Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Reverse culture shock: Worse the second time

Reverse Culture Shock: Spain --> USA

When I returned from Spain after my study abroad year, our program warned us of reverse culture shock.  They even put together a required "Re-entry Workshop," at which I rolled my eyes at the time.  I didn't take it very seriously, since I hadn't gone through the initial culture shock phases that we'd been informed about upon arrival to Madrid that fall.  I had stayed in the "honeymoon phase" throughout that whole first year in Madrid; I loved every day of living in Spain.

And I really didn't experience reverse culture shock when I returned to Wisconsin for my senior year of college; I just thought Madison public buses looked funny.  I had all my college friends to return to, and lots of my closest friends from Madrid were from my study abroad program and returned to the states as well - most to my same university in Wisconsin.

But this time, returning has not been like it was before.  Keep in mind, last fall I moved to Madrid after graduating from college, so the majority of my friends also graduated and moved away to jobs or grad school in other states/cities.  Last fall I went to Madrid alone, not with a study abroad program like the first time.  This means most of the friends I made this past year continue to live in Madrid (such as Hannah!).  Finally, I only decided to return to the states about a month before I did, whereas throughout my study abroad year I always knew I'd be coming back after the school year ended.  I think all of these differences contribute to why I'm experiencing such reverse culture shock this time around.

On the surface

Arriving at the Philadelphia Airport from Madrid, lots of things drew my attention:
  • Seeing drinking fountains!  Holy cow! I'd forgotten about those!
  • Not being able to drown-out side conversations
  • America's got Big people
  • There were bagels for sale! (I bought one during my layover)
But these are normal "little things" that one would notice upon returning to the states after living as an expat.  Other "symptoms" of reverse culture shock are uncertainty, negativity towards American behavior, and frustration.  I think the following examples fall under those categories:

Shaking hands
I'm not sure when to shake hands with people or not here in the states.  Some peers I've met have extended a hand, others don't.  Some individuals I've met at work do and others don't. Or maybe they didn't because I didn't.  Because I didn't know! Giving besitos is much easier when meeting new people.  You both just automatically do it.

Eating out at restaurants
I've eaten out a decent amount since I've been back: my first day back when I surprised the parents, my first weekend back when I visited piano brother, my second week back with my aunt, with the sister in New Berlin, a couple times for work, and probably others I've forgotten.  That's a lot of eating in restaurants for three weeks!  I was astonished at lunch with my aunt when I realized I didn't have to finish my whole plate; they could box it up for me.  The concept of doggy bags does not exist in Spain; you eat what you can or it'll get tossed.  I had gotten used to finishing my plate no matter what.  So that was a good restaurant realization.

But it's been frustrating with how rushed the meals feel.  In Spain, you take your time when you eat.  Eating meals is a time to talk and spend time with people.  You have to get the waiter's attention if you want something. (Note: This is partly due to the fact that waiters make full salaries and have benefits, so you don't tip in Spain like they do in the states.  Hence, servers aren't trying to impress you for a big tip. But the other part of it is cultural.)  And you must always ask them for the bill when you're ready to leave.  They'll let you stay at a table and chat for hours, no problem.  So it feels strange and rushed when someone's coming by every five seconds to see how we're doing, and brings you the bill when you're not even done eating yet.  It's the fast-paced American life that I'm finding fault with.

When I went to the grocery store my first week back, the size of the store was overwhelming (and this was just the grocery store in the small village where my parents live).  So many brands/types/flavors of everything. So many pre-packaged and frozen items.  No more ripping out a single can of beer or soda; here you've got to buy the whole pack.  Everyone stocks up, loads it in a minivan, and drives it home.

Turn off the lights!
In Spain (and Europe, generally), electricity is a lot more expensive than it is in the states.  People are certain not to turn on a light if it's not necessary.  I really do love my new apartment and the roommates are fantastic, but there have been countless days that I come home and nobody's there, but the living room, kitchen, bathroom, and hallway lights are on. Why?!  If I had a nickel for every time I saw the light on in an empty room in my apartment, I'd be making money!

