A few thoughts on reverse culture shock…
I returned from a year-long adventure of living in Germany just over a month ago, and now I’m suffering from a peculiar ailment known as “reverse culture shock.” Ah, culture shock. I thought I’d seen the last of you, but you keep rearing your ugly and confusing head. It’s the little things that keep me guessing. Feeling confused at actually understanding every conversation around me without needing to pay attention. Free glasses of water presented without any judgment (“Would you like some free tap water?” asked no European waiter ever). Never needing to carry around any cash with me because debit cards are accepted everywhere. PEANUT BUTTER EVERYWHERE.. Mostly good things, but they feel new and foreign. That’s what RCS is all about.
I missed you, old friend…
German life/European life took quite a bit of getting used to, but once I embraced a new way of life (working hard to eavesdrop/dehydrating by drinking beer instead of water/the heavy wallet stuffed with bills and coins), returning to what I could call my “default” has actually been a challenge. Here are a few interesting things I’ve been experiencing since my epic return to the U.S.:
For my first few months in Hannover, I carried around an illegal can of pepper spray in my pocket as I walked the five short minutes from the train stop to my flat. It took me some time to realize that I didn’t need to be hyperaware of every person I saw on the street. Nobody was carrying a gun, nobody was following me, nobody made me feel threatened or unsafe. Even in Italy where the men are notoriously loud cat-callers, I wasn’t actually worried that someone would shoot me. It’s a pervasive fear that I didn’t realize how much I hated until it returned. I left my pepper spray with a friend in Germany, but I’m already missing the sense of security it provided. I feel like I actually need it now that I’m back in the States.
Femme fatale pepper spray.
I got totally spoiled by the flawlessly designed German transportation systems. In my city, there was a subway/streetcar system, bus routes, commuter rails, and bike lanes. Oh, and it was completely walkable. If I wanted to get away for the weekend, I could rely on any number of regional or intercity train lines, long distance buses, safe and reliable carpools…
The Hannover city train system.
And now I live in Boston, which is actually the most transportation accessible city I’ve experienced in the U.S. It’s got a decent metro and it’s easy to get to lots of little towns by commuter rail or other actual cities by bus or train. But the one thing it’s missing is a planned, organized system of bike paths for cyclists to use instead of car travel. Some roads do have them, but I can’t count on a safe ride without planning way ahead or going out of my way to find bike paths. I had a car from age 16 until now, and being carless in a society completely dependent on them as the primary mode of transportation is taking some getting used to. I have to do a lot more planning, and some places are simply inaccessible.
During Fulbright orientation, we were given a massive handbook with ideas for mock lessons tailored to teach German children about English language and American culture. My absolute favorite lesson plan? Teaching Germans how to use small talk. The art of small talk is actually quite complex-keep open body language, use positive greetings, keep the topic light.
The stereotype of Germans being unfriendly isn’t really true, it’s just a cultural misunderstanding. Small talk doesn’t exist there, and the idea of talking to talk feels unnatural. You won’t be greeted at a store, the cashier won’t talk to you as they scan your groceries, and don’t even think about mentioning the weather to the post office clerk. Your efforts will be met with a blank, vaguely confused look and stony silence. The stereotype goes both ways though: where Americans tend to find Germans to be rude, Germans find us superficial and overly concerned with being polite.
After a few attempts to fill silence with some light chit-chat, I gave up and began to appreciate not having to put in the effort to keep an airy conversation afloat. Now that I’m back, I’ve found myself acting really suspicious when someone asks me “How are you?” or “Nice weather today, right?” I get really defensive. “FINE. I’M FINE.” I don’t know how to do it anymore. How do I go back to being American??
That’s really where I’m at right now. I’m so happy to be back near my family, friends, and the things I know and love, like clothes dryers and Mexican food, and most importantly, my cat.
Right now, home feels like a distorted, funhouse version of itself. But I’ll settle for some German beer in my Boston apartment, learn how to bike in traffic, eat a ton of peanut butter, and reteach myself some small talk…and maybe even begin to appreciate America again for all its twists and turns.