Dealing with Reverse Culture Shock (or, why my country confuses me)

When my phone buzzed with a friend inquiring where I was, I had an excuse for being late: I was overwhelmed with being back in the US and had gone to get a coffee. Then I got overwhelmed again with how to order that and settled on whatever it was that the woman gave me.

“Yeah, sorry. America confused me, so I consoled myself with a gallon of coffee.” I then proceeded to be perplexed by the El’s new card system and nearly walked onto a southbound train rather than heading up to Lakeview.

Two weeks into my American foray, I’m still feeling like Cady Heron in ‘Mean Girls,’ and even my friends who have known me for years are puzzled by my being puzzled by America. I have become the adorable foreign girl who squeals over brunch, IPAs and oversized supermarkets and who answers the same questions day after day:

“You mean there’s internet in Spain?” Duh, how would I maintain this blog?!

“Let’s go for tacos! Wait, you’re probably sick of them.” I WISH I had that problem.

As I’m focusing on party planning and COMO launching, I find myself making rookie mistakes when it comes to American life. 

As my sister puts it: America, 364. Cat, 0. For the first time ever, I can honestly say that my American way of life is all but a thing of the past. Apparently 22 years count for next to nothing but my native tongue, and even that seems to be getting lost in a flurry of British expressions and colorful Spanish interjections.

Cash is all but a foreign concept

In Spain, I always carry cash on me and try not to use bills over 50€. In America, you can pay with your debit card, your cell phone and probably the promise of your first-born. As a matter of fact, I’ve only taken out money once in two weeks!

Condiments puzzle you

In a country where mayonnaise is king, this just made me nervous:

Ranch dressing on a Wisconsin brat? I just can’t.

You try to pay in any other currency but American dollars

Going along with the money issue, I’ve accidentally accounted out European coins or forked over my remaining 20€ bill for a gyro. The woman behind the counter gave me a confused look and then launched into an interrogation about how I got the money, how much a gyro platter would cost in Spain and do they even eat gyros over there? My food was practically cold when she was finished.

You ask silly questions like, “Can I use debit here?” or “How will we get groceries if it’s Sunday?”

My Spanish timetable is now a well-oiled machine, so getting a new cell phone on a Sunday and running to the grocery store at midnight is blowing my mind and upping my productivity.

People judge you for having a beer with lunch or wanting to sleep immediately after

In the US, I am usually the one who skips drinking with meals and only need a day or two to adjust to chow times and a conservative grandma, but not this time around. Naps and cervecitas still figure in to a part of my day.

Driving an automatic car is a challenge (and it’s twice the size of Monty)

I keep reaching for a gear shift and trying to push down the clutch. In fact, my sister told me I’d been demoted from driving after I got lost in O’Hare airport (which is one big loop) and was late picking her up. I should also say I’m driving a minivan, so that in of and itself merits a lunchtime beer and nap.

You walk away from a counter without tipping (and after freaking out over a) how big the beers are and b) how much they cost) 

You see, there’s a reason why I usually skip a midday beer – they’re costly! And then, once you factor in tip, it’s not even worth it.

America, pay your wage workers something decent so I don’t feel like a terrible person when I walk away when I forget to tip.

People say hi to you everywhere you go, and you give them your best sevillana stink face

I was the type of person to say hello any time I went into a store and I normally chat up strangers. You can imagine the surprise when people were allowing me to cross the street with my dogs or just waving hello. My confused face is strangely like my sevillana stink face.

It’s freezing

Afternoon showers and 75° weather? Wearing a jacket in late July? Lake effect? Chicago is cold, and I’m not adjusting to the air-con being on all the time.

The joy that is texting for free, and abusing that freedom

Americans have not embraced whatsapp – I’ll send my mom on my favorite free texting system, and she’ll respond with a text message rather than directly replying. I asked why, and she reminded me that texting plans are really generous. Oh, right.

Just as I’m starting to get settled in and remembering cultural cues, I realize that the Novio is coming to visit on Friday for two weeks, which means I’ll practically undo everything I’ve assimilated in these past few weeks. But it also means more siestas!

