Some Post-Asia Reverse Culture Shock

Reverse culture shock

I’ve returned home before during the course of this insane jaunt around the world, once because I got sick and another time to surprise my family for the holidays. Each return was a shock to the system: weatherwise, pricewise and peoplewise. But my return this week from Bangkok to attend the 2nd annual Travel Bloggers Exchange Conference (TBEX) has proven much more difficult than my other ‘re-entries’. Reverse culture shock is a real concern for long-term travelers, so if you feel it I am here to say: you are not alone.

I think there are several reasons for my current disconnect, each of which contributes to the otherworldly, awkward feeling of being an outsider in a city I used to call home. Part of it likely stems from my neighbourhood – the Sesame Street Soi where everyone yelled out a greeting as I walked down the street and stopped me to see what I was eating at that moment (I almost never walked around without food – this is Bangkok, after all) and what I planned on eating later that day.

In addition, I was subsumed within the tumultuous events in Bangkok these last months, from peaceful protests, to my area being declared a live fire zone, to actual fires raging in parts of Bangkok. It makes coming back to New York stranger still, since those events occupied a significant amount of brainspace until quite recently, and understandably no one here really wants to hear about them. I also spent a full seven months in Asia this time around; notwithstanding the political roller-coaster, there would still be some amount of reverse culture shock in coming home for the summer.

And against the broad canvas of my general readjustment, I’ve noticed a series of ‘holy crap’ moments, whereby I need to remind myself that life is just not the way it was a few days ago.

Reverse Culture Shock from Asia to North America

1. Table Napkins or Toilet Paper? My first thought when eating out this week: wait, you mean we each have a napkin?  For the last 7 months, restaurant napkins unspooled from a cartoon-clad plastic dispenser of toilet paper that sat in the middle of the table. Napkins were first come, first serve – and meals generally ended with a tiny pile of discarded paper next to my plate. I went for dinner with my friend Cheryl this week and watched her put her napkin on her lap, suffering my first etiquette disconnect. Did I really used to do this? I guess so.

2. Waiting for All Food to Arrive. Common courtesy generally dictates that you wait for everyone to get their food before you dig in, with small wiggle room for dishes that absolutely must be eaten hot (read: fajitas) or where someone skips a course. Not so in Asia, where you will easily receive your dish well after everyone else at the table has finished theirs. Waiting for everyone to eat would be a travesty as most of the table’s food would be cold by the time that lowest-common denominator moment arrived. I need to remind myself to wait when eating in a group since my instincts are now to dig in first, look around later!

reverse culture shock - the food
Delicious pad si ew noodles from the Pumpkin Lady on my street in Bangkok

3. Portion Control. Or lack thereof, obviously. My style of eating has evolved from ‘obsessed with food but saving it for meal times’ to ‘obsessed with food, ergo every moment is meal time’. In Thailand, grazing is a national sport, and I fit right in. Walking down the street, one is bombarded by an infinite series of culinary options, unfolding in front of you like your own personal buffet. But portions are small, and you eat until you are full and then move on until you feel that familiar pang of longing for those perfectly grilled pork skewers and sticky rice. Portion sizes here in the US are astoundingly, disturbingly large. I sense a summer of appetizers (or a series of leftovers) for me.

4. Prices. Were I to eat in New York the way I did in Bangkok, I would be bereft of funds – quickly. But when a skewer of pork and sticky rice cost 5 baht (15 cents) each, and a full plate of noodles or chicken curry runs me under a dollar, money goes quite a long way. I spent more on a subway ride in NYC than I did on food for an entire day in Thailand. While I know this is merely the reality of returning to North America, it doesn’t make the sticker shock any less painful or jarring.

5. Where are all the Ladies? My life in Bangkok revolved around a set of talented ladies who made my existence much more enjoyable. I would go to my Coffee Lady in the morning and chat with her about her day, while stopping in to say hello to my Tailor Lady next door. I would eat dinner at Soi 6’s Pumpkin Lady, and lunch at the Som Tam lady just next to the Ratchawithi intersection. I would wave to my Shake Lady when I returned home, stopping at the Fruit Cart Lady for some pineapple as I walked down my street. Where have all the ladies gone? Sadly, life in North America is too fast paced for a different, specific cart to satisfy each need. But I often find myself thinking of these women and their impact on my life in Bangkok; I looked forward to talking with them every day, and miss their radiant smiles.

reverse culture shock - the prices

6. Smiling at Everyone. Speaking of smiling, having spent 7 months smiling at everyone and everything, be it in response to a smile from someone else or just because it is the thing to do, I am hopelessly used to it as a matter of course. This smiling thing is not par for the course in New York, and the customary reaction has been wariness (what is this crazy girl smiling at?), confusion (why is she smiling at me? WHY?) or, from those under the age of 10, a smile back. That’s not to say NY isn’t friendly – it is – it’s just a different breed of friendly, moving on a separate plane of existence from the one I was accustomed to. I wonder if I will be surprised at all the smiles in reverse, when I head to Nepal at the end of the summer.

