Getting Zapped (Pt. 2): Reverse Culture Shock

Our first summer that we came back to the US after moving to Mongolia, we had a couple of important tasks to accomplish our first week back. The first one was getting some kind of phone plan figured out so that we could connect with each other and our family and friends. So off we went to Walmart to figure out an option for a month-to-month mobile plan as we were only going to be stateside for about six weeks. For those of you who have experienced reverse culture shock, you already know where this is going.

Once inside Walmart, we were immediately overwhelmed by the sheer size of the store and the variety of available products. For the previous 10 months, we’d shopped at a store the size of the average American home. (Shopping in UB was its own unique experience.) Knowing we had limited time before we totally snapped, we hurried blindly to the back of the store where the tech section was and began searching for sim cards that would be appropriate. The bright lights, the sheer volume of stuff, and the constant conversations around us (in a language we could fully understand!) had our nerves strung tightly by the time we got out of the store. I think we were in Walmart for about 20 minutes, and it felt like a lifetime.

We decided that we needed to add another poor decision to our existing one and went to a local Starbucks, thinking, “At least we can relax over a cup of coffee while we figure these sim cards out.” Ha! Wrong-o.

By the time we realized the error of our ways, we were already committed to finishing our drinks in the coffee shop, but it was awful. The espresso machine was loud. The milk steamer was loud. The music in the background was loud. The people chatting around us were loud. The barista calling out orders was loud. The drive thru was loud. Loud, loud, loud, loud. Already on edge, we were soon snapping at each other as we tried to sort out our phone situation. We ended up calling it quits on figuring out the phone situation, chugged the rest of our drinks, and fled to where we were staying.

reverse culture shock

Coming home shouldn’t feel like you’ve been launched out of a boat into icy water without a life jacket, but it often does. It’s an unexpected shock to return to a place that you thought you knew only to find out that it feels so very different because where you were overseas became home, and this old “home” is all new (to you). We talked about culture shock last week, and I think, in general, people are prepared to experience it before they travel outside of their home region. What most people struggle with is the reverse culture shock experienced when coming home. I’ve found that the longer I’m away from “home” (wherever that may be!), the stronger the reverse culture shock experience.

A lot of expats talk about struggling with reverse culture shock when they go shopping again in their home country. There is often sensory overload, but the choices that must be made when it comes to the astounding variety of products cause my brain synapses to malfunction. A good example of this is two summers ago, when we last returned from Mongolia. I went shopping with my sister so she could keep me grounded. (We both grew up abroad, so she also understands the reality of culture shock.) List in hand, I braved the pasta aisle and had to take a picture of the ludicrousness:

Copy of pasta sauces

How on Earth could we possibly need so many pasta sauce options? I feel anxious just thinking about that day! Haha…not really (but really ●_●).

Other reverse culture shock moments entail readjusting to what small talk is like in your home culture as well as public etiquette. Do I ask about extended family? Is there a national holiday coming up? Can you blow your nose in public? What do you do with a used tissue? If you accidentally step on someone’s foot, do you acknowledge it or ignore it? Can I slurp my tea or soup here if it’s otherwise too hot to consume right away or will I get dirty looks? What do you mean I can’t just flag down random cars and treat them like taxis? Wait, taxis cost how much?!

Another big shock is seeing societal shifts. When you live in a culture, changes happen gradually around you, but if you leave for a few years and then return, you’re more aware of these kinds of changes. There’s new terminology, or different elected officials, or what used to shocking on television is now the norm. All of these changes add up to a returnee.

Hopefully, this gives those unfamiliar with reverse culture shock an idea of what it can be like. For those of you who have experienced it for yourself, what is something that stands out to you about the culture clash of coming home?

Beth sig


  1. Hello, I just found your blog as I searching recipe of niislel salat. I used to be living in UB as a foreign student few years ago and your blog reminds me lots of good (sometimes hard) memories of that time. Hope everything is betting better in your country!

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