How are you adjusting to life in your home country after time abroad? Any good stories to share?

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About Cat Gaa

As a beef-loving Chicago girl living amongst pigs, bullfighters, and a whole lotta canis, Cat Gaa writes about expat life in Seville, Spain. When not cavorting with adorable Spanish grandpas or struggling with Spanish prepositions, she works in higher education at an American university in Madrid and freelances with other publications, like Rough Guides and The Spain Scoop.


  1. Oh, Cat! Judging by your culture shock, Spain is much like France. I’m nowhere near your level of immersion; however, when I went back to the US for a week in June, I felt strange being able to use my bank card everywhere. The only time I took money out was to pay for a train ride on the Metra because there’s no attendant at some of the stations. The train station is almost the only place you can use your card in France & there’s always an attendant! Oh, the irony. On a monetary note (pardon the pun), to this day, I still don’t understand why some American’s who carry cash prefer large bills. In France, I never take out anything over 20€ … it’d be such a pain to pay for a baguette (0.75€) with 50€ or higher.

    Also, what’s with the ranch dressing for a brat? I’ve never heard of doing that… must be a new phase?

    Glad you’re having a good time!

    • Cat Gaa says:

      Ew, the ranch on a brat was just weird. I was hoping that was there for a salad or chicken fingers! And I agree on the big bills – what’s the point of carrying all of that around when you’re out for a coffee or pastry!?

  2. It seems so deceptively simple to slip back in–we should know what we’re getting into, right? After holiday trips back home, I can definitely relate.

    On my last my jaw dropped at the price of wine by the glass, I would forget to be as polite as everyone else, and I was nearly in tears the time I tried to “swing by” Wal-Mart to pick up a few items. In Spain I miss having variety and in the US I was overwhelmed by it. Good luck with surviving reverse culture shock on the rest of your trip!
    Cassandra recently posted..The Scenic Route: Madrid Details on FootMy Profile

    • Cat Gaa says:

      I haven’t even tried a glass of wine. If beer is $6 in the suburbs, wine has to be outrageous! I’m sure you’ll be experiencing culture shock of another kind when you’re in Colombia -enjoy!!

  3. It took me awhile to adjust to tipping again. My first time out to a pizza place, I paid the bill but forgot to include the tip. The waiter was pretty snarky about it saying “You didn’t include a tip.” That made me then and there not want to include a tip but I did anyways.

    And I missed the AC while I was in Spain. Just recently the AC was not working in my office on a hot, humid day and we were all miserable. The Spanish dry heat is very different from the New York humid heat. The dry heat is oppressing but the humidity sucks everything out of you. I’ll put up with being cold in the train and in the office if it means I don’t have to feel like I’m sitting in a jungle.
    amelie88 recently posted..On the Dangers of Travel Writing Cliches (and Zombies)My Profile

    • Cat Gaa says:

      Ooh, the AC is getting me, too. I’ve never been friolera, but why put on the air in Chicago when it’s been 70 degrees the last few days?!

  4. Hahaha I can definitely relate to ambivalence about using cash and debit cards—I’ve used cash maybe two times in the two months I’ve been back home so far? Crazy. And last summer I got a Corona with lunch at a Chipotle once and felt super awkward…but no one would have blinked an eye at that in Spain 😛
    Trevor Huxham recently posted..My Updated Review of Spain’s North American Language & Culture Assistant ProgramMy Profile

    • Cat Gaa says:

      I love it! I got a margarita at a Friday’s and the woman practically cheered because she’d finally made a liquor sale on a slow lunch.

  5. Ugh, tipping…I have a really hard time adjusting to the huge price change from the printed prices because of tipping and taxes. Plus, in California, restaurant workers DO get paid minimum wage, so I don’t feel like there’s any reason I should have to tip someone an extra 20% for doing their job (which turns out to be a surprisingly controversial opinion).

    My two big reverse culture shock issues are the supermarkets (so big! so many choices!) and the lack of public transportation. It’s totally absurd when California has so much traffic, but their solution is usually to build more freeway instead of encouraging viable car alternatives like better train systems.