I felt safe in Madrid at any hour of the day and night.  Much safer than here in Madison.  In Madrid the main crime is pick-pocketing, and I knew just what to do to make sure I was never pick-pocketed.  But here things are different.  It wasn't great the day I found out my university's star running back was victim to an "unprovoked attack," or when three people were shot just outside of a bar near campus, or when a man was attacked on University Ave. this past weekend.  And then a shooter in Brookfield (1 mile from where the sister lives) killed three people on Sunday.  Arg!

Public transportation
I get a free bus pass through my job, which I've been using to get to/from work.  A couple days I've biked, but with all of these rainy/stormy days I usually don't.  And soon it will be too cold and snow-covered to bike anyways.  Some buses come only once an hour.  Once an hour!  And others once every half an hour.  I so miss Madrid's metro that came every 2-3 minutes, and Madrid's buses that came every 8-12 minutes.  I don't like that a car is nearly a necessity here.  To go grocery shopping, to visit my parents' house, to buy something at one of the malls, etc.

I miss tapas.  Going out for drinks and tapas at cool bars throughout the city was a fun past time in Madrid.  You sit down and have a drink or two, munch on your tapas, and converse.  Here, free food will not be served with your drink (Well, unless you're at Wando's on a Tuesday night. I think... do they still do bacon night?).  Food probably isn't even available at the bar you're in.  And you'll have to tip on whatever you buy.  And you'll probably be surrounded by lots of drunk loud students getting drunker.

Criticizing the Culture

In all of the "how to deal with reverse culture shock" blogs and articles that I've read this week, many say to hold your tongue before you say something about your expat country - to be sensitive and careful of unintentionally making people jealous, etc.  I struggled with this, and read that advice a little too late.

Last weekend after dinner with some friends, we decided we'd prefer to have a few drinks at a friend's house rather than hitting up the bars right away.  Then this flew out of my mouth:
"Can't you not buy alcohol after 9pm in this country or something?  It's 8:47, let's get moving!"
I used that language because "this country" still seemed somewhat foreign to me at the time.  I wasn't sure of the cutoff time to buy alcohol here, because in Madrid you can buy alcohol whenever you want.  And if there happens to be some sort of cutoff time in Spain that I'm not aware of, that's because you couldn't tell; there are always chinos and people selling alcohol from plastic bags in the streets at all hours of the night.

Here's another quick story:  The other day at work while correcting the capitalization of a poster, I suggested leaving some words lowercase.  My coworker said, "But why?  It's a title..."  Then I caught myself.  I had mixed up English grammar rules with those of Spanish: "Oooh, well in Spanish you only capitalize the first word in titles," I explained, not intending to sound snobby.  But I guess people get sick of hearing, "But in Spain, bla bla bla" and "In Madrid, the people bla bla bla," so you have to learn to shut it in, which may drive you nuts.

Beneath the surface

That ties in to this next part, which is the hardest to deal with and also the most difficult to describe to someone who hasn't experienced it themselves.  Heck, I went abroad (as a student), had a re-entry workshop, and I still didn't understand this part of reverse culture shock when I returned.  It was only experiencing it now, my second time returning to the states, that I understand the isolation and loneliness "phase".

Leaving my friends behind in Madrid and returning to a city where I no longer have many contacts was rough.

Yes, I still had friends to come back to here.  But after not seeing someone for a year (a year in which you've experienced things that many back home couldn't even imagine - due to cultural/language differences), it isn't easy to just pick up where you left off.  You aren't the same person you were when you left, but people expect you to be the same.  Having old friends view you as the "old you" can be frustrating; they can't see your yearlong inner change.  They also won't understand some things you say and do (like when I call myself "Reca" when I talk in third person, or commenting on the price of wine here being ridiculous, or talking about whatsapp, or when my thumb flies to my forehead in a fist with the pinky out when I hear someone burp, etc.)  All of those examples would require an explanation, which is discouraging and makes you feel alone.  You can't say even the simplest normal things because no one here would understand (or care), so you're left to feel isolated.  The thought of trying to explain this feeling to someone from home just escalates the isolated/lonely feeling into a vicious cycle, because they won't fully understand.

Some related examples: I know people are just trying to be nice and mean no harm, but here are some questions I've gotten in the last two weeks and how I've answered them (in comparison to what I was actually thinking with all of this culture shock going on).

