I’ve been back in the United States for about a week, and I’ve spent most of that time trying to “re-acclimate” myself to being here. The common phrase for this discomfort is “reverse culture shock,” but what it actually entails varies from person to person.
This isn’t my first time experiencing reverse culture shock, as my year abroad wasn’t the first time I’ve lived out of the US for an extended period of time. I think any trip abroad takes some readjustment when you come back — jet lag is the most noticeable cause of feeling out of sorts, I suppose — but coming back after living in Brighton in 2008 and after living in Manchester just this year were very different from shorter trips abroad.
My first impressions of Manchester were mixed — it was raining and grim and it didn’t have the aesthetic quality of a place like Brighton with all of its beautiful Georgian/Regency architecture and the seashore that I loved so much at first glance. I’m not saying Manchester is an ugly city because I don’t think it is, but it’s the kind of place that has to grow on you. And when I first arrived, I was absolutely exhausted and just ready to sleep. I collected my bedding and my keys from reception, hauled two 50lb bags up 3 flights of stairs, and crashed. I think I cried a bit. And then after a nap, I set out to get my phone activated and to explore the city. I got lost (a bit funny in hindsight, as the city centre is quite small and not hard to get around at all). And my opinion about it being a rather grim, unfriendly city took a complete turn after some initial encounters with locals, who were all very polite and helpful to the bewildered American. I almost felt like it was my first time abroad all over again, except this time I was completely on my own.
Over the course of a year, I came to know Manchester quite well, or at least parts of it. I rarely left to do any sort of travelling and probably became a bit stuck in my ways as a result. I tend to do that — find familiar routes, places to go, things to do. Going back to the US for Christmas for a week and then again in January for a wedding were a bit of a shock to the system, but on both occasions I was kept busy by things I needed to get done, people to see, and knowing in the back of my mind that it was only temporary and that I had home — Manchester — to go back to. A dinky little university flat, friends, questionable food, familiar pubs, and rain. Always the rain.
But upon leaving Manchester this time around, the reverse culture shock has really hit me. I’m here for the foreseeable future. I’d known for quite a while that remaining in Manchester or the UK in general wasn’t really an option — some people luck out, I suppose, but I’m not ready to do a PhD yet, if ever, and other employment options were virtually nonexistent. But that doesn’t mean that I did any more to prepare myself for leaving and coming back here.
What is reverse culture shock, after all? Just a bit of jet lag and subsequent depression upon leaving a place you had lived for a year? The uncertainty of starting life over again? I don’t really know. It’s all of those things at once. I find the shock in little things — like the money. American money is smaller, lighter. My wallet always feels empty without 1 or 2 pound coins to weigh it down, and I have fewer cards in it, at least for now. And then there’s that matter of sales tax — it’s not something you really think will bother you, but it does. I can no longer have my money ready or know exactly how much I’m going to spend (maybe some math whizzes can, but I’m not one of them). I miss living in a place where VAT is included and the price displayed is the price you pay. And I went into a bar the other day and had to remind myself to leave a tip for the drink I bought. How mortifying would it have been to be the person who stiffs the bartender just because I’d been living in a place for a year that has different cultural expectations for tipping?
By focusing on little things like that, however, I gloss over what the reverse culture shock really entails. It’s strange to drive again; it’s strange to be so close to my family; it’s strange to hear American accents all over the place, Southern American accents in particular. It’s strange to realise that Premier League matches begin as early as 7:30am and that it’s a bit of a struggle to actually watch them. It’s strange to have to look for fellow fans, to go all the way downtown to some dive bar where 30 or so football fans congregate and discuss the latest goings-on with a strange mixture of Premier League and NFL gear. Everything is a bit louder, a bit brighter. The sun is always out, and I feel a little chilly when it hits the mid-70s, even though that’s pretty normal for the start of autumn.
Shouldn’t it be easier to return “home”? I really don’t think so. I always think the “reverse” culture shock is hardest. When you go abroad, even to another English-speaking country that you know quite well, you expect it to feel a bit strange. I noticed it when I was in Brighton, making friends with people who had chosen to study abroad in the UK for the precise reason that there was no language barrier. They knew it would be different, but maybe they didn’t realise how different. That’s part of the “shock.” And I felt it myself moving to Manchester, a city I had never set foot in before I arrived on 15 September 2011, after a hellish day of travelling that included 2 layovers.
Mostly, I feel like a fish out of water, trying to fit in somewhere that I’ve never really fit in despite being born and raised here. And even though I always felt foreign in the UK — the accent, the mannerisms, the momentary confusion over something that I hadn’t encountered before, the unfamiliarity with pop culture references — it’s different to feeling a foreigner here. It’s hard when people ask what you want to do, how it feels to be back, where you’re going next. That’s partly because I’m no closer to knowing what I want to do with my life, what I want for myself, where I see myself in 5 years, or even where I see myself in one year. And it’s partly because I’ve never known how to describe what I feel like here, and so describing what it feels like to be back — just that modifier is a bit terrifying. Back… where? to what? The answers to that aren’t as easy as they seem.