Culture Shock/Reverse Culture Shock

Update: I may be moving soon! Haven’t set a definite date just yet, but watch this space! My passport took 4 months total to process, thanks to COVID-19, but it finally happened and now my plans can move along!

Something that has been on my mind while preparing to move is culture shock. The last time I went through culture shock was when I was 10 years old, and before that, I’m not sure what I went through as a little kid was culture shock or reverse culture shock. I was born in one country and ended up in my parents’ country, but my parents were going through reverse culture shock, so why shouldn’t I? On the other hand, French culture had stuck with me. There should be another form of culture shock for kids born in one country and moving to another when they are too young to remember it, but it still affects them. I might call it child culture shock. I definitely went through reverse culture shock when I moved back to the US. 

When I was little, I didn’t understand why I spoke French and no one else did. At my US school, I didn’t know why everyone called me “the French girl”. I loved and hated French throughout my childhood because my parents kept putting me in French classes. On one hand, French classes gave me a sense of belonging somewhere. On the other hand, I hated speaking French at home because no one else did and it was embarrassing if my Mom spoke to me in French in public. I just wanted to fit in. Eventually, I got so rebellious, my mother said if I can learn another language, she would stop making me learn French. Challenge accepted, Mom. I jumped at the opportunity to learn German in secondary school in the UK, much to my Mom’s chagrin. She argued I didn’t have a good reason to learn German, and I had to compromise and take a French class as well. When I finally chose Russian as my language to pursue, my Mom was good to her word and let me give up French. In retrospect, I realize that my reaction to French was going through some kind of culture shock, and dealing with teasing and not knowing what it was or what to do about it. I love French now!

I definitely went through culture shock when I moved to London. When my parents and I were looking for an apartment, the estate agent said to us that if we chose the place we did, we would be living among English people! Well, yeah. Where did she expect us to live? An American community and end up not experiencing anything about England? No thanks. 

When I went to school, I crashed. The English kids would get me to say things only to make fun of my accent, and they would ask me questions and then laugh at my answers. That was worse than being called “the French girl” and being teased for speaking French. Little did I know that this was a normal thing for immigrants to England. I thought a country that had a lot of immigrants would have citizens who knew better than to do things like that, and would teach their kids how to behave properly with immigrants, but I was wrong. I had a friend at my first school who was from South Africa and she had similar struggles. My first school had this contest about who had the coolest accent, and the students voted me as the winner. I didn’t care about that contest and my Mom found out about it through my friend. In retrospect, that contest was a signal to bullies to go for me as a target. It also translated into a lack of success in preparing for my future endeavours. The same kind of bullying happened at my second school and continued even after my experience in school. Fortunately, my Mom figured out what was happening and homeschooled me after that whole experience. After my experience in school, I knew I didn’t want to live in England for the rest of my life. Somehow, I ended up staying in England for over a decade, but I knew in my heart that it wasn’t going to work out for me. Not all was lost though. 

I became involved with the Russian community though because I fell in love with their ballet and started training to be a professional dancer. I didn’t like England, but I didn’t want to go back to the US, so I thought if I became good at ballet, I could go to Russia to dance. That’s how I became proficient in Russian. I didn’t make it in the end, but that’s another story. Also, I would deliberately hang out with other immigrants. I felt more at home with them. The best thing about having friends from other countries was I could find some way to relate to them culturally and we would share stories. For instance, I could relate to people from India on celebrating our independence from England. Immigrants from Carribean countries and Canada made me feel closer to home. There are many other examples besides that as well, but it would take too long to write.

When I moved back to the US with my parents seven years ago, I naively thought I would not experience reverse culture shock. My Mom warned me that reverse culture shock can be just as bad, or worse than culture shock. She had a hard time of reverse culture shock when we moved from Switzerland and a lot of it had to do with her not wanting to go back to the US. I thought that because I wanted to return to the US and England hadn’t worked out for me, that I wouldn’t have as hard a time adjusting to the US. There were struggles that I didn’t anticipate. I felt embarrassed asking someone to repeat something they said because they were talking too fast. I thought people would appreciate my perspectives on a subject, but that was not always true. If anything, I would be shot down for sharing my points of view. I was told once to “give up the London thing”. How? I lived there for a good portion of my life! I can’t just let it go! I have a big mouth because I’m not afraid to speak out against something that is very wrong and violates human rights. That has got me in trouble way too often since moving back to the US. As I lost my British accent, I lost the one clue that I had that I am multicultural. I look and sound American now and no one can tell that I have lived overseas. I was put in a box and I didn’t fit there. 

When I was living overseas, I saw that the US was becoming increasingly polarized politically. Despite that, I moved back to the US because I did need to go home for a while. The moment when I realized that I wanted to move to Canada was a culmination of hurts I have suffered since moving back here and not being appreciated for what I have to offer. Additionally, I can see the US is falling apart thanks to all these toxic systems that created the country and the pandemic is exposing those toxicities. This is not my country anymore. I can’t put my name to Donald Trump’s actions and atrocities. I see how far-right movements are springing up in many countries and the US is the perfect example of what happens when it gets out of hand. I think because I was away from the US for so long, the polarization hit me the hardest. It was a shock to see how much had changed since I last lived here. I read that a lot of expats move overseas again after they return home, and that doesn’t surprise me. If you see how much has changed in your country, it can be harder to cope with that change and you can feel like you don’t belong anymore.

A wise friend once told me that there comes a time when you’re living in another country where you realize it’s either going to work out for you, or it isn’t. There’s no shame in a country not working out for you. It doesn’t mean you are prejudiced, or there’s anything wrong with you. It’s just a fact that sometimes, things don’t work out. There are a lot of clues that can help you in deciding if a country isn’t going to work out. One thing I see people get wrong is time spent in a country is NOT a determinant in deciding whether a country is going to work out! I lived in the UK for over a decade, and got citizenship, but that didn’t make me any less miserable. I lived in the US for half my life and it hasn’t worked out, even though it’s like anyone who knows me would expect it to work out for me. I never thought that moving back home to the US would not work out for me. There was a part of me that desperately wanted to go back. As you can see, a country working out for you or not, is a purely subjective thing. No one can decide whether or not a country will work out for you, except you. It puts a lot of strain on families if there are some members who the country is working out for and some who want to go back to their home country. Family problems are often exacerbated by culture shock, and tensions can be on a whole different level. You have feelings you never thought were possible. The best solution I have is to develop close friendships with expats, regardless of whether or not they are from your own country, and third culture kids. They are the best friendships you can have.

As I’m preparing to move, I am able to think about my past experiences and how they have prepared me for whatever lies ahead. It’s no less scary to move again, and there is a fear that things might not work out. The best thing is that I feel more prepared for this move than I did for the other ones and in my post Visas, I quoted Winston Churchill. It’s basically a mantra for moving overseas in general, not just for visas and culture shock.

Author: winteroseca

I'm a Third Culture Kid who has lived in four different countries before and recently moved to Canada. Follow my blog about my life in Canada, plus expat life hacks and more!

3 thoughts on “Culture Shock/Reverse Culture Shock”

  1. What an exciting time! It’s funny how culture shock can be as big as utilities but as small as peanut butter. Looking forward to hearing what’s next in your journey!

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