7. Personality-Drenched Public Transportation. The complex network of buses, trains and taxis in New York is both thorough and effective – but it’s not as exciting navigating through a city like Bangkok. There are no motosai taxis, the orange-vested, fearless motorcycle drivers who are the lifeblood of Bangkok’s tangled web of streets, sois and back-alley shortcuts. There is no BTS Lady, yelling out the stops on the SkyTrain in her comforting, lilting voice. There are no boats along tiny klong rivers running deep in the heart of downtown, hectic and fast, a secret snapshot into everyday life amidst the concrete. And there are no tuk-tuks belching smoke into the air, their drivers giggling madly as they whisk you about town. Here, there are traffic rules. And they are enforced. This is probably good for my life’s trajectory, but it’s nowhere near as fun.

reverse culture shock, public transportation
Soi 6 motorcycle taxi drivers

8. My Face is No Longer Melting. I never truly discovered ‘hot’ until I stayed in Bangkok through their shoulder season. April was beyond hot, the heat hitting you like a wall the second you stepped outside, leaving you drenched with sweat in seconds. Unless you are Thai – and thus do not sweat. But us farang were a soggy, sweaty, pasty-white mess. Whether I walked slowly, carried a wet handkerchief and drank water like it was going out of style, the net takeaway was that my face was melting off. Conversely, the summer in North America feels comfortable and cool – a good thing as people complain about these last few 32-degree days in NY.

9. Tall Beautiful Woman? Not Necessarily a Ladyboy. I do not want to generalize too thoroughly here, but if you stroll through Bangkok and spot a tall, beautiful Thai woman – chances are she was born a man. Some of the most stunning, delicate and well-dressed women in Bangkok were the ladyboys and they were a ton of fun to spend time with (as a woman, of course). I am still at the point where, upon seeing a tall woman here in NY, I glance at her hands and feet. An unexpected and funny leftover from my months in Asia.

10. Bargaining. I went to buy two popsicles near Battery Park city this weekend, and when the vendor told me the price, I said cajolingly “Come on, I’m buying two –  you can’t give me a better price?” Understandably, his look indicated that I had just grown a second head. Bargaining was a way of life, be it in stores, market stalls or wandering down the street in search of food. Not so in North America.

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Readjustment comes with its own set of perks, however: it is cherry season here, and I have been happily consuming bags of them, leaving red stains on my notebooks and countertops. I missed sharp cheddar cheese like it’s nobody’s business, and I am planning to eat poutine (my province’s culinary claim to fame) this weekend.

For more about reverse culture shock, see this resource page from Students Abroad, and this piece from CNN by a Peace Corps volunteer upon returning home.


35 thoughts on “Some Post-Asia Reverse Culture Shock”

  1. You beat me to it! I’ve been keeping a list of things I miss about Bangkok (and all of Southeast Asia for that matter) since I got on my plane on June 4. Naturally, they are quite similar to yours and nearly have are having to do with fabulous ladies and food. Can’t wait to see you, enjoy DRIED mangosteen goodness and commiserate about the lack of Asia in our lives!

  2. I love this! Usually when we Americans consider cultural differences, it’s from OUR perspective, and “how come they don’t do this in” fill-in-the-blank. I like seeing it in the reverse. I’ve never been gone long enough to experience culture shock or reverse culture shock, but I can imagine it’s pretty common for long-term travelers.

  3. So funny I was just thinking of writing a post about how some things are done better in Central America like water that comes in plastic bags, do we really need that thick plastic bottle.

    BTW writing from Nicaragua, sweat dripping from my face at 5pm and this is technically not summer :)

  4. Haha, bargaining for popsicles…

    It’s interesting to hear that even your third time returning home after an extended period, you still felt that feeling of alienation in the place that should feel like home.

    We’re heading back to Aus next week after 6 months in Mexico and, being our second time returning home, we were hoping it might be less confronting because we know what to expect… but perhaps not huh?

    Great read – cheers!

  5. Very interesting. I’ve been hearing about a lot of culture shock as North America’s travelers return home for TBEX.

  6. Ha,
    great article, Jodi! We are looking forward to immersing ourselves into Thai culture, and you’re post reminds us of our trip last year.

  7. I’ve been overseas 32 years…I stop saying ‘back home’ years ago. Thailand is it for me.
    Good luck ‘back home’.

  8. Hey, Just wanted to say i love these types of posts the most from you. It really shows that you’ve taken alot away from every place you’ve been to. Keep it up. please?

