Reverse Culture Shock

Reverse Culture Shock

{Also called “Reentry Shock”} 

A few days ago, my cousin paid me a compliment. She said,”I think your years in the Middle East have caused you to lose touch with mainstream America.”

I had been worried that I had slipped further back into the American mainstream than is healthy for me. Repatriation had its challenges.The completion of tasks to re-establish a working relationship with my culture of origin needed several years. Now that I’ve lived in the States nearly as long as I lived in Riyadh, I look back at the early years of repatriation. I was definitely living a “double” life, if only in my mind. I smile now, but at the time, it didn’t feel so good. Here are the salient points of my readjustment process during those first awkward years “home”:  

Hair: Though I did not cover, I felt irritated by the sight of all the other women in public who naturally did not cover. I drew mental scarves over every one of them, for months, yet did not cover myself. Maybe I merely disliked the hairstyles, which had become less arranged, less sculpted, and less styled over the years. Eventually I got used to seeing all that hair, but I still don’t like the contemporary American hair styles.

I also realized that the messy hairstyles reflected the fact that most women work (in addition to caring for families), and therefore do not have time to style their hair.

Language: I got very sick of hearing everyone speak English with an American accent. Every time I caught the drift of a foreign language or accent, I had to check out who had spoken. My own English had become inflected, talking to so many Arabs and other assorted non-native-English speakers. Several people in the US asked me where I was from. Eventually, I lost the Arabic accented speech, but I still love to hear other languages. I still get sick of hearing English all the time.

Driving: It wasn’t as difficult as I’d imagined it would be, except for the changes that had taken place in carsways in which cars had evolved. The first car I bought after repatriation was six years old, and ten years newer than the last car I’d owned. While most people were enjoying CD players, I was thrilled with a tape deck and air conditioning. Electric windows seemed like the height of technological advancement. 

I was a bit befuddled with all the bells and buzzers. One afternoon, I drove downtown  to visit a Muslim family we’d just met. The bell sounded when I opened the door. I thought it meant the door was open. Later, I discovered– the hard way– that the bell was supposed to alert me that the headlights were on. I hadn’t known they were on in the first place.

Shopping: I scolded a young clerk in a convenience store for overcharging me for a can of soda. He asked for  fifty cents, and I said, “Are you kidding? It’s twenty-five cents!!” His face fell, and I realized that the last time I’d bought a can of soda at a convenience store, it was indeed twenty-five cents, and some years back.

Grocery shopping was an adventure. The big warehouse stores had grown up while I was gone, and I loved wandering up and down the aisles. I still do. Meat became an issue, of course. Pork popped up everywhere, but worse than seeing it was having to leave the smoked pork hocks in the grocery store. I used to adore eating smoked hocks and beans! It’s the one pork dish I really miss, all the more because it is now in front of me.

Conversation: This was difficult, because my speech had become so mixed up with Arabic injections that I sometimes let slip an, “Insha Allah,” or “Humdullilah,” or even a,”Yellah!” I had to stop prefacing people’s names with, “Ya.” Eventually I learned to add those lovely Arabic phrases in my mind only, and to stop them before they settled on my tongue.

Much of the new slang sounded odd to me, and excessive. I dislike slang in any event, but I was especially irritated hearing it during the first years after repatriation. I also dislike the regional accent with which my fellow citizens speak. I have consciously tried kept my speech free of it.

Dealing with Men: At first, I could hardly look a man in the eye, and certainly did not care to prolong conversation with one. I must have appeared rude. I disliked shaking hands, and still do. Before living in the Kingdom, I didn’t mind casual physical greetings, but I do now. Eventually, I relearned how to interact with men, and in the process realized that I had became very comfortable with gender segregation in Saudi Arabia.

Culture: I did not know the new TV shows, movies, or actors, and I couldn’t have cared less. It was embarrassing though, when people would talk about some show or movie I did not know about. I remember the evening I spent with a group of Americans at a game of Trivia. Someone asked me if I liked Jonnie Depp. I replied, “Who is Johnnie Depp?” Everyone fell silent and stared at me.

That was OK, though. I still don’t care much about American entertainments, but I know who Johnnie Depp is, and I think he’s handsome..

