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Culture Shock in My Own Country


Emily is currently readjusting to life in Utah, while working at Westminster College, and teaching communications courses at Salt Lake Community College. She recently won two ribbons for photography, and a ribbon for scrapbooking at the Utah State Fair. She’s looking for her next big adventure, and a handsome yet geeky sidekick. You can read about her adventures on her faith blog: http://fumblesinfaith.blogspot.com, or her daily life observations at http://emilylynn79.blogspot.com, or her snarky commentary on ugly clothes finds at http://ooglyduds.blogspot.com/.

I was so excited when my plane landed in Phoenix after coming home from a year in Peru.   I had been  counting down the days until I would return to the USA on my calendar. The day I was scheduled to depart was circled with a big inked circle that said “FREEDOM!!!”  Like a prisoner, I  felt trapped, anxiously awaiting my release date to sweet freedom. I  couldn’t wait to be free for the next phase of my life to begin. I thought I was ready.

I had held my future life back home up on a pedestal – like the ultimate prize waiting to be claimed at the end of a video game. I would have freedom, I would have my car, I’d be back with my old friends, I’d have access to my favorite foods, my normal life, and I’d fully understand the language. I’d be able to kiss my boyfriend. We’d go on real dates not involving a laptop and a spotty wifi connection.

In Peru, I had gotten used to a certain rhythm of life, a schedule, and a routine. I knew that life would be different in the dusty northern coast. I knew to expect to be challenged.  I  was naive about how hard it would be to return. I thought I’d just pick right back up where I left my life on pause in the United States.

Life would be perfect like a beautiful package, wrapped in shimmery paper with a beautiful bow dusted with glitter. It would be wonderful, perfect, and easy once I got to Utah.

Yet, the closest thing to that glittery package is a pair of outlandish pink glitter high heels my mom bought for me as an early birthday present bought the first week I was back in Arizona. Readjustment has been anything but.  After a week in Phoenix, I hit the road in my trusty Mazda to head north to Utah.

I felt like I had been in a coma and had just woken up. I hadn’t changed, but everyone around me had. Where did a year of my life go? It went by so fast in retrospect. Surprisingly, at the same time, during the daily teaching grind, it stood still. How does time do that? Did I really spend a year teaching English in northern Peru?  It already feels like a fading memory in the dreamscapes of my mind.

Progress and change had happened in my absence. Friends are engaged, divorced, married, or have had babies. Homes have been purchased, families have moved, and I’m left with nothing but memories of what was and what fit in a few Rubbermaid tubs. Going back to church in Utah and in English has been an adjustment too.

The reality of being back didn’t really hit home until I was home that I had no schedule, no plan, or direction. I have almost unlimited paths to take. I need work but where? What field? What industry? Where would I live? How would I manage family, friends, work, service, church, etc? I didn’t really consider that I would starting over from scratch. It is often overwhelming.  Now, I have two temporary part-time jobs in higher education.  I serve as an adjunct professor a local community college. What will happen after December after my grades are finalized?

Also, at my age, I shouldn’t be crashing with my grandmother. Yet, here I am. I hate not knowing what direction to move towards. I like progress yet I feel stuck in Confusion City. What do I do with my life? What is next? I have no clue and it is a hard pill to swallow. It’s maddening. My lush  romantic dreams have now been shattered, and I lost one of my biggest supporters. Now, I’m trying to pick up those remnants along with trying to rebuild a whole new life.

Everything is a BIG decision. Even at the grocery store, I feel overwhelmed with choices. No wonder making really big decisions such as careers, relationships, or living arrangements has left me overloaded with distress.

I haven’t had a lot time to unpack my year-long experience yet. I’m still in survival mode, rushing to reacclimate and restart a comatose American life. I can’t quite explain it, but I’m having pretty severe reverse culture shock – something I never anticipated as I dreamily planned my future triumphant return back to the United States.

