Reverse culture shock: the expats come home

As many of you know, we recently made a second-in-a-lifetime move from Spain to the United States. Many of our Stateside friends say, “Welcome home,” as we try to figure out what our new-old home is like again, after more than 36 years away.

I thought I would share some of our culture shocks with you. You might laugh or think them insignificant, but these stand out to us after living in Europe for a whole generation.

  • big cars, parking lots, highways, and lots of pickup trucks—Very few European roads are wider than three lanes each way, and only in major cities will you find three lanes. Although there are SUVs and even pickup trucks in Europe, they are majorly scaled-down versions. Eighteen-wheelers are also much smaller. How else could they wind up and down narrow mountain roads? Most cars are much smaller. You’ll be hard pressed to find large parking lots in Europe.
  • language—Since arriving, we have actually answered people we don’t know in Spanish, even if they ask a question in English. Oh, well … even this shall pass.
  • soft, fluffy toilet paper—No comparison.
  • overwhelming variety in stores—My husband was looking for a brand of deoderant he likes. There were many fragrance options for his brand. In Europe, there would be one or two options max. The cereal food aisle is a whole, long aisle. The same goes for everything. The sheer abundance in the USA is amazing.
  • waste—I am awed by the amount of non-careful buying and trashing that goes on. I’m not talking about our family members, but this is our general observation.
  • food additives—I knew a while back to anticipate this change. In Europe, we make most things from scratch, and there are no GMO foods. Here, it’s very different. Have you ever read the ingredient list on a bottle of salad dressing, for example? It’s a whole paragraph including colorings, preservatives, and sugar syrups.
  • customer service—Gotta give it to the USA for nice, patient people whose job it is to serve you.
  • dressing down—In the Detroit airport, we saw one young woman wearing colorful, fuzzy winter pajamas and slippers, at midday. In Europe, you might spy someone emptying the trash in a housecoat, but you would never see anyone out in public in pajamas. Never. Sloppy, filthy clothing—even work clothes—would not be worn out on the street. Here, it’s another story entirely. Also, men wearing shorts and coats will take some getting used to.
  • being able to run more than one appliance at a time—In Europe, you pay for a certain amount of electricity. If you go over that, the lights dim or the electricity cuts off altogether. Here, one can run the washer, dishwasher, microwave, oven, and fans at the same time. Luxury!
  • non-gluten—European people (with few exceptions) never worry about gluten. They bake the best breads and pastries in the world. Here, potato chip bags are marked “non-gluten.” I guess that means potato chips are thereby healthy?
  • style—This year in the USA, fall fashion is easy. All you need is something animal print, preferably leopard, something buffalo check, and ankle boots. In Europe, though once in a while one might spy leopard print on a scarf or shoes, I cannot even imagine that anyone would wear big, red buffalo checks.
  • clothes dryers—Will I ever grow accustomed to these?
  • huge gallon jugs of milk—In Europe, we have little cartons that hold one liter (quart), and they don’t require refrigeration. Love them! I’m building muscles while pouring milk in my coffee. Win-win.
  • self check-out—A genius thought of this.
  • watery coffee—Americans think coffee should resemble Earl Grey tea. Europeans think black means black.

I’m sure there are many more shocks in store for us. Living here is like being ducks out of water, although we’re supposed to be coming home. Our home was the Basque Country. Almost as if we were immigrants, we are discovering the New World of the USA.

I am thankful that the Lord never changes and He cares about our goofy moments and promises to be near.

There’s a Bible story about crossing the Jordan River. Joshua commanded the tribes of Israel to place twelve stones where the people carrying the ark stood—on dry ground, in the middle of the river. Later, those stones were moved and piled up again, as a monument.

During our intercontinental move, I have often felt the urge to erect a pile of stones of remembrance. Each step of the way, and even as we begin to settle in here, we have witnessed God’s hand working.

When your children shall ask their fathers in time to come, saying, What mean these stones? Then ye shall let your children know, saying, Israel came over this Jordan on dry land. For the LORD your God dried up the waters of Jordan from before you, until ye were passed over, as the LORD your God did to the Red sea, which he dried up from before us, until we were gone over: That all the people of the earth might know the hand of the LORD, that it is mighty: that ye might fear the LORD your God for ever (Joshua 4:21b-24).

If you were ever an expat and came home, feel free to share your “reverse” culture shock moments with us.

Have a lovely Thanksgiving, wherever you are!

