Reverse Culture Shock… Again

Transitioning back to life in the United States after spending five months in South East Asia presented some challenges. While no longer sweating every second of the day and being able to understand conversations around me was nice, some other aspects shocked me. People talk a lot about culture shock in terms of going to another place, but despite efforts, there is still a lack of discussion about it coming home. I’m not about to jump into a thoughtful and well researched lecture about it, as I’m not qualified and I’m sure that other people have done it before. But I will jump on the train of listing out a bunch, or five, of things that surprised and or took me a while to get used to when I came back home.

Flushing Toilet Paper

It took me longer than I would care to admit to adjust to flushing papers down rather than discarding them in a trash can. After five months of conditioning myself to fight every hygienic and sanitary thing I had been trained to do in a rest-room, the instinct to pop tissues in a trash can was very strong. Now, back in a country with good plumbing, I can say that it is a luxury to not waddle around clutching dirty paper. I can sit back, relax, and do my business without plotting my next move.

“Hello, tuk tuk?”

Public transportation, or really just transportation in general, back home is very different compared to the daily bombardment of tuk tuk drivers I grew used to. As much as it irritated me at times, I was rather fond of having a strange man yell after me that his tuk tuk was the best one in town. Now living in the Bay Area, I either take buses, trams, or catch a ride in a car to get from point A to B. They are much faster, and arguably safer, but in the case of buses and trams, definitely more crowded. It took me a while to get used to being in a vehicle that wasn’t chugging along a bumpy road, and where a lack of windows meant the wind would whip against my face for the whole journey. I don’t miss the daily allotment of dust and dirt in my eyes, but since I went without being a car for five months, the transition back meant I was carsick for weeks. Even to this day, I find it difficult to remain in a car for long periods of time without feeling queasy.

Traffic Laws

In addition to getting used to “normal” modes of transportation, I am also in a constant battle of remembering that in the United States there are traffic laws. When I first went to Cambodia, I was constantly terrified riding around town. Drivers went on the wrong side of the road, there were no such thing as lanes, and usually the biggest vehicle won in terms of over-taking on a road. A lot of the time, I felt like my commute into the office became a game of “chicken” with my driver, Samol, and the others on the road. Being back home, I have never felt so appreciative of speed limits, designated lanes, and a common traffic law. I find myself more patient while on the road, and less likely to explode in fits of road rage, unless it is against people who I feel do not understand how lucky they are to live in a country with speed limits.

However, I do find myself struggling to adjust back into another aspect of traffic laws; the pedestrian ones. In Cambodia, there were no such things as cross walks. While sometimes they existed, expecting them to work like how they did back home was futile. The general rule of thumb when crossing the street was pick a speed, stick to it, and just cross without looking back. General traffic, used to this, would continue to function around you. Unfortunately, this mindset does not exist in the United States, despite my continuing to operate by it. Much to the shock and horror of my friends and family, I often cross the street without paying much attention to the cars and motorcycles coming my way. It took me about two months to even remember there was such a thing as getting a ticket for jay-walking, which finally prompting to me start taking cross-walks seriously again. The ability to remember not to walk out in open traffic is still a daily battle, but luckily I am starting to remember it.


As a generally timid person, when I first came to Cambodia I found it hard to haggle. Even though I knew everything I tried to buy would be overpriced since I was a foreigner, the art of bargaining made me feel embarrassed and uncomfortable. However, once I realized how quickly my modest savings were going, I gritted my teeth and learned to use the new system, and I got quite good at it. Now back home, a little part of me dies inside when I see the prices of things. I reminiscence about the days of paying less than a dollar to get my laundry done when I find myself forking out four dollars to do a single load. Whenever I am in a shop, I resist the urge to offer an alternative price when purchasing basic things. And don’t even get me started on this new world price of oreos. It is truly a rip off.

Wearing “Normal” Clothes

After five months of living in loose fitting pants and tee shirts, I lost my ability to put together a fashionable outfit. I used to consider myself somewhat fashionable, and loved clothes to a point of vanity. Cambodia mellowed me out, forcing me to become less attached to how the cloth that covered my body reflected my personality. When I first came home and realized that I could not continue to remain in this fashion phobic mindset (because I would be working in a job that required me to dress like a well put together human) I struggled to remember what it was like. I have always loved clothes, to the point where I used to dream of being a fashion designer. But a five month absence, not just of variety, but lack of desire to be creative in my clothing choices put a strain on my fashion senses. It also made it hard to relate to friends and family that spoke about their clothes and what they wanted to build their wardrobes to look like, as it all felt superficial and vain and frivolous. It took me some months, but I have found a happy balance. I learned to love clothes and fashion again, and relate to people who also do, without feeling guilty for it. There is a difference between buying things excessively and embracing the opportunities that come with the life I now live, and I would like to believe I am doing the latter. I do miss my elephant pants every once in a while, but they served their purpose well and deserve their retirement.

And there you have it, five things that I found difficult to adjust to when returning home from Cambodia. The process of adjusting to a new culture, whether in a foreign or your own country, is challenging. Take it slow and don’t be too hard on yourself, everything will get easier and feel more familiar in time.

Are you in the process of adjusting to a new culture, at home or abroad? Let me know in the comments below of some of the things you’re getting used to!


The Travelsmith

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