Dress: No problem there. Since I became middle-aged, I stopped dressing in anything but the most modest styles and colors. Head covering never posed a problem  because I never believed in it, anyway.

Friends: I’ve made one friend in the entire ten years I’ve been back. My Riyadh years, coupled with my conversion to Islam, formed a barrier between me and most Americans, beyond which I wouldn’t go, and they didn’t want to go. I have no interest in the things that engage them, and have no interest in my concerns, either.

(Thank goodness I discovered blogging!)

Work: I did not know how to use a computer when I repatriated in 1998. I had no idea that “Windows” was a sort of system that allowed you to use other programs. That lack of knowledge hurt both me and my husband in the job market. My husband then bought a home computer, to the tune of $2300- the same model today costs $399.

A friend connected all the wires and plugged everything into the correct holes. Later that evening, I cultivated the courage to poke around on a few keys. I nearly fell off the chair when the computer emitted a sort of melody. I didn’t even know it could make sound.

I picked up enough skill to fool people into thinking I knew how to use Windows, and I got hired. Learning the specific applications really challenged me, and I tried to poke around the keyboard and figure things out for myself, but I’d frequently have to ask someone how to do something. Since everyone thought I knew basic Windows, they’d rattle off a series of finger maneuvers that would magically pull up the desired “page”. Then, the person would vanish, leaving me sitting like a lump, no further along and still wondering how I was going to do it.

Now, I’m addicted to my computer. My family refers to it as my “husband,” since I am so devoted.

I learned not to talk about my expat experiences while at work. People in my community think a seven day Caribbean cruise is a big deal, and a two week European tour the epitome of travel. Their lives are filled with work, families, ball games and plans for the next holiday or ball game. I’ve learned, over the years, how to talk to them, without having to to join them. They  bore me silly.  Some people think I am a snob. I wouldn’t deny the possibility.

About Marahm

At first glance, I may appear to be a middle-aged American woman with kids, grandkids, retired from a job in a hospital, gratefully relieved from the responsibilities that come with all of that. Behind the image, which is true enough, I am fairly unhinged from much of American mainstream living, having spent twelve years in Saudi Arabia, years that sprung me from societal and familial impositions, and narrow bands of truth. I have learned to embrace my identity as a seeker, an artist, and a writer. I study Arabic and Italian language, because I love them, and I love their people. I still dream of spending more time in the Middle East and Italy, though the dreaming now seems more real than the possibilities. I am a photographer. I write, and sometimes publish, flash memoir, and now a blog or two.
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16 Responses to Reverse Culture Shock

  1. Hning says:

    On the other hand,
    Natives categorize expats into two kinds:

    1) Those who would refuse looking at us in the eyes, addressing us as sir/madam (asians are big about titles, right?), and would consider a place that does not serve cheese and beer (in Islamic freaky Aceh) germ infested.

    2) The other kind of expatriates, like Sue and maybe yourself, who got down on the floor to eat with their hands with us. Who left us with treasures to keep and giggled at the mess they made.

    You might have had to leave and go back to your snobbish little town, but what you left behind for us, values a lifetime’s worth of friendship.

    Now, didn’t we give you anything for parting?
    Oh yes we did! We gave you a blog to tell stories about us! Yay!

  2. Solace says:

    Very interesting. Most people will find one adjustment difficult, but you seem to be adapting well to your re-entry!

  3. Chiara says:

    Great examples of reverse culture shock and the ways in which some acculturations elsewhere leave permanent changes.

    Due to a combination of not owning a television for years, being out of the country for others, and preferring European or art/literary films to Hollywood, I thought I had made a fabulous new discovery of a serious actor in The Razor’s Edge –Bill Murray. I think that is when my sister gave up on me as hopeless regarding pop culture–her husband nicely did not roll his eyes. 🙄 😀

  4. matt says:

    This blog’s great!! Thanks :).

  5. Sam says:

    I can understand your position. I grew up most of my life here in the states but I frequent the middle east often. I have very little in common with your average American. I hardly watch TV except for Al Jazeerah and could care less about sports or inane Hollywood movies. I spend my time reading and increasing my alm and imaan. I feel closer to people in the middle east but even many of them act like typical Americans, for they love their movies, clothes, and food and have that inferiority complex.

