Reverse Culture Shock: Moving Back to the US

Today is the autumnal equinox, otherwise known as the first day of fall. I first decided to move to Spain around this time last year, and the change in seasons has me reflecting on what it feels like to be settled back in Washington, DC after over six months living abroad.

Pretty much any time I tell someone that I recently moved back to the States from Spain, the first thing they ask me is how it feels to be back. For the first couple of weeks, my honest answer was “awful.” Thankfully, I’ve adjusted more in the weeks since then, and I can confidently say that my reverse culture shock has all but vanished, though I still miss Spain every day.

If you’re not familiar with the term, “culture shock” refers to the period of transition and adjustment we experience when we move to a new environment in a different country. Everything from the language I spoke to the food I ate to my bedtime changed when I first moved to Spain, which produced a sense of culture shock: I was surprised and challenged by the new culture, social atmosphere, and way of life in which I immersed myself when I moved to Spain.

I had already lived in Spain once before when I studied abroad in Madrid during my college years, but my experience was different this time around for several reasons. First of all, I was moving on my own; I had no program, school, or institution supporting me, so I was entirely on my own when it came to thorny challenges like finding housing and completing immigration requirements to ensure that I didn’t get kicked out of the country. This meant that I made mistakes, got burned, and spent my 26th birthday in Barcelona begging the office of foreign affairs to accept my residency card application even though my address was across the country in Córdoba. Secondly, I had no idea how long I would be living in Spain. My visa was valid for a year and I moved there knowing I’d come back when the time was right or my money ran out, whichever came first. Since I was living there indefinitely, I made it home as much and as quickly as possible.

These major differences meant that I experienced culture shock differently than I did when I was a baby study abroad student, but they also meant that I became more integrated into local life than I had in the past. I lived in a house and then a hostel, made friends with locals, and generally spent my days living like any other resident of Córdoba, albeit one with fewer responsibilities than a nine-to-fiver (there are fewer of those in Andalucía than DC anyways). I felt like a built a life there, or at least the beginnings of one.

That integration meant that coming back to Washington, DC, which always would have been hard, particularly jarring. I had gotten so used to my life in Córdoba, and had so completely adapted to the rhythms and customs there, that coming back to a busy U.S. city felt like a total shock to my system. DC and Córdoba are also particularly distinct cities; even Madrid would have felt more similar to the District, though the metropolis is very much a Spanish city. One of my friends commented that she doesn’t think I could have chosen a place more different from DC than Andalucía. While I could envision a rural village in, say, southeast Asia being more culturally divergent, she had a point.

Experts say that reverse culture shock generally follows the same U-shape that culture shock does:

“Upon arrival in a foreign country, people tend to experience a ‘honeymoon’ period where the new culture is exciting, fresh and fun. Soon after however, as differences surface and mount, sojourners fall into the pit of culture shock. Gradually, as one adapts to the new culture and accepts differences, they regain their emotional and psychological stability…As with cross-cultural adaptation stress, change of routine and a lack of familiarity contribute significantly to reverse culture shock.”

Both times I moved to Spain, I experienced the elation of the honeymoon period the first few weeks. Both times I have come back from Spain, however, I’ve somehow missed the honeymoon boat. My returns were voluntary and planned, but I think the reason they’ve been so tough is that I truly feel at home in Spain and want to live there long-term in the future. The first time around, I almost extended my study abroad period in Madrid to a full year, but ultimately decided that I missed my small liberal arts school too much to miss another semester there. This time around, I came back to the States out of pure pragmatism. I had already decided that I want to go to grad school in Spain in the future and work there after, and the visa I had this year didn’t allow me to legally work. I would have been burning through savings to stay there for a short while now rather than setting myself up financially and professionally to live there long-term in the future.

I’m very much a follow-your-heart type (I blame my Pisces sun sign) and while I am a careful planner, I had never made such a major life decision based purely on practical and logistical reasons.

(Maybe that’s why I missed the honeymoon this time.)

So, while it was absolutely the right decision, it was not an easy one. Now that I am out of the throes of the adjustment period and once more very happy to be living in DC, I thought I would write about the reverse culture shock I experienced upon reentry and the many, many differences I noticed after living abroad for six months.

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Everyone here is So. Busy.

