blue sky

My Chinese visa expired. Time out. R.I.P.  My future hangs in the grasp of the Chinese consulate in D.C. In the meantime, I’m banished back to the U.S.

I live abroad (for anyone who hasn’t puzzled that one out yet) and I go back to the U.S. about once a year. Sometimes due to funerals, weddings, visa problems, and anniversaries, I go more often. Sometimes due to full-time jobs and backpacking trips, I go less.

I have a pretty set routine when I visit my family in North Carolina, and by no means do I feel deeply out-of-place  in the U.S. nor a pretentious need to flaunt any sort of forced “otherness.” I don’t “accidentally” speak in Chinese to people as a way to show off (although  I did hand someone a peso at a café once).

However, being “out” for long periods of time, there are a number of things that repeatedly seem to slap me in the face every time I come back. It’s like, I know these things about the U.S., but cognitively they still catch me off guard.

Speaking English

Reverse culture shock

This one only gets me for the first day or so, but I have to sort of remind myself that I can speak English. When I lived in South America, I spoke Spanish almost exclusively. Even with my ex-boyfriend and friends, we typically spoke in Spanish. When I went back to the U.S., speaking English all the time felt sort of like cheating….it was too easy. How strange to so seamlessly express all my thoughts and feelings mindlessly!

Nowadays, in China, I speak English to all my friends so it’s not quite as disheartening. It’s more reminding myself that I don’t need to order in Chinese and can actually talk to my Uber driver.

Overhearing people all the time also catches me off guard. Even in South America, I had to actively be listening to strangers to overhear something. Minding my own business, I had no idea what was being said about me or around me. Same in China, India, Vietnam, etc….

Here? I hear everything. I know why kids are whining. I know what people are ordering. I know that Karen from accounting gained 50lbs after her divorce. It’s kind of strange to suddenly have access to so many conversations not intended for me.

The Friendliness

reverse culture shock

People in the U.S. are really friendly, especially in North Carolina. People are friendly in other countries, too, but I can’t really connect with them. Even in Spanish (or back when I could speak French and Arabic), I never had the confidence to joke around with total strangers.

It’s nice connecting with random people, even for a moment. A woman and I laughed this Saturday in the nearly empty train station about the ridiculous level of security they had for the ladies’ bathroom. I say hello to every single person I pass on the street on my way to the café or while running on the trails by my house. People compliment each others’ clothing or accessories or pets constantly. People are nice! And I can hear people being nice.

The Obesity


This one tends to hit me the hardest if I’m not mentally prepared. People in the U.S. are BIG. Seriously, people in Europe and Asia and South America aren’t this big. That’s not to say there aren’t big people. There are. But the numbers aren’t there (both the sheer number of overweight/obese people and the SIZE of people).

Our society seems to be set up for us to fail. There are temptations everywhere and people are buying and eating so casually; it seems so harmless to indulge. I bought lotion at Walgreens and was met with a lovely array of chocolates at the check-out counter (some of them even parading as “healthy” chocolate). Even avoiding the fast food and obvious culprits, my mom and I went out to eat and the salads were 700 + calories (if you bothered to read the fine print on the menu). The hot bar at our local organic grocery store sold the most decadent sweet potatoes I’ve ever tasted which were packed with heavy cream and brown sugar.

Don’t even get me started on the rows and rows of delicious looking sweets lining the counters at Cup-a-Joe staring longingly at me when I get my plain black coffee.

I’m trying to keep my guard up during this visit. I’m hanging out at my goal weight right now and hoping to hit some beaches in Thailand or Indonesia soon so I’m not quite ready to undo all my summer progress with chocolate chip cookies and coconut cream pies.

Paying for Things

paying in the US

In India, Argentina, Vietnam, etc… cash is king. In China, I pay for literally everything on my phone. Only in Colombia did I regularly use my debit card. So when I come back to the U.S., I’m not really sure what’s the best way to pay. Is using your debit card for a $2 coffee appropriate? Is it better to use cash? What if I only have a $20? Is it better to break the bill or use a card? When do I tip?

Not Needing My Passport

US passport

I went to the train station and felt a stab of panic that my passport is with the Chinese consulate in D.C. Even when I realized I didn’t need it to ride the train, I still had a thought that maybe I should take my expired one “just in case.” What is wrong with me?

The Sky

blue sky

This is a new one. Beijing is the most polluted place I’ve ever been. It’s easy to take blue skies and fluffy white clouds for granted. Beijing’s sky is smog. Even on a sunny day, the “sun” can’t be seen on the other side of the thick whitish sky.

How do I feel about this? Horribly depressed. It’s one reason I would never settle down in China long term.The first thing I see when I look at photos now is how blue the skies are in Europe and North America. This is a lesson in what humans can do to our planet if we don’t take pollution seriously. People, look up at the blue sky each morning and send little positive vibes to all the people in Asia living in overcrowded, polluted cities.

Customer Service

customer service US

At dinner the other night, the waitress kept popping up at our table to talk to us, interrupting our conversations. I was confused. Why does she keep coming over? Then I remembered this is normal in the U.S. We expect overly friendly and attentive waitstaff and they must behave this way for a tip. I’ve grown accustomed to having to stare down waiters in China if I need anything, or raise my arm, or even yell out “Fuwuren!” which is considered totally socially acceptable.

It’s fun living abroad and realizing how much of our “normal” is cultural. Is there anything funny that jumps out at you when you “culture hop?”

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  1. Great post!

    All in all, I’d say we have pretty good bathrooms in the U.S.

    1. Gwendolyn A Bellinger

      The U.S. ones are much cleaner. But I do love how many public ones there are here!

  2. I think we overlook the amount of sugar, fats, etc found in our food b/c it’s so pervasive. But you’re right – too much bad food and it’s too easily available.

    1. Gwendolyn A Bellinger

      I still can’t believe there are chocolate doughnuts in the egg aisle.

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