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An unexpected culture shock (returning home overseas)

Elizabeth

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
new experience.


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?

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Posted by on June 30, 2011 in Expat Life, Guest Posts, TCKs

 

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TCK Summers: Tia

My name is Tia and I’m 17 years old. I am American/Vietnamese and grew up in Tennessee during my early childhood. I have been living in Hanoi, Vietnam for about 9 years now (from 2002-present).

What does a “normal” summer look like for you/your family?
Every summer since we came overseas to Vietnam, my family and I have traveled back to the States. We always go back to Tennessee where we have a condo and friends and family living there. Typically, our summers are times of reconnecting with friends and family.

What would your perfect summer be?
I love to travel and would really like to travel all over Europe in particular. I’m hoping that one day I will be able to do this with some close friends :)  Also, there are many places in the US that I have not been to before that I want to visit. During my travels, I would love to spend time indulging in the culture through the food, people, festivities and shopping.

What are you doing this summer (and where will you be)?
This summer I will be in the US going to Seattle, Colorado, and Tennessee. In Seattle, I’m going to visit my sister who lives there as well as go on some university tours since I really want to go to college there. In Colorado, my cousin is getting married so I will be attending that, plus I’ve never been to this state before. In Tennessee, I will do the usual visiting with friends and family.

What is your favourite summer memory?
My favorite summer was just last summer when I was able to visit one of my close friends who lives in Washington, D.C. (who had previously lived in Hanoi, Vietnam). My other close friend who also moved away from Vietnam to the US also came to DC so we had a little reunion. It was so much fun to reminisce and sightsee around DC. We also went down to Orlando, Florida to go to Universal Studios and Disneyworld. It was such a fun experience and so many new memories were made that year!

 
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Posted by on June 15, 2011 in Guest Posts, TCK Summers

 

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TCK Summers: Hannah

I’m Hannah. I’m 16 years old, a junior in high school, and live in a small town in western China. When I was one year old I lived in far western China for a year, then we moved back to Oklahoma (my home state in the US) and lived there until I was 13. Then we moved to a city in Northeast China and spent two years there, and now I’m at the end of my first year here.

What does a “normal” summer look like for you/your family?
I’ve actually only had 2 summers as a TCK. My first was spent in China (in our small town) and it was really boring. I pretty much just lazed around the whole time. Last summer we went back to the States. It was probably the busiest summer I’ve had in my whole life. The day after we got back, we spoke at our home fellowship. Then every weekend after that we traveled around our state speaking in a bazillion different places. In between those weekends, people threw barbecues and had us come and talk, or we were invited to some kind of dinner. I would say I was only actually in the place where my suitcase was 40% of the time. We would go somewhere, come back, unpack our backpacks, put in clean clothes, and head out to another place. When I didn’t have to be somewhere smiling, shaking hands, and answering questions about China, I was able to hang out with my friends there quite a bit, which was definitely a blessing! We were also very torn by family that summer. Both sides live on completely different ends of our state and were both very “grabby” I guess you would call it. They wanted to spend as much time with us as they could. All in all, it was a very frustrating, but rewarding summer. He taught me a lot about having grace towards people who don’t really understand my situation.

What would an ideal summer look like for you?
Ooo, good question! I guess that changes from year to year. This summer it would probably be to go back to America for like 3 weeks, see my friends, get my license, eat as much delicious American food as I could, then come back and stay in Beijing for the rest of the summer hanging out with my friends there. I love my American friends and definitely want to see them, but I’m a lot closer with my China friends and it would be awesome to get some extra time to hang out with them.

What will you be doing this summer? (And where will you be doing it)
This summer I will be going back to the States. I’m guessing it will be a lot like last summer–very busy. However, different from last summer, I will hopefully be able to get my license, and we will be going around checking out different possible colleges for next year.

What is your best summer memory?
I don’t know if I have a specific “best” or “favorite” summer memory, but I can tell one of the ones I really enjoyed! Last summer we got back to the States on July 3rd, so Independence Day was the next day. My best friend in the States invited me to a party thing at her house, just setting off firecrackers, having roman candle wars, eating a lot of junk food, all the stuff you do on the 4th. So, even though I was majorly jet-lagging, I decided to go and check it out. It was so much fun. It was a lot of my friends that I hadn’t seen in 2 years. We laid on the trampoline and looked at the stars, we burned each other with roman candles, we crammed like 10 people in one room for sleeping. They ended up keeping me up until like 2:30 and then I crashed. It was just a really fun night of like reconnection with my group of friends there and really awesome memories.

 
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Posted by on June 8, 2011 in Guest Posts, TCK Summers

 

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TCK Summers: Calen

My name is Calen and I’m 17 years old. I’m technically from the United States but I’ve lived in various places in Southern California, Switzerland (around Lake Geneva) and Beijing, China.

What does a ‘normal’ summer look like for you/your family?
Our summers are usually packed, it depends where we’re living. All of them usually involve going to the states or Canada and then when we were living in Beijing, we also went back to Switzerland a lot. We normally do some form of camping/road trip and we’re always meeting up family and old friends.

What would an ideal summer look like?
I love it when it’s so hot that the heat hits you when you walk out the door. My ideal summer involves having barbecues and hanging out next to some form of water with friends and family, preferably the beach. And camping, lots of camping. Also fishing. You can’t have summer without going fishing.