“Busy culture” is by far one of my top three least favorite things about the United States. People here live by their Google calendars, and those calendars are usually filled to the brim. In major cities in particular, folks living in the U.S. tend to see business and exhaustion as status symbols that indicate to others that they are desirable, important, valuable, et cetera. We work more than residents of most other countries in the world (which is not a good thing for our health and wellbeing), a pattern that is only more pronounced in big cities. DC is particularly bad, since it’s a hub for government and non-profit work, which means that many people who moved here (including me) did so for professional reasons. And we don’t just work a lot—we play hard, too. Friends’ calendars are as full of social and volunteer engagements as they are of work-related commitments, and it was really hard for me to adjust to this element of life here when I first came back.

On my first day in the District, I started texting friends that I was back and wanted to hang out. Most people asked to make plans in advance so they could schedule me in, rather than meeting up spontaneously. I’ll be honest: it hurt. In Spain, and especially in Andalucía, people prioritize their social lives. I saw my friends every night, and I ran into people everywhere I went. People are less scheduled in general, which makes them much more open to impromptu beers or coffees and chance meetings. I had to remind myself that my U.S. friends’ request to schedule in plans was merely a cultural trait rather than an indication that they didn’t want to see me. Now that I’ve been here for a couple of months, I watch with horror as my schedule fills up, too. I have to make a concerted effort to be un-busy.

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I went from night owl to early bird.

In Spain, everything happens later. You’ve probably already heard of the infamously late lunch, called comida, but the later hour applies to literally everything (except maybe the start of the work day). Spaniards don’t really eat breakfast; they have a coffee and then eat their first real food of the day between 10:30am and noon. Then they eat lunch around 2:30 in the afternoon, get off work around 7 or 8pm, eat dinner at nine or ten, and if they’re going out, won’t hit the bars until eleven at the earliest. In Andalucía, likely due to the region’s heat and more relaxed personality, the schedule is even later. Lunch isn’t until 3 or 3:30 in the afternoon, dinner isn’t until ten or later if it happens at all, and I regularly started my night out at one or two in the morning.

To be fair, I was also traveling or working at a hostel most of the time that I was there, so I didn’t have to report to an office bright-eyed and bushy-tailed by 9am. I did work morning shifts on some days at the hostel, however, which meant I had to have breakfast ready for the guests by 7:30am. There were plenty of days when I came home, changed clothes, and went straight to set up the coffee and cereal without a wink of sleep.

When I came back to the U.S., eating dinner at 6pm felt positively offensive. I dragged myself to parties starting at 8pm and complained the entire time, knowing that I’d still be drinking my post-siesta coffee at that hour in Córdoba. I work at a health center and start at 8am most days, though, so I had to adapt to the U.S. timetable real quick in order to avoid becoming a sleep-deprived zombie. Now, I wake up between 5:30 and 6 in the morning to hit a workout class before my shift starts at eight. I don’t know who I’ve become. While I miss my late Spanish nights, I am naturally a morning person, and I must admit that I feel way healthier and more productive on my current schedule.

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I fucking hate processed food.

Okay, so Spaniards may drink and smoke way more than we do, but man do they know how to eat. Even as a vegan in the land of jamón and manchego cheese, I ate way better there in terms of quality ingredients. I may have been eating potato chips and drinking vino fino on a daily basis, but everything felt much more fresh than the shrink-wrapped, pre-made food I see everywhere here in the United States. Andalucía is a predominantly agricultural region, meaning they take special pride in their marinated olives and homegrown garlic, and it shows. Food there is seen as an enjoyable part of daily life that merits time and effort, whereas in the United States it feels like we’re either gorging on overly rich restaurant food or heating up sad frozen Lean Cuisine meals in the microwave at home.

Food in Spain feels more balanced. There is simultaneously more enjoyment of food as an important cultural practice and element of social life, and also less fetishization of food than I see in breathless discussions of new DC restaurants. My theory is that because the U.S. hasn’t really figured out how to have a healthy relationship with food, it’s not integrated into our socio-cultural lives in the same way it is in Spain and many other countries. We’re either starving or stuffing ourselves, rather than taking the time to prepare fresh, traditional, and delicious dishes. Even something as simple as olive oil tastes better in Spain because there’s more pride in its production. I’m trying to take this part of Spain with me wherever I go by eating only fresh, unprocessed foods that I prepare myself, but I’ve definitely fallen prey to Oreos and frozen veggie burgers from time to time since moving back.

Reviewing my top three experiences of culture shock, I’m zero percent surprised that they center on food, friends, and timing. After all, aren’t those the three most important elements of a young person’s daily life?

I’m curious—have you experienced reverse culture shock? How did you deal with it? Leave your experiences in the comments below!