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A month ago I referred to myself as being in the "honeymoon stage" of reentry, which drew objections from a friend who said that it's entirely unnotable that I'm happy to return home and find value in my own culture.

However, it seemed notable to me because people who are repatriating often do experience reverse culture shock. Many of my friends who've moved back to the States have expressed only small senses of loss at the transition -- missing the adrenaline of the roundabouts or the beautiful desert sunsets -- but some have talked about more serious reactions, like feeling an emotional disconnect from the friends and family they'd been so eagerly looking forward to visiting. So it seems worth saying that many people do feel a bit lost or disconnected when they come home.

I expected to feel significant ambivalence about leaving Doha after 6 years; after all, I had reverse culture shock after moving back from only 6 months in London. I felt overwhelmed by American grocery stores, and had a surprising sense of loss about the sudden irrelevance of all the small daily things I'd worked so hard to master, like learning the Tube map or how to hold my knife and fork.

After a month back from Qatar, though, I have to say I'm still genuinely thrilled to be home. The most striking feature of American culture to me over the course of this month has been how friendly most people are to each other most of the time. I think that every day I have witnessed some small act of kindness towards strangers: bus passengers shouting to the driver to wait because a slow-moving elderly person was coming, a jogger stopping to check a loose dog's collar for contact information, a stranger letting me know something had fallen out of my pocket. What's more, every time I've wanted to change lanes, merge, or make an unprotected left turn, someone has immediately paused to let me in. All these moments too are tiny and insignificant-seeming, but they add up to feeling like I am in a community where people are looking out for each other. It's strange, because I would never have said that Doha was unfriendly or that people were particularly unsympathetic to each other. Perhaps it's harder there to feel fellow-feeling for people whose lives are so inscrutably different from your own, or perhaps I'd underestimated how much daily interaction was stymied by language barriers. At any rate, I find my heart embarrassingly warmed by every routine pleasantry and small gesture of decency I experience here.

I'm not really one for national days or patriotism, but on this Independence Day I find myself remembering seeing a typo just before we moved to Qatar that referred to Americans in Doha as "ex-patriots" instead of "expatriates." That would make me a repatriot now. And maybe I kind of am. There are lots of really terrible things about the US, and I don't want to be Polyannaish about it, but I can't deny that it's really, really good to be home.


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 5th, 2010 03:34 am (UTC)
It is OK to be happy.
You had a great experience and now another will occur soon.
Best wishes.
Jul. 5th, 2010 04:34 am (UTC)
No claim was ever made that some people have some difficulties adjusting, or that some people appreciate things about the place to which they're returning. Obviously both are true.

Rather, the claim is that talk of the "honeymoon stage" and "reverse culture shock" is mostly a waste of time. Those buzzwords are rather devoid of content -- they really don't indicate much of anything. Either the words are too strong and apply to almost nobody, or they're too weak and apply to almost everyone but have almost no substantive meaning, or more likely some combination of the above, where the person bandying the buzzwords is likely on the defensive trying to justify their own conversation topic or lecture or therapist or whatever, but in reality is just wasting our time. And that's fucking obnoxious.

Talking about the actual things that impact your life, things that are in some way particular, in some way specific, and in some way actually interesting, on the other hand, those may be worthwhile topics after all.
Jul. 5th, 2010 04:37 am (UTC)
Wait, wait, I'm not quite done.

... not that I'm opposed to therapists in general. However, I am opposed to people who open their talks with EVERYONE GOES THROUGH CULTURE SHOCK.

Jul. 5th, 2010 04:47 am (UTC)
Ah, did you get the same vapid lecturer at staff orientation that we did? :-) She was pretty awful. Also, she responded to an audience question by telling the questioner that she was clearly depressed, which, hello, inappropriate.

I think discussing culture shock as an entity is valuable in that some people don't expect to have the kinds of reactions they do, and I think it can serve to normalize those reactions. On the other hand, I've always thought that it was dumb that it was discussed as an entity in itself instead of as a subset of "life transitions." I had much more culture shock going away to university -- or getting married -- than I've ever had from visiting another culture.
Jul. 5th, 2010 05:05 am (UTC)
how to hold my knife and fork
Unless you were eating steak, which seems unlikely, I'm rather curious as to how this was dramatically different across the pond.
Jul. 5th, 2010 05:50 am (UTC)
In the UK your fork stays in your left hand, tines pointing down, when you put food in your mouth. In the US you may cut food that way, but then you switch the fork into your right hand, tines up, to put it in your mouth.
Jul. 5th, 2010 09:55 am (UTC)
I'm going to be moving back to the US in August, after 3 years in Israel, so I've been very interested in reading what you have to say about reverse culture shock. I honestly don't know how I'm going to feel. Israel is, in most ways, so Western and so much like the US that most of my original culture shock came from being lulled into a false sense of feeling like I knew how to handle every situation, and then suddenly being confronted with an unexpected unfamiliarity.

I expect language to be hard for me. I've gotten very used to being bilingual, surrounded by other bilinguals. My Hebrew is peppered with English and my English is peppered with Hebrew. My English vocabulary has become appallingly limited. That will probably come back quickly.

I'm sad to move off a calendar built around Jewish times and holidays, and back onto a Christian/American one. I'm happy to get Sunday back, but I'll miss Shabbat.

Not sure what else.
Jul. 5th, 2010 09:22 pm (UTC)

ok, but you visited PGH at least one summer (that's how I met you). Was there no honeymoon then?
Jul. 6th, 2010 01:59 am (UTC)
There were lots of things that struck me as odd about the US when I visited (like the amount of skin people show), but I think visiting somewhere and moving there give you very different experiences.

Also, when I met you I had just started corticosteriods, which made me overwhelmingly depressed, so I wasn't having much of a honeymoon. :-)
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )