Reverse Culture Shock in 5 Hours or Less...

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Reverse Culture Shock in 5 Hours or Less...

I returned to America for the first time in a year.  The flight from Charles de Gaulle to JFK was a thrill ride.  Afraid to fall asleep because of the schizophrenic man next to me (a flight attendant asked me if I wanted to change seats, but I didn’t realize why until too late) I resigned myself to a marathon of movies including Bridesmaids, Two Days in Paris, and that one with Ryan Gosling and Julianne Moore that just wouldn’t end. 

Diner breakfast...essential...
Landing in New York late Sunday night, I was all a-giggle, clutching my passport proudly, ready to rush to the diner for breakfast and the bakeries for cupcakes, but the reverse culture shock hit quickly.  Within five hours, five things had already made me realize that I wasn’t the same little American that left this place over three years ago…

1. You’re a…student? Usually in Paris when I tell people I’m a student, they are interested.  Where? What do you study? Do you like it?  When confronted at the passport control, awaiting my reentry stamp, the officer asked what I had been doing for a year.    
            -“Studying,” I said nonchalantly.
            -“That’s what they all say,” he responded. 
He continued to grill me, not believing that I was really studying at the Sorbonne, but he stamped my passport anyway and welcomed me back.  Sure, plenty of people abuse the system and become “students” for a visa, but I’m not used to this mentality vis-à-vis my friends in Paris who know I really am a student.

2. The metro – I mean, the subway – took forever to arrive.  We waited roughly 30 minutes for the A train to arrive before pulling up to the airport’s station loaded with at least two dozen sleeping homeless people.  We carefully chose a car that wasn’t doubling as a motel and sat on the train for a good long while before finally arriving in Manhattan.  I never thought I’d be pining for the RER B, but at least it’s quicker and more frequent – even if it does smell funky.

3.  Stoplights and signs were unmistakably huge.  I was in awe of the red hand and green humanoid silhouette that told us when to cross and when to stop.  There was no missing your cue as you crossed the street.  I forgot about and subsequently appreciated the blinking red lights or countdowns that act as a sort of yellow light for pedestrians.  Stoplights are not an integral part of my Parisian experience, but it was just a fun observation.

4.  Things have…changed.  Walking up 6th Avenue and realizing that over seven years have gone by since I moved to this place, well, it’s not really that incredible.  I don’t feel so distanced from this place and six years is really a drop in the bucket as far as time is concerned.  In six years, quite a few restaurants have changed hands, new places have opened, new illuminated skyscrapers were popping up. But it’s that fact that in such a small amount of time so much has changed.  In Paris, the hospital across the street from me hasn’t changed too much in the past 400 years, and New York doesn’t sit still for a hot minute.

American cupcakes from Butter Lane...
5.  I’m a terrible bilingual.  Well, that is, if I’m bilingual at all.  I can’t seem to hop between my languages as quickly as I’d like to, and code-switching fails ensue.  We’ve all been there.  “Pardon” pops out after you bump into someone.  “Merci” slips out when someone holds a door.  And my conversations have been peppered by those all too pretentious pauses of silence when you are translating back into your native language in your head.  “I just can’t remember how to say it in English,” I want to say, but that’s no longer cute now that I’ve lived abroad for so long.  It’s just kind of obnoxious.

Settled in a few days later, I’m now very well accustomed to the commercial-ridden television, the copious amounts of food, and the general disregard for how one dresses in public.  It’s good to be home.


  1. Yep, yep, yep. Was nodding and smiling all the way through your post as so many of the points you made were/still are true to me.... well apart from the interrogation you got at passport control. I am lucky that all I ever need is a cursory nod, but it seems like your guy was in a foul mood. Happy holidays!

  2. but some things have not changed at all in six christmases. for example, the tea man, the security guard at the french department, and that giggling fool of a girl you parade around town with.

  3. After a year in France, my biggest shock upon returning to the U.S. was trying to finish lunch in 30 minutes! Your post rings true for me, although, like Emma above, I've never had any problems with passport control, even at JFK. Welcome home!

  4. Next time skip the A train. It's worth the extra money to take the shuttle direct to Grand Central

  5. What got me when I moved back was when I was in a restaurant with my mom, just sitting and talking and I put my fork down to take a break and the waitress came over and tried to take my plate! I said, "I'm not finished." and she said, "Oh, I'm sorry, Your fork was down so I thought you were done." REALLY? Such a different way of doing things!

  6. Totally relate, I had very similar experiences when I returned to Australia from six years' teaching and travelling abroad. I've linked your post up to my reverse culture shock resources at so thank you for posting it!

  7. I don;t go home that frequently but am always amazed by the size of the buildings in NYC. It's kind of overwhelming and I am always happy to get down to the Village where there is more of a European feel. So was everyone calling you Eurotrash or a snob for your affected French ways? :P Was Butter Lane really your first stop for cupcakes? Always curious to know which are my friends'preferred NYC cupcakeries.

  8. Fun reading this. I remember my linguistic confusion upon my return to the US after 3 years on France. Sadly almost four years later of spending my days in english and my nights in French, I'm just as confused and it takes me double the time it should to find the words I'm looking for in either language! So much for becoming adept at switching! Use the culture shock card as long as you can.