  9. Nice, and pretty spot-on. On my first trip back to CanadEh after my first year in Bangkok I made a beeline for a Subway sandwich shop (this was before they had them here and thus, they were a much-missed delicacy). After a year of eating on $5 a day I nearly punched the guy in the face when my footlong roast beef sub came to over $7. Hurry back, Jodes, I will buy you your first big plate of pad si ew!

  10. I got back to Australia last night from six weeks in southern Thailand and Im experiencing this. We went to the casino to watch Australia V Serbia and there was so much drama and “white people issues” and the food was hideous. I was missing Thailand so much!

    While its fantastic to cuddle my cat and drive my car again, I miss the simplicity of life in Thailand, the lack of rules and regulations and the good food and hospitality.

    The value system here is so different and unnecessary. People are so misguided. The more you have, the more issues you have, the more unhappy you are…

  11. Great post! I can really identify with you

    You can always come to the middle east to practice your bargaining skills :-)

  12. Jodi–I absolutely LOVED this post. Currently in start-up business mode, I’m a starving armchair traveler. I feel like I left my desk for a moment–your words touched all my senses. thank you! Lisa

  13. What I miss most about Thailand whenever I go back to Canada is not being able to get a foot massage anywhere and anytime I want! Back in Canada they have this strange system called making an appointment for a massage.

  14. Your food ladies are adorable, I don’t blame you for missing the heck out of them, and everything else wonderful about se asia. Thank goodness for a traveler immersion in NYC! Can’t wait to hang out!

  15. This is my third week back in the US after spending 11 months in Thailand. It’s nice to know I am not the only one going through reverse culture shock. It’s been quite difficult. I totally har you on the overgrown portions of chicken and vegetables. It’s just not normal! Another readjustment has been slipping back into the relationships I left behind. One of my friends said she doesn’t recognize me. I got used to laughing at mishaps like forgetting a parking ticket. My friend didn’t think it was funny. I hope to keep the smiles of Thailand alive in me throughout my re-adjustment back into life in the US. At the same time, I definitely look forward to going back to my hometown of NY where the streets are walking and bikeriding-friendly. Chokdeekah!

  16. Totally loved this post, especially #9. Hahahahaaaa!! Fantastic. And I hear you on the portion sizes…I mean, they’re big in Canada too but when we go down to the U.S. even *I* am defeated by the gigantor tuna melts. Really crazy. Hope you enjoy your home time!

  17. Ha, I have been relishing green space, quiet, room to move around, abundance of free books, and lack of pollution, but it has only been a couple days back from Bangkok. Cheese and beer, of course, as you know. But #6 is particularly funny. While this being the Midwest means smiles and neighborly chit chat, I am WAAAAAAY over the top at the supermarket as I giggle and pounce on the stuff I’ve been missing and look right at people with a sh*t eating grin and say HI just BEGGING them to respond so I can start a conversation. Even too much for here! :)

    Last two days I spent on the Chao Phraya, up and down and around. I do love that. But right now I am savoring the “nice sleeping weather” at night here in Madison and the not quite too warm days.

    One thing I don’t like in the English-speaking world: all that stuff that was just background noise is now audible and comprehensible and I have to listen to all the painfully nutty/banal/dumb things too many people talk about all day for everyone to hear. Yikes.

    Back in fall I’m sure. See you before then?

  18. What a great piece, thank you so much. I’m day-dreaming of living in Thailand and visiting Asia more and more everyday, and planning to Hop to it next Spring/Summer.

    Meanwhile I’m researching all I can, reading those wonderful stories from you all, and am still not deterred. :)

    The only concern I have is the heat! I’m a Canada boy who actually likes Winter! I wonder how hard it’ll be to adjust. Do western people have their A/C ON all day and night when living there?

  19. Next weekend will mark my one-year anniversary of moving back to New York after living in Bangkok for 8 months or so; I miss it more and more as the days go by, and am aching to go back “home”. What always gets me–maybe comforts me, actually–is knowing that (nearly) everything and everybody I miss is there right now, eating, shopping, drinking. Everyday life is going on… which just seems so impossible sometimes from the other side of the globe.

    Nice to know that as soon as I get off the plane at Suvarnabhuni (sp), and step outside into that taxi line, and smell that Bangkok air and see my glasses steam up, it’ll all feel so normal again. Being in Bangkok, being in Southeast Asia. Ahhhh… I really do miss it.

    Great post Jodi, really enjoyed it.

  20. Jodi, it was great meeting you at TBEX this weekend. This was my first visit to your blog, and I really enjoyed reading it! I’m looking forward to digging into it more deeply soon.

  21. @Ayngelina: I loved drinking out of a plastic bag in Asia. The locals were so confused as I giggled furiously when walking around with my cha yen in a bag, dripping water condensation everywhere. Small pleasures, right?