What will you be doing this summer?
This summer is the only one that my family and I won’t be going back to the States in four or five years. I’ll be hanging out in Switzerland for 2 weeks, going to Spain with my aunt and then my family for about 2 weeks, going back to Switzerland for a bit, going to Greece with my family for 2 weeks, hanging out in Switzerland a bit more, and then heading out to California to start my gap year.

What is your best summer memory?
Ooh. That’s a tough one. I think it would have to be the summer of 2008 when my family got round the world tickets. I was able to see my friends in Switzerland, go to Bermuda to visit some family there, see New York and Washington D.C for the first time and see friends and family and go camping in California.

 
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Posted by on June 1, 2011 in Guest Posts, TCK Summers

 

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TCK Perspective – Cat Foster

Cat Foster lived in Texas, Indonesia, Brunei, and Malaysia before repatriating to the US (Illinois and Colorado) for college. Despite the difficulties of transitions, she wouldn’t trade her TCK experiences for an “easier” life. You can find more of her writing on her blog.

When I was three, my family moved from Dallas, Texas, to Jakarta, Indonesia. The following 15 years saw us moving between two different places in Indonesia, and Brunei. I attending boarding school in Malaysia for high school. When I was in boarding school, my parents moved to Moscow, Russia. After I graduated high school, I went back to my passport country of the USA to the state of Illinois. My transition was not easy, and it’s not something I would choose to repeat in the future. However, if given a choice between a rough transition from growing up abroad, or staying in the States my whole life, I would choose the rough transition.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what made my transition difficult. Maybe it was because I was suddenly lost in the majority of white people, instead of Asians. Maybe it was because I had chosen to go to college in a town where people thought that the next state over was a long distance. Regardless, I wish that I had been more prepared for living in the States. I knew who I was as a TCK within a foreign country. What I didn’t know was who I was as a TCK in America. I suddenly found myself getting lost in malls, or wanting to cry from seeing how much food was readily available at grocery stores, or at baseball games and not being able to sing along with the National Anthem.

I have to say, however, that I am completely aware of how my transition could have been even harder. I am incredibly grateful for the roommate God put me with my first year back in the States. Her name was Brittney and she was totally goofy, but understanding. She took the time to teach me American nuances and the American anthem. She patiently answered my dumb questions about if I’m allowed to walk around barefoot, or at what age people can go into casinos.

As I sort of mentioned before, there’s a lot of give and take with a TCK lifestyle. It’s wonderful because you get to see the world, gain new experiences, and have a broader perspective on life. We are able to bridge cultural barriers in a way that most can’t. We have a unique opportunity to make a difference in way most can’t. However, most TCKs experience more grief by the time they’re done with high school than most people do in their whole life. Goodbyes aren’t easy, and far too common. Trust becomes something that we chose not to do. Even though we’re in touch with other cultures and people, we’re hardly in touch with ourselves emotionally. I’ve always said that I only have so much capacity to miss people, therefore I have to be selective with whom I choose to “miss”. But the truth is that sometimes I choose to detach so that I won’t have to feel.

While I was in boarding school in Malaysia, I met Aunt Val and Uncle Brian Weidemann, who worked at the school as dorm supervisors. They became my mentors in life, the leaders for our class, and my personal friends. I also became very close with their kids, Ben and Bethany. They took their furlough the year I went back to the States. They lived about a four hour drive from where I was, so I often went to visit them. I treasure those visits. They helped me stay in touch with that part of me, the part from Malaysia, while I tried to adapt back into an American lifestyle. Val and I would go out for coffee and just talk about the things we were going through, and she was always able to offer me advice and encouragement. They gave me a safe place to be when I felt overwhelmed by the new culture, and that’s definitely something I will never forget.

Aunt Val and I started going out for coffee while I was still in high school. I was going through a rough patch in my junior year; I was having trouble with relationships. Sometimes TCKs can be experts at relationships, and sometimes they have no idea. Part of the reason she and Uncle Brian were so helpful was because they are also TCKs themselves, so they totally understood the things I was going through – they had been through them too. Also, they accepted me for who I was, faults and all, and expected nothing more from me. They listened to me when I needed to vent. Because immediate family (mom, dad, brother, sister) is usually the only family TCKs get to experience, I think TCKs look to make families out of the people they meet while abroad. Like their names suggest, Aunt Val and Uncle Brian reached out to me and became part of my ever-growing family. I can’t express how much I appreciated that, especially because I met them while I was in boarding school and therefore away from my parents and brother.

I was able to go to a re-entry seminar right when I moved back. The most encouraging thing about that was that I met people who would be going through the same thing as me. We all became friends on Facebook and checked in with each other occasionally. The week mostly consisted of how TCKs go through grief, what our personalities were like, etc. Although all of that is valid and important, I already knew what my personality was, I already knew what kind of grief I had experienced. The one session that I felt was most helpful was the one where we all sat together on the floor in a big circle, and the leaders told us some things we would face living in America. Things like how to deal with peer pressure, how American teens think and live, the lingo that we would have to know, the list goes on. Like I said, I wish I had been more prepared for living in the States.

I transferred to my chosen home state of Colorado after a year in Illinois. I love that sometimes I get to choose where I’m from. I’m a lot happier here. Maybe it’s because I already had a year of American experience under my belt, maybe it’s because I’m in a more culturally diverse community. I’m going back to Malaysia this summer, and hope to close that chapter of my life and start off on something new. There’s so much more of the world to see, and I can’t wait to go and meet more people like me.

 
 

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