"Hey Becky, where did you leave the evals?"
What I said: My name isn't Becky.  They're on the back table.
What I was thinking: [I have two friends at work that have taken to calling me Becky.  Nobody calls me Becky; they probably do it just because they know it bothers me]  My name isn't Becky!  I'm Rebe (Ray-bay)! Or Reca!  I haven't heard anyone call me that in weeks, and it's who I am! I. Am. Not. Becky.

"So how was your trip?"
What I said: Good, it was really great.
What I was thinking: Trip?!  It wasn't a trip!  I was not on a year-long vacation!  I moved to a different country and I had a life there. I had a job. I had a home. I had a daily routine. I played on a sports team.  I had close friends. Etc, etc. It wasn't a trip!

"Are you glad to be back?"
What I said: Err *hesitate* yeah!
What I was thinking: Well, for some reasons sure; it's obviously good to see family and friends that I hadn't seen in so long.  But I loved my life in Madrid.  There was lots of sun! No snow in the winter!  Ultimate year round!  Always learning something new and exploring a cool city!  Spanish, Spanish, Spanish (Castilian)!  History! Easy and cheap to travel throughout Europe or to the Mediterranean!  Opportunities!  International friends!  So you're asking me if I'm glad to be back to English-speaking Wisconsin away from some of my closest friends, in October, right as winter is creeping in?  Yeah I hardly ever answer that one honestly.

So then you just hold all this in, because you don't want to hurt anyone's feelings or let people know that you'd rather be elsewhere.  Your friends and family from home certainly don't want to hear that.  How could they understand that?  So you don't say it.  You can't say it.  I didn't, at least.  I kept everything in and just kept going, trying to fit into that "old me" that people thought I was, while never allowing myself any time to process this mixture of feelings.  I stayed busy at work, and made sure every minute of my nights and weekends were full (because if they weren't, and you had no one to call and nothing to do -- the feeling's not a fun one to face).

Add to it the fact that the friends you used to see every day now live across an ocean from you, in a time zone 7 hours apart from yours, and you've got yourself a recipe for disaster.  Who do you talk to now?  The people I now live with were strangers, and the people at work only knew the "old me".  My two closest friends from here aren't able to talk every day; one just left the state and the other works crazy hours.  So I have many friends yet to make.

Moving forward

So that's what I was feeling most of the last two weeks.  I talked about it all with CC this Sunday, then worked on this blog post the beginning part of this week.  That must have done wonders, because I'm feeling great this week and seem to have left that lonely/isolated phase behind.  Time heals all.  Hopefully I'm moving on to the next phase of this lovely reverse culture shock experience.

I have been going to my university's Spanish conversation table (la mesa de conversación) on Wednesday evenings in order not to lose too much of my Spanish, and to hopefully meet new people.  I've also joined many meetup groups (great site by the way, if you've just moved to a new town and/or are looking to make new friends), and have some events coming up in the next few weeks.  Once I get a bit more settled, I'll look for some volunteer work and perhaps more opportunities to use my Spanish in this city.

Although I loved my life in Madrid, I didn't want to live there permanently.  I want to travel more and live in other cultures, and perhaps study to become a math or Spanish teacher, or work for an NGO.  I couldn't do this if I'd stayed in Spain, so I would have had to leave at some point or another.  It's all a growing and learning experience.  Returning to the states this fall will open up new opportunities and lead me to new friendships and many other good things that I can't predict.  Feel free to follow along and discover them with me at Rebe With a Clause.

Other people's experiences

If you're interested in reading other people's personal accounts of reverse culture shock, I recommend the following:


Here are some resources if you're dealing with reverse culture shock:

Please let me know if you have a blog post or know of another webpage you'd like to add to either of these lists!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Quijotes + Dulcineas featured on the radio

Madrid's ultimate frisbee team, Quijotes + Dulcineas, was just featured on the radio on Friday.

The radio station interviewed my friend Justin, and then they commentated a game of ultimate that was played outside of the studio.  

The radio station is Cadena Ser, and the radio segment can be listened to here (Esto no es Carrusel).  Check it out!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Navegante en el extranjero

If anyone's interested (like me) to see what's going on in Madrid (and with Quijotes + Dulcineas) during this next academic year, I'm pleased to announce that my friend Hannah has started a blog.  It's called Navegante en el extranjero, and currently has a summary of her past year in Madrid.  