    @Andrew: I too thought that I would be less jarred by my re-entry, but I suppose this part of the trip was both incredibly intense and was the first time I really led a more expat-life instead of just passing through a particular place. Though I lived in the Philippines with a family for a few months, I didn’t go home straight from there, which made easing in more simple when I did.

    @Jason @Lisa @Paul: Thank you for reading & for your kind comments.

    @roro: TBEX is in Vancouver next year and we are partying like it’s 1999.

    @Greg: I also miss being able to REACH THE GROUND when I sit on a chair, or on public transportation – something you don’t need to worry about, being a giant and all.

    @The Dame @Shirley @Brian: It is great to hear your stories, so similar in sentiment to mine. And of course it’s shocking to hear the general themes of most conversations here – very myopic. That’s not so say people in Asia don’t talk about relationships or interpersonal drama. Of course they do! But it has been shocking to hear the complaining – so much complaining – about the weather, about having to drive somewhere, about obligations that people are lucky to ‘have.’ Big shock to see and hear.

    @Matt: My country uses Celsius. And yours signed the treaty to implement it. After so many years in NY, I still cannot get used to Fahrenheit.

    @Kevin: YES. The background noise! My first night here I went out for dinner and was visibly flinching. It was so loud, so obnoxious…people were talking about stupid things. And I could understand it all. That background buzz you can easily shunt aside in Asia is un-ignorable here. Yikes is right.

    @Gerard: I’m not going to lie. It is HOT in hot season. But you get used to it. Not the heat, but you get used to sweating your face off as being the norm, and you move from there. Conversely, it’s 20 degrees C in NYC right now and I’m wearing a scarf and boots. So, there’s the other side of the coin.

    Thanks for reading everyone! It’s so comforting to see the responses from those of you who’ve been there and who have been confronted with something similar.


  22. Wonderful and insightful post! I would definitely have reverse culture shock as well after spending that much time in Asia. That must be really frustrating having to pay so much more for everything! (I’m so envious of those cute $2 sandals). New Yorkers definitely don’t have a reputation for being friendly, but if you came to Austin, where I live, you would find that people are so friendly, smile all the time, and say hi to strangers. I have heard that people in Thailand are extremely friendly, though.

  23. So sorry to hear that it’s been tough, but can totally relate – there is a pace to life that you develop outside of the US, particularly in your case since you settled into Bangkok for so long! Sending you hugs and warm thoughts to help overcome the culture shock :-)

  24. Great post! Totally relate!

    We left Australia to move to the United Arab Emirates in 1998 and have spent most of our time in the Middle East, Europe and Asia ever since, so I feel that disconnect every year we return ‘home’ for a visit.

    We’ve just arrived in New York for two weeks for Grantourismo (so bummed we just missed out on TBEX) and I really feel like an alien here. It’s 17 years since we were last in the USA, and I’m really struggling to understand quite a lot of little things about American culture and New Yorkers! Need a translator I think! :)

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  26. Hey!

    Was just recommended your blog by @thaifaq on Twitter. Really enjoying it!
    Living in Tokyo, I’ve often noticed people who come back from other places in Asia trying to bargain their way through everything and it came as a bit of an annoyance sometimes…got sick of having to say, “yo – things aren’t done like that here.” But I can totally understand it. The reverse culture shock always seems to be the worst for me. Going somewhere new, you expect it so much. But going back somewhere that once was completely familiar, it strikes you in a completely different way.

    Nice to hear about your travels!

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  28. I had a similar experience when I returned from Africa the first time. Even though we were away only 3 weeks, we were completely immersed in the life there, and met so many wonderful people. We had enormous culture shock when we returned – the noise, the highways, the materialism and the pace of life here! I missed Africa hugely – took me months to get past it. I wasn’t sure what to do about it – I’m not in a position to leave my life here for any great length of time – but eventually I decided to pitch the idea of an educational (in the broadest sense of getting out and learning about the world) travel program to the college that I work at, and they loved the idea. So, now I’ve started leading trips around the world and opening up new horizons for many people who wouldn’t go to our destinations on their own, and I’m finding that quite exciting and fulfilling. I’m also setting up a series of workshops on global citizenship – it will be interesting to see how those go. I look forward to following more of your travels and commentaries!

    1. Erica, thanks for reading & I really like the mentality behind your site, especially the part where you wrote: “I believe that if we’re to have any hope of peace on our ever-shrinking world, we need to learn about the other people on it, in person. It’s impossible to understand the sense of place and the viewpoints of other people until you experience their homelands for yourself. ” This is a fundamental part of why I travel as well, and the more that I can convince people to see things from a truly ‘ground’ level, the better.

      Glad you stopped in and terrific that you’ve been able to parlay your trip into a teaching experience for others.

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