rather do without more stuff if possible, and simplify my life.


5) You find your home landscape to be dramatically altered.

When I returned home, I found a whole new shopping center, the Mosaic District in Merrifield.  It’s full of healthy eateries such as Mom’s Organic Market, Four Sisters Vietnamese restaurant, and others. It also has an amazing multi-story movie theater that shows both blockbusters and independent and foreign films.  It’s a fantastic addition to the landscape of Fairfax County.

When I got on the highways, I was confused by the new “hot lanes” that have been added.  If you have an E-Z pass transponder, which deducts money from your credit card automatically when you drive through sensors, you can speed past the traffic jams for a fee.

When I went to Reston, I found new shops have been added to Reston Town Center.  Yet the only bookstore in Reston, a Barnes & Noble, has been replaced by a Container Store.  So now, instead of a place to buy books, a place where we can expand our minds, we have a place to buy containers in which to store “stuff,” the stuff Americans buy, buy, buy in this mass consumer culture.  This was one of the most disappointing alterations to my home landscape.

6) 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. 

I don’t spend a lot of time keeping in touch with people I met during my time abroad, mainly because I don’t have time.  However, I do spend a lot of time daydreaming about parts of my life abroad that brought me great pleasure, especially during my horrendous one hour commute home every night in Virginia.  I most often find myself listening to Tibetan chants in my car, remembering the laid-back vibe, the stunning views of the Himalayas and my peaceful strolls along the lakeside in Pokhara, Nepal.  I listen to Fado and dream about the Moorish and fairy tale castles of Sintra, Portugal.  I think about lovely walks with my embassy friend in Lake Langano, Ethiopia, in the blue light, with pelicans and acacia trees against a backdrop of dramatic skies.  I think about sitting in cafes in Rethymno, Crete, Greece and drinking wine and eating Greek food and feeling infinitely happy.  I dream often of Korea, a place I was happy to leave, and find myself walking through the Boseong tea plantations and Suncheon Bay Ecological Park.  I often think of returning to Korea, as unbelievable as that would have seemed to me in 2011. And in my waking dreams, I’m most often hanging out in Oman with my friend Mario, who I miss beyond anything I can describe.  I miss our wine and cheese, our contagious laughter, and our companionable walks through the ruins and wadis of Oman, snapping photos as if our lives depended on it.

searching for belonging
searching for belonging

7) You encounter people who are possibly intimidated that you have experienced something they haven’t, or maybe they’re just plain irritated that you have done so. Possibly there is jealousy or just plain disinterest by other people.  Whichever the reason, you find people just don’t know how to engage with you anymore. And neither do you know how to engage with them.  Or maybe, just maybe, nobody feels like making the effort because you seem to have become a non-entity to them and them to you. 

Actually, this doesn’t happen at all to me.  That’s because I don’t encounter any of my old friends.  Period.  Oh, except one, my dear friend Jayne in California, who I can only talk to by phone, frequently.  My old “friends” have disappeared into their own lives, as if I never had a part in them.  As if they were never really my friends after all.  As if their friendship was all one big delusion.

8) You find there is no job for you in your home country, or if you are returning to a job you had before, everything has changed.

I found when I returned to Northern Virginia Community College, the entire makeup of the school’s population had changed.  Instead of the mostly Asian students I taught before, now we are overrun by Saudi Arabians and Emiratis.  I don’t know what is happening, but as I left Oman partly to escape the Gulf culture and the immature, unmotivated and entitled students, I am incredibly frustrated.  I spend much of my class time in classroom management, trying to discipline adult students who act like middle schoolers.  If I wanted to teach middle school, I would go work for Fairfax County Schools, where I could make a lot more money and have benefits and paid vacation time.  However, I DON’T want to teach middle school, under any circumstances.  Sadly, that is exactly what I’m doing.

The next bad thing was that the college, due to lack of space, moved all the ESL language courses to a building off campus.  This building has very little office space for teachers.  It is not a college atmosphere at all.  It’s a very depressing place to work.

In addition, I had forgotten how low the pay is.  I make one-third less than what I made in Oman.  Considering that my housing was provided and I didn’t have to pay taxes, the real income was much more in Oman.  Also, this lower pay at the college is for MORE contact hours: where I had 20 contact hours a week in Oman, I have 25 contact hours here.  Because the administration in Oman made up tests and planned the entire semester for us, I NEVER had to take work home with me.  Although my work in Virginia is more challenging, because I plan every lesson myself, and make up every test, it is also extremely time-consuming.  I spend many hours, hours that should be my free time, working.

frustration in the usa
frustration in the u.s.a

9) You find it hard to survive financially in your home country.