    Of course, the one thing I don’t miss is getting stared at for being so foreign-looking everywhere I go in Spain. That’s definitely nice to get a break from.
    Jessica (Barcelona Blonde) recently posted..The Journey That Almost Made Me Reconsider Road TripsMy Profile

    • Cat Gaa says:

      Whoa, that’s insane about the tipping, Jess! I do continue to tip taxi drivers and my hair lady in Spain, but only because I feel that they give exceptional service. But someone who uncaps a beer or hands you a glass of water and a plate of food? Absurd! As for the public transportation in Cali, all of my family out there complains on a regular basis about that. My sister says it’s the same in Texas. Public transportation seems to be frowned upon here (Uh, have you ever been on the El train in Chicago?!), but I love taking it!

  6. These are all so true!I whipped out a 10 euro bill my first day home for Christmas break to pay for some shampoo at Walmart and was told my “pink money is no good here” haha. I had a hard time getting used to US bills being all the same color and the same size.
    Allison @ A Foodie in Europe recently posted..Almería: Spain’s Hidden Tapa ParadiseMy Profile

  7. It’s a really interesting topic, Cat. I think we all tend to assume we’ll slip back in easily, but each time I go back to Scotland (once every 12 months), I notice more and more ‘strange’ things. Plus lots of little bonuses, like supermarket cashiers actually offering to help me and drivers not intent on mowing me down. The card/cash thing too – I used to pay for everything by card back home, and even got 1% cashback on all purchases, but in Spain, they mostly only take cash.
    Julie Sheridan recently posted..Caldes de Montbui – the Spanish spa town with one seriously fiery festivalMy Profile

    • Cat Gaa says:

      Ooh, people knowing how to drive is such a treat! When I did my driving exam last March, the examiner actually complimented me on obeying the traffic signs and told me he didn’t have to air brake once.

  8. Noé Hernández says:

    Well I agree with all this. The big modifer is on the beer. Although they cost more, they are not crap like what Spain has to offer.

    • Cat Gaa says:

      Truth, and you have Estrella up there, which is far better than Cruzcampo. Have you tried Er Boquerón? It’s a craft beer from Valencia, I believe, and tastes like a wheat beer. A nice surprise!

  9. I wish my American English were still intact…I ask all the time where the “toilet” is and people look at me like that’s the rudest thing, the World Cup was super confusing because I kept saying I wanted to watch “football,” and I also got yelled at by a receptionist for saying that I’m unmarried, and when she started to write down “married,” I of course had to stop her…then she said “Oh you meant SINGLE.” Jeez! And I thought I was supposed to belong here. Not anymore, apparently!

    Reverse culture shock is the worst, but posts like yours help me remember that I’m not alone in suffering, so thanks!
    Alisa @ Alisabroad recently posted..Bastille Day…in AmericaMy Profile

    • Cat Gaa says:

      How could you not understand unmarried?! People, man. Soon enough, I’ll be back in Spain and life will make sense and no one will laugh at me when I randomly swear under my breath in Spanish!

  10. I was so thrown off by things being open on Sunday! I could stop planning meals out a week in advance finally :) And when I realized I could call my credit card company on the weekend, I was so thrown off.
    I completely agree with you on the tipping, too. This country needs to pay better wages STAT so a small drip coffee doesn’t cost me 3.50.
    Jenny | A Thing For Wor(l)ds recently posted..Bathroom Linguistics: How Stall Graffiti Can Help You Learn a LanguageMy Profile

    • Cat Gaa says:

      Luckily, my parents have kept my errands to a minimum – I’ve only stepped foot into a grocery store once! Hope you’re enjoying time back in the bay!

  11. Yes! The tipping! I’m back in NYC for the first time in 2 years and I am having major reverse culture shock. Why is a glass of wine $8? And I tip on top of that? AND it doesn’t come with a free snack? Eff this, I’m going back to Spain.

  12. This is so funny! I only ‘lived’ in Spain for 3 months, and I don’t come from the US, but I can totally relate. “What, there are shops open on a Sunday here?” But why?!