When I was in Peru, I was on my own in another hemisphere. It left me only one choice – to turn completely to the Lord for help. Often, as I trudged to the university, I pleaded with the Lord to help me make it through one more class, one more night, or one more lonely weekend. I can testify that there was no way I could have made it through that experience without the Lord’s frequent tender mercies. It was a blessing and a challenge. I grew so much spiritually, emotionally, and professionally, while I thankfully shrunk in weight.

However, I had a powerful epiphany since I’ve been back. I had forgotten that no matter what my mailing address was, life will be rife with challenges and trials. It also never dawned on me before I came home, but I need the Lord’s guidance and help just as much – if not more – than I did in Peru.

I may not know where I am going, but I am not lost with the Lord as my guide. I can’t stand paralyzed in fear and doubt. The future is uncertain and my heart is broken, but I know that even in my own country, life requires the Lord.


14 thoughts on “Culture Shock in My Own Country”

  1. This is the first I have heard of Emily, and I am impressed! She lost herself in service and sacrifice for a year in Peru, expecting to return home to self, friends, family & life, only to find she doesn't fit anymore. It will be interesting to follow her life and experiences as The Lord leads, guides, and molds her into to accomplish a great work.

  2. Emily, I really feel for you. One thing expats don't talk about is how difficult the repatriation or adjustment to the home country can be after living abroad. After living in Sweden and Israel and then moving to New York, I was completely floored by how difficult it was to adjust to living in the U.S. again. I do know that it takes time and allowing oneself that time to adapt and adjust, does make a tremendous different. Good luck!

  3. Emily, I have also experienced this same thing after a life abroad. I've come to the conclusion that the reason it is so hard to return home is because our time abroad has helped us grow. there is no "going back" to the consciousness or life that we used to know because we are fundamentally changed by our experiences in another culture. It is too bad you weren't able to stay a bit longer in Peru. For me, my culture shock abated after the first year. It is a little bit like cable television, too. We haven't had cable for years and years. And, now that we have it, I really have no great need for it anymore. ;0)

  4. I think the reason that returning to your home country is so difficult is because it is suppose to be your comfortable home and because of your experience it really isn't. It has a name third world culture and those of us that live in that third world culture, where we are living a place where we are the foreigner long enough to be partly of that culture and then return to our home culture. It is hard to explain to anyone but another third culture person. This is why my children raise outside the USA and then returned as adults search out other third world people . Citizens of the world.

  5. Jennifer, I'm so glad you brought up the concept of Third-Culture Kids. I think it is really useful, especially for expats in trying to process their foreign experiences.

    However, Emily is not a third-culture kid. The definition of a third-culture kid is an adult or child who has spent a significant part of their developmental years growing up outside their passport country or outside of the home countries of his/her parents. Thus they kind of inhabit a third-culture zone. They often feel like citizens of the world, but belong to no particular place.

    My children have lived in three different countries outside of the U.S. and I consider them third-culture kids, because of what they have experienced, and what I anticipate they will experience. However, I am not a third-culture person because I grew up in one place in my home country. I don't think Emily fits the definition of third culture either because her foreign experience took place in her adult life.

    HOWEVER, I do find understanding this idea of a third-culture kid immensely helpful for any expat dealing with repatriation to one's home country, dealing with those foreign experiences, and making one's life meaningful and powerful.

    Even though I am not a third-culture kid myself, I do feel like I have lost a lot of the roots I knew because I no longer feel totally at home in my home country. My experiences have changed me so much that my edges, which used to fit so well within the paradigm of U.S. culture are slightly off balance now. I'm like that puzzle piece that you keep trying to force to connect with another piece, because it ALMOST connects, but not quite.

    I highly recommend the book: Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken. It can be found in paperback and kindle format at Amazon.

    Reading it helped me understand why I was feeling that way I did. It also gave me tools to help me move forward positively. Most importantly, it helped me think about the ways in which I need to look out for my kids to alleviate the special challenges they face as third-culture kids.

