RETURNING HOME TO CULTURE SHOCK
Illustration by Nichole Daniels
On August 16th, I stepped off the plane at LAX, newly arrived after a year studying abroad in Heidelberg, Germany. I’d left August 30th one year earlier, and although two weeks were missing to achieve the full 365 days, I was nevertheless ready to be home. Time for sunny beaches, peanut butter, and Mexican food—time to return to everything I knew.
Or so I thought.
As it turned out, a year is a long time, and while I’m certainly not German yet, when I returned, I wasn’t 100% Californian anymore, either. Two days in, my sunburn had me thinking a cherry had taken up residence where my face should be. My friends said I was speaking with a British accent, and certain phrases just weren’t coming out of my mouth properly. It wasn’t until two days later, waking at three in the morning for the second day in a row and fiddling with the too-small pillow and constricting sheets that I realized what was going on. I was experiencing culture shock —from my own culture. Reverse culture shock had come to call.
One major difference between Germany and California—besides the overabundance of people speaking English—struck me the moment I exited the airport: The sheer amount of traffic. Have you ever been to LAX? The number of cars whizzing around that pick-up and drop-off loop is incredible. In Alhambra, Spain, I had been shocked by tiny streets, some of which weren’t nearly large enough to drive a car down, and plenty which would have given bicyclists nightmares. (Most of these streets were also tiled with beautiful black and white stones, and lots of them had stairs, but they were all marked as streets on my map.) While visiting Berlin midway through my study abroad, I had been surprised by six-lane streets, thinking them extremely large. Here, that’s the minimum size for a street to be taken seriously.
I wouldn’t say Germany is small, but comparatively, America is large. I know Heidelberg couldn’t actually fit inside the Target on Bellflower, but sometimes it really does feel like it.
A major factor in my perception of Long Beach’s size, however, stems from the public transit system. Long Beach Transit is pretty comprehensive compared to the (limited sampling of) American transportation systems I’ve worked with, but compared to Europe’s subways, streetcars, regional and inter-regional trains, and ICEs (Inter-City Express trains, running up to 206 MPH between major urban hubs), I’m definitely feeling grounded. Maybe I’ll break down and bring a car next semester…
There is one thing I need to make clear, though: Culture shock, and reverse culture shock as well, isn’t a particularly negative experience. It’s an overwhelming mixture of emotions, from little surprises to long-forgotten annoyances with a generous helping of confusion thrown in, and there are plenty of pleasant discoveries as well. I would have forgotten to thank the bus driver in Long Beach had the three people in front of me not done so, since thanking a bus driver in Germany elicits a confused, blank stare, and the first time I fell into an easy, inane conversation with a waitress, I almost pinched myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. Germany doesn’t do small talk. Bizarre as it may seem, I’d missed it.
Some of the other things I missed are more idiosyncratic to me. I’d learned to live, for example, without casual hugs. I got quite a few when I was leaving the country, but prior to that, I was pretty hug-deprived. The first time someone hugged me goodnight after a meeting, I almost didn’t know how to react – but it reminded me how very much I’d missed Long Beach when I was away. Reverse culture shock or not, this is home.
And the big one: There’s Mexican food here. I’m back in a place where jalapenos, cilantro, and corn tortillas exist. I may still be surprised whenever I have to turn in a document which doesn’t require stamps and signatures from three different offices, but there are enchiladas here. I think I’ll survive.