Culture shock’s got four stages that expats can pinball back and forth through, the experts say. That honeymoon period gives way to frustrations and annoyances faster for some and a bit slower for others. The irritations of the next stage can seem like interesting eccentricities of the culture once you’ve endured them and come to some sort of adjustment. And then, right when you think you’re about to assimilate, one of those quaint quarks sends you over the edge and you’re snuggly back in the frustration stage.
It takes years for most to get to the upper levels of the “adjustment” part, and most never actually assimilate, even if they’ve embraced the new culture.
All that is culture shock for ya, but there is a flip side: reverse culture shock.
I’m going home at the end of the week for the first time in two and a half years. My mother cried when I told her a few months ago about my decision to visit for the holidays, and friends have talked about meeting up whenever my schedule will allow it, but the trip is not all leisure.
When I got my wallet stolen more than a year ago, I didn’t replace my driver’s license, and then I just simply let it expire. Now I have to retake the written and driving test to get it back. I’ve also got a handful of other assorted official To-Dos while back.
All that aside, the thoughts taking up the most cognitive square-footage seem to be about simply being back. In general, I haven’t really wanted to go back home since I got here. This admission invariably invites reproach from Chinese friends, and most of them follow up their scowls with, “Don’t you miss your mother and father?” I try to explain that in our culture when the kids grow up it’s normal for them to branch out and make their way in the world without needing to tether themselves to mom and dad for support. Some respond by shaking their head and others just call me a bad son.
Now that my return is eminent, I’m just wondering what it’s going to be like. The North-East area of China, old Manchuria, has a lot of “Chinese” qualities, but Dalian also has an abundance of western perks. It’s not that I think I’m going to stick out when I walk through Wal-Mart, or that I’ll somehow forget how to order a Little Caesar’s Five dollar pizza—no, it’s actually the opposite. I’m worried that, after the rush of seeing family and friends those first few days, when they have to go back to work and I’m hanging around with no car, bus or Qinggui station to hop on, it’s all going to be…boring.
I’ve written about how common and routine life can get living abroad for extended periods, and I’ve even written about losing a bit of my objectivity concerning a lot of cultural details, but the truth is, even sitting in Starbucks becomes more interesting when you have to order in Chinese and you are having conversations with people in other languages.
Knowing everything that’s going on around me will be a nice benefit, but that lack of mystery can also lend itself to a rather lackluster outing when just walking down Hongmei street here for vegetables can be a fun and challenging experience. At this point, there are probably elements of American culture that I’ve demonized and other parts that I’ve inflated and championed way out of proportion, and truth be told, I don’t necessarily want my fantasies shaken just yet.
Don’t get me wrong; I know it’s time for me to go back. Two Christmases away is enough.
I’m probably just thinking too much about this.