I’m constantly amazed at how expensive everything in the USA has become in my absence.  On the measly income I make from my job, I could NOT survive.  I would be living beneath the poverty line.  It’s ridiculous that educators are not valued, that we are taken advantage of so blatantly.  Believe me, this, above all, makes me consider moving abroad again.

10) You often feel depressed and anxious. 

Oh yes.  I feel depressed and anxious almost constantly.  I go to sleep easily every night after reading for about 15 minutes, but at midnight, or at 1:00 or 3:00 a.m., I wake up wondering where I am, and what I’m doing here.  My mind starts racing, bouncing into every dark corner of every conceivable subject.  I toss and turn for hours, thinking surely I will fall asleep again at any moment. I give up on sleep and read Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, and eventually I start to drift off.  I turn off the light and it hits me that I’ll never be the confident writer that Ann Patchett is. Then I start berating myself for my lack of talent, my lack of confidence, my fear of failure.  I’m exhausted in the morning from all the useless activity that’s going on in my mind.

During these dark hours, I think about how unfair it is that I can’t get a job in international development with the obviously useless Master’s degree that I worked so hard to earn.  With all the talk and laws against discrimination by American companies, I believe companies regularly discriminate if you are over a “certain” age.  One of my colleagues said to me, after she and her husband returned home from abroad and searched unsuccessfully for jobs, “At least you have a 5 in front of your age.  Try finding a job when you’re over 60!” I don’t think it makes any difference whether you have a 5 or a 6 in front of your age.  You’re screwed either way.

I think how, if Mike and I divorce, I want to move to Richmond, or even move abroad again. Then, I think, if I do the latter, I’ll lose my connection with my children.  I think: I wish I could get up the nerve to devote everything to writing, and to truly believe in myself, but then I go into self-attack mode, and tell myself I’ll never make any money; I’ll never make a go of it.  I remind myself of positive feedback I got from writing professors and classmates about my writing, even as far back as 2000, before I ever started blogging, and then I tell myself I really have nothing to say.  I want to cry but I can’t.  Sometimes I think I will just get on a plane and drop myself in Nepal or back in Asia.  But how would I live?  Sometimes I think I will drive west in America and land wherever I will land, and just disappear.

What is wrong with me?  Reverse culture shock?  Is that all it is?

Part of my anxiety and confusion has to do with the unresolved issue of my marriage, but it also is related to frustration with my job and all the unknowns about my future.  I’m constantly feeling torn between a pull to a life abroad and life at home.  Oh Anita Mac, how I relate to all the struggles you went through before you took your own life.

how do i find my way back?
how do i find my way back?


Silver lining?

I’m trying hard to find the silver lining to being home in the USA. Of course, I have total freedom of speech.  In Oman, I heard of bloggers who were arrested, so I was afraid to totally speak my mind.  I’m happy to be home in the house that I decorated and made cozy.  I’m happy to be with my family, even with the unsettled account of my marriage.  I’m thrilled to experience four seasons and the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.  I’m happy to have a huge choice of movies to watch within 5 minutes of my house, instead of having to drive 1 1/2 hours to Muscat from Nizwa.  I’m happy to be in the midst of my huge book collection, and I’m happy for every minute I can find to read.  I’m happy to find a great variety of wonderful ethnic restaurants on every corner.  I’m happy to explore the beauties of Virginia and the east coast in the few hours of free time that I can carve out.  And I’m happy to know I do have a home to come back to in my country. Many expats living abroad no longer have a place to call home; they are adrift in the huge wild world, with no anchors, no ties.  Though I’m envious of their freedom, I’m also grateful to have this place I can call home.

I found this quote recently which just might help me make it through:

“If I feel depressed I will sing. If I feel sad I will laugh. If I feel ill I will double my labor. If I feel fear I will plunge ahead. If I feel inferior I will wear new garments. If I feel uncertain I will raise my voice. If I feel poverty I will think of wealth to come. If I feel incompetent I will think of past success. If I feel insignificant I will remember my goals. Today I will be the master of my emotions.”  – Og Mandino