14 Replies to “Reverse culture shock: the expats come home”

  1. My husband and I returned in June after serving for 25 years in the Philippines. Now my husband is teaching at Ambassador Baptist College and I am working in the library. I think the one thing that has been so hard is learning to use all the technology. I seldom used my cell phone in the Philippines, but here I’m having to check it constantly. At work I had to learn more about how to use email, and then there is the school system. Students check their grades online or look for a library book online too. So much of our communication is text or email. The copy machine in the library has its own little screen and is so confusing. Getting the water and electric changed into our name at the new house was done online with a little frustration. If it doesn’t work right there’s no one to talk to. My husband has taught through zoom and had to record classes for students in quarantine. I know some other teachers have had difficulties so its not just a problem for us. Sometimes just trying to pay for something at the store is difficult and certainly not fast. The Philippines was mostly cash with only an occasional check, and rarely a credit card. On the up side, we’ve been able to stay connected to our friends in the Philippines. So that’s been good. We anticipated the stores with the abundance, and so forth, so that was not a big surprise. We’re in a great place and enjoy working with the young people here. I feel like the last few weeks we’ve started to feel more at home. I hope all is going well for you.

    1. Wow! We didn’t realize you were here. May the Lord bless your special ministry with the college students. The technology curve is big. I just got my first smart phone. Called my sister by mistake this evening.

  2. Sending hugs! 🤗🤗🤗

    A couple things I found shocking when I came back for college, besides what you have already listed—The electrical outlets!!!
    the lack of independence of public transportation in Europe (when you have no car), everything tasting different, no people on the street when one takes a walk around town, the huge churches, the many real Christians you can bump into on a regular basis, Skirts being mostly for Christians (in Spain, skirts are basically universal in the summer),
    how expensive a good loaf of artisan bread is, how expensive real chocolate is, and aged cheeses. I missed those a lot along with the awesome European bakeries with their artisan bread fresh from the oven and delectable pastries. 😋😋😋😋

  3. I had to smile at your list. Some of these things you wrote about were reasons I was wanting to leave the US and do missions. The waste! I hear you on this. You should see the stuff Trader Joes gives our church FOR FREE because they “can’t sell it.” And the sloppy appearance drives me crazy! My kids are always asking why that guy has pants falling off!

    But I must say…I don’t think self checkout was created by a genius! Glad to have you “home” but I’m sure it will be a transition. Grateful for your ministry, especially in my life for those eight weeks and since then.

  4. When we came home from Spain, the GIs called it the land of wooden houses and round doorknobs. 😊. We didn’t have real milk or regular lettuce. Our milk was reconstituted. This was all from the base commissary. But we loved Spain, and the Spaniards were warm and friendly. This was 1962-65.

  5. If I haven’t said it before, welcome home! Thanks for sharing some of the differences. Unfortunately not all customer service is helpful and friendly!

    I hate the food additive situation, Yet organic is more expensive and may just be a label without actually being healthier.

    Re gluten: I am afraid some manufacturers try to just promote gluten-free as more healthy, and that hurts the people who actually have problems with it. Some are gluten-sensitive, some are actually allergic. I’ve read articles that say the explosion of the number of people with gluten issues is due to the changes in the way wheat is is being bred to make is hardier. Plus, to save time and money paying people to weed, wheat has been bred to resist Round-up (a weed-killer), so growers can douse their fields with Round-up to kill the weeds but let the wheat live. Who knows what that is doing to our bodies–and whether it is done to other crops as well. . My daughter-in-law and grandson have serious trouble with gluten, so we appreciate the labeling of gluten-free products.

  6. Well, welcome back to the land of plenty–plenty of choices, plenty of waste, plenty of political nonsense :). I haven’t done a good job of keeping up with you, so didn’t know you were back to stay. Are you living in PA?

  7. When we arrived in Japan in 1970, the area we worked in was still recovering from WW 2. Most of the roads were gravel, no beef in the stores, basically root crops all winter long. By the time we left it had transitioned to a very modern society, where anything you wanted had become available. In 2006 we moved back to the States after living and working in Japan for 36 years. But our transitioning period was actually gradual as we switched to furlough replacement missionaries, so we were in and out of the US for the next 11 years, and most of those assignments were in various parts of Japan. Our experience was very different since we were continuing in an ongoing ministry and making plans, rather than like others who were busy in their church plant right up until the last day and then arriving in the states wondering what God had for them next. Culturally, we miss many things about our adopted homeland. I still have a hard time seeing people dress so casually here. We miss the politeness and quality service we had in Japan. America, in many ways, has lost the personal touch and pride in providing good service. Another cultural difference is the amount of deception in advertising. For example, something is offered for a certain amount, but if you fail to read the fine print, you find yourself caught in a scheme where after so many months the price jumps up, or if you don’t cancel within so many days you are locked into purchasing a product you find you don’t want. But I think the most difficult is seeing the changes in some of our churches, not all, of course, but some. But we are so grateful to the Lord for leading and guiding us each step of the way. His grace for these changes we face is always sufficient!

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