    Jennifer also raised a good point about her children seeking out other third-culture kids because they are most comfortable in that group. In a sense that becomes their identity. I feel the same way out my expat friends. I often relate to them in far more profound ways than those who haven't had similar experiences.

  6. Even though I've never lived abroad for a long period of time, I sympathize with the dilemma of having so many possibilities to choose between. It happened to me in college, when I had so many interests I had no idea how to pin myself down to just one, and it's happening now, as I think about my future and all the possibilities I can't discuss in public. I asked my home teacher for a blessing because I didn't feel confident enough to figure it all out, and the blessing said that many of them would be the right choice for my eventual goals, which is comforting in a way, but certainly feels unmooring in a way, that there's no one right way to choose and therefore I can easily reject the "wrong" ways.

    But as far as life moving on without you, that feeling can come no matter whether you've left the country or not. It grows for those of us who are single into our 30s and beyond—the feeling that our friends who have married and had kids and moved away get to live life, but our lives have somehow stayed packed in the attic, even if we're doing amazing things in our careers like traveling abroad or leading a company.

    My point is that it's kind of the way adult life often is, in my experience. You can never go back to how things were—you can only go forward, and sometimes it's hard, but even though the choices can be overwhelming, it's exciting, too, to have so many possibilities.

  7. I experienced similar disorientation coming home from my mission–that feeling of being 'home' and yet not really home is hard. I had served in another country and had gotten used to different languages, different foods, different timetables for daily routines, different transportation, etc. Not to mention the particular constraints of being a missionary. I had expected to come home, be released, and step back into my life. It was a bit more complicated than that.

    Another thing I hear in your post is the problem we can have of romanticizing other circumstances–we think that life will be easy when we change our situation in some way, but often we find that it is not. I love what you said about always remembering to turn to the Lord, no matter where we find ourselves.

  8. My sister is going to get to this point sooner than she realizes. It's not just different countries that can have this effect, it's simply coming back to the life you left when you took another road, and now want to head back. I'm trying to remind her that nothing will be the same — friends will have moved, babies born, marriages, divorces, all of it will make a difference.
    Jessie makes the point I meandered to: we romanticize that roach-infested diner because that's where we hung out with our friends, but as an adult, having been away, we now realized it wasn't the diner, but the time in our life.

  9. Random, I agree partly with your comment. It is true that we all experience culture shock to a certain degree as our lives change and we grow. However, speaking as one who has traveled and lived abroad quite a bit in the past few years, I think that the culture shock you experience upon reentry to your home country after really trying to immerse yourself in your host country culture, is far more extreme and lasting. You will be forever thinking about how your experiences compare, your thinking changes, and you find yourself often unable to share a critical part of yourself with people who simply don't comprehend what you've experienced.

  10. Tiffany,
    Good point. When we experience nostalgia, we can often find someone with whom we shared an experience. When we have experiences no one on this continent has experienced, it is much more difficult to share.

  11. I stand corrected, didn't know the phrase third culture had more formal definition. So what is the name of an adult who has lived outside the USA most of their adult life? ex-pat doesn't do it for me, as I never exed anything but adapted to my world location Returning to the USA was very difficult for me.

  12. I don't know, Jennifer Reuben. Perhaps Melissa dalton Bradford has an idea as she has spent the last 20 years moving from country to country. She is the author of the recently published book, Global Mom. And she has a really fantastic blog that is worth reading. http://www.melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com

    I first heard the term Third culture kids a few years ago. I haven't done any research into the adult side of things, which certainly better fits my own experiences.

  13. Expatriate means a person who lives outside of their native country. It isn't really anything about 'exing' anything. Wikipedia has a little more nuanced article you may enjoy reading. Just do a google search on expatriate and click on the Wikipedia article.

  14. Thanks for all the great comments and discussion about my piece. I appreciate it. As a side note, it's really been a struggle to be dumped about a month after returning to the US. But, having a priesthood blessing really helped on Sunday night. Go Go Gospel! 🙂


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