Hannah renewed her teaching spot in the auxiliares de conversación program, so she'll be teaching at her same school through June 2013.  She's also started working at Madrid's nautical club, teaching/coaching sailing.  I think it will be some exciting stuff to read about, and am looking forward to future posts!

Friday, October 5, 2012

No "Noche en Blanco" in 2012

During my first fall in Madrid (2009), one of my favorite events was  La Noche en Blanco.  The Spanish phrase "noche en blanco" literally means white night, but its actual meaning is a night without sleeping, an all-nighter.  Madrid's Noche en Blanco was a city-wide late-night cultural event that took place in many of the main streets downtown that were closed-off to cars that night.  There were bike tours, exhibits, dancing, live music, performances, etc. in the streets and throughout the city.  Many museums were open into the early hours of the morning, with free admission.  I remember that the metro was open until 3am just for that night, rather than its usual 1:30am closing time.

Noche en Blanco, 2009 (Madrid)

Needless to say, I was very much looking forward to this event when I returned to Madrid fall of 2011.  Much to my disappointment, I found out that due to budget cuts and the economical crisis, the event had become a biannual event.  No Noche en Blanco for me that year.

But perhaps I could have attended Noche en Blanco 2012 before my surprise return to the states this fall.  Nope.  Not even a chance.  Turns out that in May of this year, Madrid announced that the city would go another year without Noche en Blanco.   Looks like we'll just have to cross our fingers and wait to see if there will ever be enough money for the event to return.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Surprising the older brother and the parents

The night before I left for France, I bought a plane ticket to Chicago.  I had been talking with my old boss to see if I could come back and work for her, and plans started to form.  Since I hadn't had an income in Madrid since June, and since my foreign identity card expired September 23, I decided I would return to the states and work for a year or so, to pay back my student loans at a quicker pace than the present (while I figured out what to do next in life...).

But I didn't tell anyone at home that I was coming back.  Since I had the perfect set-up to surprise, why not?  So I started telling family that I was thinking about coming back late fall/early winter, and that I would be HelpXing until then.

So I had many "lasts" during the month of September, although only Madrid friends knew about them.  My last practice was on Thursday, September 20.

Running the Madrid Corre por Madrid 10K the following Sunday morning was actually a great way to start my last full day in Madrid.  I got to see most of the major Madrid monuments and landmarks on the run, without any tourists or traffic!

And then it was Monday, September 24.  I was in planes and airports all day, and then took a three-hour bus from Chicago to Madison, arriving at midnight (WI time).  I got picked up by a friend downtown and crashed at his place.  The next day he took me to my older brother's house downtown.  I knocked on the door and hoped I had the right house.

One of his roommates answered and called for my brother.  He was certainly shocked to see me, but didn't have a huge reaction because a) We (my siblings and I) aren't overly expressive in that regard, and b) His roommate was right there in the kitchen and had no idea the significance of my presence.  I hung out there that afternoon and got him to organize a dinner with my parents for that evening (which they were a bit suspicious of because it was a Tuesday night).  But they agreed to meet my brother in a nearby town for dinner.

We arrived at the restaurant after my parents, due to traffic and a stalled semi in the middle of an intersection.  My brother called them and asked if they could come out, that he had to put something in their van.  So I ducked down behind a car in the parking lot as we waited for them to come out.  My brother told me when, and I jumped up! Surprise!

They had no idea (why would they?) and thus were caught completely off guard.  They were shocked.  And happy.  After the initial shock, we headed back in to eat.

I was a bit jetlagged and in disbelief myself at where I was.  The huge beer menu, extremely attentive waitress, and getting ID'd when I ordered a beer were all signs that I was no longer in Spain.

Ma and Pa at the surprise dinner

Cooking brother and I at dinner
I slept at my parents' house that night, hoping they could keep my arrival a secret just until that weekend.  The sister's birthday was that Wednesday, so she was coming home for the weekend and relatives were coming over on Saturday.  To me, that was the perfect recipe for more surprises.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

SURPRISE: I'm in the states!

I flew to Chicago a week ago and surprised my parents the following day.

I'll write a detailed post soon about all of the surprises, but since a week had gone by already, I figured it was time to announce my  move back to the states here on the blog.