    • I feel like acclimating to Spain is so easy. Siestas? Midday beers? Long meals? Awesome! But America is so big and there are so many choices of where to eat and what to buy and highways to take!

  13. I could not get past this line “Let’s go for tacos! Wait, you’re probably sick of them.”

    Is that because they think Spain is like Mexico? I know there are plenty of people that think that.

    I get culture shock coming home after only spending a week in Europe. I wonder if you will get reverse,reverse culture shock when you go back to Spain?
    Jeff @ Go Travelzing recently posted..How Traveling in Europe has Changed in 20 YearsMy Profile

    • It’s amazing how many people think we eat tacos in Spain, but tacos are what we call swear words! I only wish that we had delicious tacos to eat!

      Since I live in Spain year-round, I don’t think I’ll experience any culture shock when I get back there, though I miss some comfort foods and my dogs!

  14. Wouldn’t it be WONDERFUL if we could take the best of each, (or even of everywhere!) US or UK supermarkets and opening hours + the cheapness of Spain? Actually, cards are used pretty frequently here in the Canary Islands but probably not as much as in US. I remember reading just a few years back that one of the reasons France suffered less with this god-awful recession is that the French use credit cards (as opposed to debit cards, obviously) much less than many countries, so there wasn’t the same amount of personal debt there.

    I’ve been through most of what you’re going through, after 27 years of living on the islands, when I go back to UK it’s almost foreign now. I’ve even resorted on occasion to just holding out my handful of coins to a shop assistant for them to take whatever, the way I’ve seen tourists do here!
    Linda recently posted..Traveling with TrixyMy Profile

    • It would be wonderful! I probably wouldn’t have it so bad if the US were closer and I could go home more often! But it’s a funny side product, for sure!

  15. Oh man this had me laughing. I could totally relate to so much of what you said! One thing I really DO love about the US is being able to use my debit card pretty much anywhere. And yeah what’s this unlimited SMS stuff? I vaguely remember it. 😉
    Talon recently posted..Follow your heartMy Profile

    • You and Tigger will be in for a treat when you get back this year! Have him call you out on all of he funny things you do and write a post about it!

  16. Oh gosh! I can totally relate to so many of these things after returning home after 2 years abroad in Hungary. I always had cash on my so paying with card is so weird (even now almost 2 years later). And yes tipping. So annoying, but always needed. With time it’ll get easier, but until then, have fun with all the weirdness! :)
    Adelina // Pack Me To recently posted..Falling Under the Spell of Berlin – Why You Need to Go Now!My Profile

    • The weirdness has been fun, but probably annoying for people who are trying to help me or understand me. I was even tongue tied today in a meeting when trying to express myself!

  17. I’ve only been back to the US once since moving to Germany, and that was when I had only been living here for a few months. Even then, things seemed a little weird. It’s now 2 1/2 years later, and I can only imagine what a return visit will be like. I’m so used to paying with cash, everything being closed on Sundays, and not tipping!
    Ali recently posted..Be Proud of Your AccomplishmentsMy Profile

    • Germany sounds a lot like Spain (though the Germans probably drive better than the Spaniards!). Do you guys have plans to go back soon?

  18. Christyn says:

    Ahh this is exactly why im slightly terrified of moving back to the us next year.

  19. Girl, I feel ya! Reverse culture shock is the TOUGHEST. I keep forgetting to tip (oops) and I get really confused when strangers ask me how my day is going. But adjusting to the currency has definitely been the worst for me. The other night while paying for dinner, I held up an American nickel and legit forgot how much it was worth. 20 cents? 10? No? My bad…
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  20. Hahaha. Well-written. It’s such a strange concept to feel like a foreigner in your home country. But also kind of cool :)
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  21. I’ve actually had to whip my jacket out almost every day this week! It’s is absurdly chilly for this time of year!
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  22. Haha. I just had to comment on this one. So many things, so true! I can totally relate to the coffee culture shock. I just want a café con leche, and everybody knows what I’m talking about, not a gallon of that watered down brown….stuff (let’s keep our language clean!) they call coffee here. And I don’t feel like going into the contrived Italian coffees that you pay five dollars for at some places. They still aren’t any good in my mind. I’ve given up and just use my expresso machine. I don’t get coffee out. You may get free refills, but why would you want to?

