Reverse culture-shock. noun.
1. The shock suffered by returning home after a number of years overseas; results in unexpected difficulty in readjusting to the culture and values of the home country, now that the previously familiar has become unfamiliar
2. An emotional and psychological stage of re-adjustment; symptoms can range from feeling like no one understands you to feeling panicked that you will lose part of your identity if you don’t have an outlet to pursue new interests
As of February 14, 2014 I had been away from the USA for a year and a half, minus two very short trips.
As of today, I have been in back in the USA for one month. This should be prime time to be experiencing reverse culture-shock.
So am I struggling?
By chance, my re-introduction to the USA began a week before I arrived at the San Francisco International Airport. I had no idea that I would be leaving Mexico within the week.
It came during a Skype ‘n Wine date with my friend Megan. She insisted that I watch a commercial that had just aired between Olympic events. I believe her words went something like this:
You need to google “Cadillac commerical olympics.” I was really bothered by it, and it makes me think that you are going to be in for a shock when you to return to the USA!
Out of curiosity, I streamed this video from my bedroom in Mexico:
About halfway through, the weight of my jaw got heavier. By the end, my mouth was agape. I could not help it.
Was this a real representation of how American work culture had become? Did people really value more “stuff” above time spent spent exploring, learning, and bonding with loved ones? Or had the USA remained static and it was me who had changed? I began to worry about not fitting in.
It was obvious; I had adjusted to Mexican commercials. Ones in which the women are light skinned and hyper-sexualized. Ones in which stereotypes and social discrepancies are hyperbolized as a way of lightening up the darker parts of society. Ones like these.
Here we see an American soccer player stopped by a border patrol agent as he sneaks into Mexico illegally:
This is a classic example of the Mexican sense of humor. The commercial flips the paradigm, instead showcasing the US American seeking greater economic opportunity via a risky border crossing.
The second example pokes fun at the classist elitism that was common during the Spanish colonization period. To make it even more Mexican, the commercial uses humor to sell chili-covered candy:
Commercials are a great window into culture. They have very little time to convey a lot of information, so they must rely on symbols and cultural assumptions. Take these ads from Thailand, for example.
Thai people, by and large, believe in Buddhist reincarnation; the desires from one life carry into the next. A beer company taps into this belief to show the desirability of their product:
Whenever the main character in the commercial reincarnates, whether as a bird or as a fish, he dies in pursuit of that enticing beer brand!
Thai people also believe that ghosts are present in their daily life. Knowing this, a light bulb company touts that their bulbs are so bright that ghosts no longer seem scary:
See what I mean; commercials can offer an interesting peek into different cultures.
I have been in the USA for the past month for medical leave. Because I do not have very much mobility, my experience with the culture and with reverse culture-shock has been relegated to what I can see on television and from car windows.
While it is slight, it is present. While I am from this country, this is not Mexico.
Please note that the following observations are not made in judgement; they are merely part of my readjustment process. Anyone who has been through reverse culture-shock knows that it can be a confusing and isolating experience when you try to re-understand things that were once “normal” to you. That said, here are some commercials that have surprised me:
1. Dogs look fat and are treated like humans in America
These are the dogs that I have grown accustomed to seeing:
You do not touch these dogs; they are gritty and tough. They live on the street or on the roof, and have never seen a dog bakery or boutique shop. These are Mexican dogs.
2. Stay-at-home savior moms encourage their kids to waste food
Feminism aside, this commercial really bothers me. Throwing a paper towel in the trash can allows mom to forget about the global problems that are visible in the background of the ad.
There are so many hungry bellies in this world; wasting food is nothing to giggle about. And using a one-time disposable product made from unsustainable paper pulp makes our environmental crisis worse.
Maybe I am taking this commercial too seriously, or maybe I have seen too much in this world to let go. Watching it just breaks my heart a little.
3. It is never about enough. It is always about more.
I wonder if we will ever be satisfied with what we have. Will we ever have enough? Side note: wow people sure got into smartphones during the past year and a half.
4. American culture celebrates diversity, accessibility, and family unity
I really enjoy this commercial. The ad reflects the contemporary reality that there are a growing number of normal and happy interracial families in the USA.
Feminist me loves that the entire family cooperates with household clean-up, not just mom. And injured me loves that dad acknowledges his limitations, but still does everything that he can with a great sense of humor.
While I am clearly experiencing some light reverse culture-shock, I am happy to say that I also feel a big “welcome back home” from America and its people. I am reassured that I can find my place again, once I get through the cultural wobbles.
I have also been reminded that I watch way too much television while my injury keeps me glued to the couch. Don’t mind me, I am putting the computer down and turning off the TV for the moment. It is time for some good books and crossword puzzles!
Making me smile
- Other positive “welcome back home” perks: food! raspberries, lemons, walnuts, kale, black tea, milk other than cow’s milk, whole grains, cheddar cheese, nut butters, spice blends from other parts of the world, and the fact that vegetables are a standard on the American table. I could go on. Suffice it to say that nothing tastes better than the food from home
- While speaking Spanish to a man from central Mexico, he asked me: “are you Mexican? Is that why you speak like that?” He was politely confused why I could speak Spanish that was clearly not learned in a classroom
- This commercial from Mexico. I wonder if I will ever miss street tacos. Someday I probably will.