What to Expect When You Return Home (Reverse Culture Shock)

About a year ago, I set off on a jet plane pointed to Vietnam. I quit my job, packed up my cozy little Seattle life into one suitcase,  and took the plunge to live in Vietnam as an English teacher. It’s been one of the best experiences of my life. But that’s not what this post is about. It’s about my experience returning home. I had been away for a year, and I was so excited to come home for Christmas. I had all these expectations to see my old friends, visit my favorite spots, and feel my old life again. But coming home wasn’t as glorious as I’d pictured it. I had experienced reverse culture shock.

Here’s what happened when I returned home after living a year abroad.

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Reunited with my two best friends

1. Everything’s Different

As I drove from the airport to my home just a few miles north of Seattle, I noticed so many differences. There were new buildings all over the place, I almost didn’t recognize certain areas that were once my stomping grounds as a kid. My close friends seemed to have different lives; I didn’t know their friends, they went to different bars and restaurants after work. I had left my best friend with a not-so-serious, casual boyfriend, and now they were talking about rings and engagements (WHAT?!).

It seemed like so much had happened in the past year, and I felt bad that I wasn’t home to witness it.

2. Everything is Exactly the Same

This completely contradicts number one, but both statements are equally true. While I feel like so much happened while I was gone, everything was exactly the same. My dog still enjoyed his favorite cow toy, my brother had the same job and same car, my mom still cleaned the house every Sunday, and my old coworkers still worked in the same office. So while I had a lot of things happen that made me feel like everything is different, there were so many things that stayed the same, and helped me realize how little I actually did miss while being away.

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3. My Perspective on Traffic Completely Changed

Being from Seattle, I understood what bumper to bumper traffic looked like. I remember leaving work at a certain time to beat rush hour and taking back roads when I left late. While living in Vietnam and driving in an aggressive environment, driving back home was…. annoying. I couldn’t just zoom in between cars on my motorbike, I had to respect lanes and distances between cars. And we actually wave at people that pull out in front of us? Wow. I was so amazed with how nice drivers were in the US.

4. My Appreciation for Nature Increased

Vietnam is a very big city with over 10 million people in it. This brings lots and lots of cement, and little space for trees and natural parks in the city. Driving through Seattle, I was reminded with how much green space there was. I could drive up to Green Lake, Discovery Park, and small parks in every neighborhood. If I’m feeling more adventurous, I can drive an hour to the mountains and see nothing but trees and snow. My appreciation for nature increased, and I was so thankful to be from such a green area.

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5. Hearing English Everywhere was Almost Overwhelming

The past year had been spent in a country that doesn’t have a lot of English speakers. Everywhere I went, I had to deal with not being able to communicate. I picked up bits of Vietnamese to get by, but no where near able to have a normal conversation with my server or the coffee barista. The first night I was home, I attended my friend’s office holiday party. Being surrounded by English speakers sounded foreign to me. I was so used to not being able to communicate with anyone, that now that I could communicate with EVERYONE, it was overwhelming. I had forgotten what small talk was, and almost preferred my non-communicative environment.

6. My Relationship with Food was Different

Vietnam cuisine is basically various dishes with rice, noodles, or some kind of soup bowl. I couldn’t go out for “Taco Tuesday” or bake cookies whenever I felt like it. Western food cravings no longer occurred. I had told my mom I missed homemade cookies, so she had a fresh batch waiting for me when I returned home. The old me could have divulged all of them in one sitting. But now, the food felt so heavy and rich. I couldn’t eat like I used to.

Everywhere I went I was more conscious about what was going into my body, and was less excited for western cuisines.

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7. Friends Either Shined Bright or Dull

Living abroad, it’s expected to lose touch with friends. It’s hard to consistently schedule Skype dates or to even text each other when there’s a 15 hour time difference to deal with. Even though the communication with my friends decreased, it was so nice to see the effort they put in to see me when I returned home. A lot of them tried to meet with me right away, and it was like nothing changed.

On the other hand, some friends that I had expected to see, but zero effort into seeing me. While it was disappointing, it was eye opening to see who I should put in work with to keep the friendship going. I think this was good overall, because it eliminates the “fake friends” from yout life. The relationships that you have to work to maintain, are some of the best ones when both sides put in an effort.

8. The Way of Life Seems so Easy

Vietnam is all about relationships. There aren’t a lot of shopping centers like Target that have everything you need in one place. So shopping is mostly about who you know and who they refer you to. You have to go to your aunt’s family friend for a hair cut, and then the neighborhood market for fruit, and then your coworker’s friend’s house for a razor. It’s all spread out, but it’s a system.

Coming home to the American system was surprising. I had forgotten how simple it was to go to Target and find everything I needed. It was such a weird concept to me.

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9. Money had Increased in Value

I went to my local Starbucks for a coffee my first day back, and paid $4.95 for my favorite holiday latte. Which sounds like an average price. Then I did the math to see how much that would be in the Vietnamese currency, and it came out to 115,000vnd. That could get me about 4 cups of coffee in Vietnam. I couldn’t believe how much money I was spending on such a simple item. It forced me to appreciate my privilege to be able to live and save in Vietnam.

10. I missed my Life in Vietnam

There were so many things that happened that I wanted to tell my friends back in Vietnam about. I had been spending my life with them the past year, it was weird not having them to go to now in my hometown. I missed my local coffee shop in my neighborhood, the ease of finding good pho restaurants, and my students from work. Coming home was so nice, but it allowed me to realize how much I enjoyed my life in Vietnam, and how happy I was with my decision to move there.

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Reverse culture shock is definitely a real possibility when moving home. But it’s worth every experience. Check out our post about when I initially moved to Vietnam, and feel free to contact us if you have any questions or concerns about your international move.

Happy Travels!

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