Elizabeth is a US citizen who grew up in China. She spent a gap year between the US, Nepal and China, and just completed her first year of college in the US.
As a TCK, I had always heard of culture shock, but had never truly experienced it. I attribute this lack of experience to the fact that I have been switching cultures since I was less than a year old, so I’ve never had time to learn what culture shock felt like. I knew culture shock was common and difficult, but I had never truly experienced the impact of it. Because China was “home”, I figured that the most culture shock I would ever experience would come in the States or other new countries.
Then I returned to China after almost a year in the States. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I felt different this time back. Suddenly the large crowds were overwhelming, the polluted air was hard to breathe in, the food wasn’t settling well, and the language barriers were exasperating. After a day or so, I realized these troubles came from the fact that I was re-adjusting to China life. Suddenly I was seeing Beijing almost as any average foreigner would have. I realized I was experiencing real culture shock. But in my own country? My culture shock was intensified because I hadn’t expected to experience any readjustment; I expected to blend back into Beijing life like I always had in the past.
So what was making the difference this time around? Why was I having a hard time blending back into the familiar mix of a Chinese and Expat culture? I’ve come up with several theories to explain this
Theory 1: Length of time away
It had been a longer amount of time since I had left China last. It had also been a longer time since I had been in any country besides the United States. I had been gone from China for up to 8 months before, but during that time I had visited another Asian country. This time it had been over 10 months since I had been anywhere outside of the States. I have to wonder if the length of time away contributed to my shock in re-entry.
Theory 2: Deeper affinity with my passport country
Since starting college in the States I’ve become more accustomed to the life and culture there. Maybe I’ve even become what TCKs shudder at – “more American.” I know I’ve seen this phenomenon happen in other TCKs. After spending more time in our passport country, some of us begin to identify more with that country. This definitely doesn’t happen for everyone; actually, from what I’ve seen, it probably applies to no more than half of the TCK population. Yet I would say it’s more common for TCKs when they return to their passport country for university. In my opinion, it’s a natural part of growing up and figuring out how your experience as a TCK will or won’t affect your identity. Because of my opinion, I’m fine with becoming “more American” in some areas of my life. I’m never going neglect or forget my TCK-ness, but I don’t want that to be my only identity. But back to my theories on my unexpected culture shock. The fact that I’m “more American” now may be contributing to the culture shock of re-entering China.
Reverse culture shock happens when one returns to one’s home country. Is the culture shock that a TCK experiences when returning to his/her “foreign” country reverse-reverse culture shock? (One of my friends cleverly called it “culture shock squared.”) Or is it merely reverse culture shock, because TCK’s often consider foreign countries their true home? I haven’t decided which one fits best. Yet I know that when I return to China next time, I won’t be as shocked by my own culture shock.
Have you experienced “culture shock squared”? How did you respond?