  6. Marahm says:

    Sam, thanks for your comment, and welcome to the blog. One of the nice things about living in the United States is that we CAN be different, and we don’t have to adopt mainstream culture. No one is going to speak badly of us when we don’t participate in half the garbage!

    Chiara, who is Bill Murray? Sounds like he might be a famous actor.

    Solace, yes, I have reacculturated well, but I miss the life in KSA. Well, I missed the life in the USA while I lived in KSA, so I suppose I’ll always be missing something, somewhere, no matter where I live!

  7. coolred38 says:

    Sheesh I could have written this post for you. The few times Ive been back to the states for either visits or nearly 2 years at one point…I definitely felt like the outsider.

    Especially with my accent…which I didnt realize I have but nearly everyone I meet asks me where Im from…they are genuinely surprised when I say…here…America…lol. My children comment that my english is very “dumbed down” from all the years accomodating those that dont understand it well…so I really do sound like a nonnative speaker quite often.

    While im here in Bahrain Im critical of women that show a bit of leg or or those that wear the abaya and not the hijab but will pile their hair in elaborate hair dos or use a ton of makeup…or even leave the abaya flowing open and show a lot of leg etc…Im like…I dont believe in it but if your going to wear it at least wear it properly you know…then I go to America and I see all that expanse of leg and arm and tummies etc…and Im like…argh! whats the world coming too. I cant seem to find a middle ground there.

    Ive never been one for too much tv…even as a child. I prefer reading and other things…but while in the states I will check out the tv and its all reality tv shows…and some of them are just plain bizarre…is that reality? Americans are fed a diet of bizarre reality…inane comedies…and watered down news programs…no wonder we are an uninformed country…damn.

    anyhow…sorry for the long comment…I can totally relate to this post.

  8. Marahm says:

    coolred, please post long comments here whenever you feel the urge! I love to read them, especially when they agree with the post ;).

    “…inane comedies…and watered down news programs…” Perfect description of a sad “reality” in America today!

  9. susanne430 says:

    Oooooooh, I ****really enjoyed**** this post! I found it very very interesting. My mom is American, but she grew up in other countries and she told how she experienced things when they’d return to the States. I would think you’d feel unable to totally relate to either place. As you said you missed the USA while living in KSA, but now you miss things about KSA while living here. I can totally understand that!

    I would think after your exciting life, you would find your coworkers’ talk silly and boring. Afterall how does Tommy’s baseball game and Katelyn’s dance recital compare to living in the Middle East!!!

    I am glad you included things like language and expressions and even the funny story about the lights being left on because you didn’t realize the noise was reminding you to turn them off.

    GREAT post! I really love this kind of thing. 🙂

    LOL that you know who Johnny Depp is now! Ha!

  10. Hi Marahm – What a terrific post, as usual! Is that what is going to happen to me eventually? The experiences you wrote about were really interesting observations.
    Bill Murray started out as a comedian on Saturday Night Live, now does movies and has done some good serious roles too. My favorite movie of his is “Groundhog Day” – rent it sometime. It’s even played here on TV since I’ve been here.
    About the people at work – all I can say is, it’s their loss. They don’t know what they’re missing!

  11. MysticSaint says:

    interesting take.

    thanks for sharing.

  12. aspimmilm says:

    nice site this excellent to see you have what I am actually looking for here and this this post is exactly what I am interested in. I shall be pleased to become a regular visitor 🙂

  13. aspimmilm says:

    nice site this terrific to see you have what I am actually looking for here and this this post is exactly what I am interested in. I shall be pleased to become a regular visitor 🙂

  14. Jasmine says:

    Hi, thanks for blogging about this! It was a really interesting read and it’s fascinating to hear about your experiences. I just found your blog and it looks great.

  15. Marahm says:

    Thanks for stopping by, Mystic Saint!

    Thank you, too, Jasmine, and welcome! I’ve just discovered your blog, too. I love to “meet” lovely Muslima women I’d never get the chance to meet in ordinary life, due to distance, age and activity differences.

  16. Marahm says:

    susanne, thank you for stating the obvious: “I would think after your exciting life, you would find your coworkers’ talk silly and boring.” You got it!

    suzie, yes, all of this will probably happen to you, too, but in a different way. By the time you’ve lived in the Kingdom twelve years, America will have passed into yet another stage of “cultural” development!

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