    The tipping, aka subsidizing the restaurant owner, also drives me crazy.

    I have noticed that people don’t use cash as much here, which I find peculiar.

    And what’s up with the tomatoes that taste like….well, nothing at all. It’s like the red notion of a tomato rather than the real thing.

    I do love America though. I’m having a great time as everything is always new and changing here, a vortex of hype which is always entertaining. And I do enjoy my lunchtime beers. I don’t care what anybody says or thinks about it.

    • Cat Gaa says:

      I’m dealing with American coffee better than expected, but then again, I make it at home! There is something to be said for the cafeteros and their old school grinds! Glad to hear you’re enjoying yourself while home!!

  23. Ah yes. And this fabulous cooler weather is due to the lowering jet streams which also brought the severe winters.

  24. It’s amazing how easily us humans can assimilate to a new culture and practically make it our own. I’m experiencing some reverse culture shock after only living in Spain for ten months and returning to the US for the summer, so I can only imagine how you feel. The one thing that I keep forgetting… that the lever to flush the toilet is on the side of the toilet and not the top. I keep reaching for a button on the top and then remembering that I have to go to the side haha
    Jessica @She Dreams of Travel recently posted..A Quarter Life Crisis on My 24th BirthdayMy Profile

  25. OH my I totally got messed up on American culture when I was home for 3 weeks a few months ago. The grocery store was so BIG! Starbucks sucked and was cold AND expensive… I guess the food really surprised me the most and that no one closes for lunch. I am used to 3 things on my plate not 10 ingredients, so the food didn’t impress me. I love this post, I love when people recognize the little things that really affect us all!

  26. This is too good. But seriously that vat of ranch dressing sadly makes me so happy. One thing I will never get over missing from the US is the food.
    Alex, Speaking Denglish recently posted..THREE YEAR SWAP: GET YOUR GERMAN DRIVER’S LICENSEMy Profile

  27. The peanut butter section at Walmart, holy moly. And I was only gone 9 months! Honestly though, I don’t know if it’s delayed reaction to Spain but I’m having more culture shock going back to my parents house after working and living 5 weeks at a camp in my hometown than I did arriving back from Spain. I am so mixed up right now! Also those condiment containers scare me. #everythingsbiggerinMurica

  28. Katherine says:

    Sorry guys, I read this thinking it was serious rather than just a fun trip with some cultural differences. This isn’t reverse culture shock. Reverse culture shock is where you can’t relate on the fundamentals any more. Your life time friends are so different which you probably see is ok, you are used to that, but the problem is, they aren’t. They want you to be the person you were before. Clash! They think that you have been on a long holiday and will fit back in where you were, best. Otherwise, they forget where you are in the circle and forget to invite you to functions. They don’t mean to but life has gone on without you. There is no fun romance in that. Eventually though, you become better friends with some and lose others. You work out your place and get on with it. Like the author I did all that in my 20s and it was fun but please don’t confuse it with serious reentry. Reentry is more challenging than expatriation. Now THAT is an understatement!

    • Hi Katherine, you’re right – it’s not the terrible, alienating culture shock that I speak of, rather a tongue-in-cheek look at how easy it is to adapt to a foreign culture and feel strange when you land back in your own. I’m fortunate enough to have a core group of friends that always remember to call and include me, and they know I’ve changed. Thankfully, we’re all leaving our 20s shortly, so change was expected, no matter where we’ve all been in the last decade. I appreciate that extreme reverse culture shock has to be a certain degree of harrowing. And, yes, I think that reentry has to be a million time harder than expatriation!


  1. […] weight. Forty days, by any measure, is not a long time, but it was heavenly (once I got over the reverse culture shock, that is): The pulse of the big city, the warm hugs of friends, the brilliance of a home cooked […]

  2. […] Read more: all of my posts on Galicia and La Coruña | Culture Shock in My Own Country […]

  3. […] may suffer from a mild form of reverse culture shock when I land at O’Hare once or twice a year, I am fortunate to have a beautiful group of […]

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