While the transition to living in a foreign country comes with its anticipated cultural adjustment process, coming back to the U.S. can be an adjustment as well – and this is one we are not expecting to have to prepare for. We think we are returning home and to familiar comforts, but it takes us completely by surprise how much we’ve de-acquainted from American society. There are some surprises in store.
1. You have the ability to understand conversations going on around you.
The first time I entered a café back home, I was taken aback by the multitude of strangers around and the conversations they were having. Of course, there are strangers in other countries too, but most of the time, I would have no clue what they were saying to each other. For an entire year, my surroundings were a mindless, incomprehensible buzz. And in fact, that was a mindless buzzing bliss.
Now, I have to endure to listen to strangers describe their miniscule interactions with roommates or recount their colossally self-significant problems of minor consequence – while I engage in equally trivial conversations with my friend, conscious of the fact that those around us can understand and judge.
2. Life becomes less productive for a (hopefully) short while.
Living in a foreign place is just so exciting! There were always things to see, adventures to be had, and exploration to be done. From weekend trips to nearby islands, to exploring the morning market, to trying to immerse myself in local customs and traditions, there seemed to have been an endless list of things to do.
At the time it actually might have been a bit overwhelming – having three different choices for activities every weekend with the realistic possibility of accomplishing only one – but now, back home and without such choices, the days may seem overwhelmingly unfulfilling. (This might not be true for everyone – I was just lucky enough to return to home in Boston in the middle of a winter with record-breaking amounts of snow.)
3. You missed some big social and pop cultural movements.
It takes a lot of effort to keep up with trends from far way. Even keeping up with current events and news stories is a struggle while trying to keep perspective of the local society and news there. So, that leaves almost no room to understand what Venmo is, or the fact that Uber has basically taken over the country, or that Hinge is apparently the new Tinder. But seriously, who are these people that were nominated for Best New Artist at the Grammy’s? Out. Of. Touch.
4. The general public here follows certain behaviors of conduct.
Oh, just some forgotten rules of social norm. Things like, if you’re late for an appointment, you’re probably going to have to reschedule (because things actually run on time here, unlike in Southeast Asia). Or, if you cross the street before the pedestrian signal is up, you’re likely the only one. Apparently there are traffic laws here.
5. A lack of thorough understanding of how to act in social gatherings.
With my closest friends, of course I am sharing recounts of my adventures and experiences, and it’s like nothing has changed between us. But with less close friends, or more-acquaintance-than-friend friends, what do I talk about? Do they really want to hear about my year? What do I ask them? At parties, I seem to think that I have nothing in common with the general crowd. I’ve grown so accustomed to speaking with individuals from different backgrounds, languages, and cultures, that I’ve forgotten how to interact with those who are from “my own” culture.
6. Your friends back home seem to have all become responsible adults.
For a long time, you were all in college together, then job searching, and then working – always doing the same general things and on the same page. But living in another place for a significant period of time is to leave the reality back home, while your friends continued to live in it. And it may seem like their lives have all come together by now. Those who weren’t employed right out of college are steadily collecting income now, and some have even been promoted or left their previous positions for better opportunities.
Coming back from abroad, you are likely going to be unemployed for a little while – and this time, when you’re job searching, you might feel like you’re the only one. It’s like blasting through the galaxy in a high-speed spacecraft for what seemed like one year to you, only to return to Earth realizing that 9 years has passed by on the surface. (…Too dramatic?)
7. Your role in society feels less significant.
This may be the most ego-crushing but shouldn’t-be-important and definitely perspective-changing. While living abroad, I was different. I was a foreigner in the local society. I was the only Westerner they interacted with. I was interesting. They cared about what I had to say and about who I was. But here, I blend in. Nobody is instantly intrigued by me. I do not stand out as being different. No one glances twice in my direction, and definitely, they are not automatically interested in what I have to say simply because of the fact that “I am American”.
It’s interesting to settle back into reality – where the reality is, everyone is interesting, and I’m no more special for no special reason.