Reverse Culture Shock (or, Why do You Flush the Toilet Paper?)

I’m back home in the United States for a month, and feeling pretty happy about it! Having a wide variety of food options has been fantastic, and the scenery of the Appalachian mountains in the Tennessee valley is beautiful. Catching up with extended family has been great too.

BUT I’m also feeling a real re-adjustment process for the first time, which I somehow missed on the past two visits home. Here are some of the cultural differences that have jumped out at me this time around.

  1. Relying on cars for transportation. It feels inconvenient and stranded and expensive! It’s weird. I’m a huge fan of public transport and being able to walk places, and now I’m noticing a stuck feeling and a resentment towards a lifestyle that appears inaccessible. I actually have money in savings to rent a car, but I’m resisting because I’m stubborn and not quite ready to concede defeat. My thought process goes something like this: I miss long drives. But cars are bad for the environment. But being dependent on my mom for rides is not the same. But I could make it work without a car. But do I have to? There are so many things to see and do that require a car. And it’s only for a short time anyway. I should live a little. But I would have to almost re-learn how to drive. But it would be totally worth it.
  2. Flushing toilet paper. Okay. So it’s weird when you move to a place where you can’t do that, if you’re used to it, and your bathroom trash can seems so gross. It feels so sterotypically “third world” deprivation, but hear me out – it’s weirder to get used to flushing it! I feel so strange and guilty when I throw a dry wad of toilet paper into into a tank full of water for the water treatment facilities to have to fish out in the end. Aren’t we supposed to avoid flushing garbage? It’s paper trash, it should go in the trash can. I can tell I’m not going to get over this one quickly. Ugh. I feel so wasteful!
  3. Food. Here there is so much more eating out; refrigerators and pantries are heavily stocked, and there is a wide variety of food available. No wonder people gain weight when they come to the U.S. (and often lose weight when they leave)! I am NOT complaining.
  4. Interacting with others. Speaking briefly to strangers on the street, etc., is a very normal Southern thing, but I’m out of the habit. I’ve just spent around 8 months in Albania, which has a lot of staring on the street, especially heavily from groups of men towards women. It’s so much more difficult to process than the “Oh-look-it’s-a-foreigner” curious looks in east Asia. Women, you know exactly the threatened feeling I’m talking about. After a while, the accumulated weight of that uncomfortable barrage put me in a NYC-like state of mind, striding down the street unsmiling with blinders on, focused on not engaging anyone. And now I’m back in the South and suddenly I may seem rude and unfriendly, which is the opposite of how I usually like to come across. I’m hoping to re-learn that it is not only safe but even encouraged to engage with strangers in public again. Expecting a language barrier has also sadly broken me of the habit of briefly chatting with those around me in public settings, but now for a few weeks I get to enjoy the chance for increased casual interactions in everyday life.
  5. Tips They are not 10% like in the Balkans, but 15% in the US. Unfortunately, mistakes have been made within the last week. When I left east Asia it was worse – there was no tipping there, and it took me a while to realize that tipping was in fact expected in the Balkans! For goodness sakes please don’t make this mistake at home – restaurant/bar/cafe servers are hardworking, overqualified, and underpaid, and we should always tip them generously.
  6. Cost of living. Fortunately I was expecting spending to go way up in the U.S., so I’m happy to report that I’m mostly finished whining about it! (Strong emphasis on the word “mostly” there.) Conversely, I’ve noticed that when living a place with a lower cost of living, you end up spending more by local standards and frequently overpaying because everything seems so affordable. This issue tends to mostly resolve itself in a few months, tops, if you’re ever wondering.

Most issues like this also tend to resolve themselves after a few months. You’ll think about it and talk about it afterwards, but you’ll be used to it by that point, and that’s the real key. When it comes to issues of lifestyle and everyday customs, it really is true that you can get used to almost everything. Just be flexible, open-minded, and as non-judgmental as you can reasonably be. Roll with it. Major on the majors, minor on the minors. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Enjoy the ride.

You do NOT have to be okay with everything! That’s a misconception. Some things in this life we’ll never quite get used to (like slow moving lines or bad traffic), and some wrong things in the world (like corruption, misogyny, racial oppression, etc) I hope you never become okay with. You may find that certain other things like attitudes towards politics, childrearing, religion, social issues, the environment, work-life balance, etc, also don’t sit well with you. You might try and try but remain unhappy and unable to come to terms with where you are.

Word to the wise – you absolutely don’t have to. I feel oddly controversial saying this, but if you don’t like the attitudes or customs of the place you live, it’s perfectly morally acceptable to relocate for the sake of your mental health and highest well-being. “Bloom where you’re planted” – but if you get the chance to transplant a flower to a bigger pot with more fresh air, sunshine, and water, f***ing go for it. Please. Life is too short for anything else. And then you can learn to bloom there, or here, or anywhere.

It’s a big beautiful world out there, and there is a place somewhere for all of us. If you haven’t found it yet, then cheers to the search.


Published by gracexaris

Explorer, thinker, writer, teacher, woman.

2 thoughts on “Reverse Culture Shock (or, Why do You Flush the Toilet Paper?)

  1. When we moved back from Okinawa Japan last year it was a HUGE reverse culture shock. I still find myself at a loss sometimes—tipping was one of the things that was really hard to get used to again (often with subpar service compared to what we got in Japan).

    Liked by 1 person

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