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Culture Shock in My Own Country

I arrived in Buenos Aires on June 23, 2010. I had been there twice before, but never for more than 5 days. I also spoke the language. However, I still had a lot of adjusting to do. Over the next 14 months, I adapted to cultural differences, new slang, and the small annoyances that were really only annoying because they were different from what I as used to. Was I slightly culture shocked? Yes, but I had always expected to be.

I am currently back in the US for a 6 week, 5 city trip of awesomeness. I have been looking forward to this trip for months. All of my friends, 5 different cities, free refills, spicy food, clothes that fit me – I thought I was prepared for everything.

¿Hablas inglés?

I speak English in Argentina all the time. My office job requires me to speak to clients in the Europe and the US. I have tons of expat friends. While I also speak Spanish every day, I still speak English as my dominant language. The thought of going back to the States and not having to think twice about difficult phone calls or situations was so exciting. It never occurred to me that I might forget to use my own language.

It started on the plane to Dallas. The flight attendants were all Texan. They spoke Spanish, but it was clear that English was their native language. Why, then, did I answer them in Spanish every time they spoke to me? Water? Si, porfa- Yes, yes please. Chicken or beef? Pollo. Chicken. Chicken, I want chicken! I felt both pretentious and spazzy.

Then I got to the Dallas airport. I was finally back on US soil. The airport was busy, so I ran into a few people. Each time I caught myself saying “perdón…disculpáme….estás bien?”. Each time I was more and more confused at why my native language refused to come back to me in these surprise situations. Even a couple weeks into my trip, I still find myself saying “perdón” a lot more than “excuse me” and “gracias” a lot more than thank you.

Coming to America

My first few days I felt like Eddie Murphy in Coming to America. The most unexpected things amazed me. For example, buying toothpaste with a $100 bill. In Argentina, all the ATMs give you $100 peso bills. No one ever has change for these bills. It often becomes a game of finding a location where you can buy enough stuff to warrant the merchant giving you change. In Dallas, I knew I only had the $100 dollar bills the bank in Argentina had given me. I wanted to buy a small toothbrush and tube of toothpaste. I sheepishly went up to the cashier saying “I think I only have a $100…”. I don’t know why I said “I think”. Perhaps I thought it would soften the blow. The cashier looked at me and said “okay” and allowed me to buy a 5 dollar item with a $100 bill. America, you are wonderful.

Another ridiculous moment was when I went for a run in my old neighborhood. It was about 90 degrees and I had not considered bringing a water bottle. As I jogged through a park, I thought to myself man, I am thirsty and then, like magic, I happened upon a water fountain. I swear to you I had basically forgotten that water fountains existed. I approached it like it was a trick, as if maybe the fountain would suddenly turn into that horrible monster with eyes in his hands from Pan’s Labyrinth. However, it did not. It simply offered a stream of fresh, mildly cold and ultra refreshing free water.

Clothes, Cereal and Deals – Oh My!

Eight dollar shirts. EIGHT DOLLARS!

My first day back, my mom took me to Target. I walked into that building and smiled like a maniac. I looked at my mom and proclaimed “it smells like Target!”. I practically skipped through the aisles, touching clothes and letting out “oohs” and “aahs” and the occasional “This is so cheap!” I literally hugged a clothing rack. Yeah, that happened. I forced my mom to take photos of me with the cheap clothes that actually fit my chubby body. I don’t even like shopping, but after 14 months of buying only 3 items, none of which were particularly awesome, I was totally overwhelmed with joy.

As we walked past the food aisles, I again made a fool of myself. “Mom look at all that cereal! IS THAT SPECIAL K FOR ONLY

God Bless America!

$2.99?!”. Then came the peanut butter aisle. Mom! That entire AISLE is peanut butter! I want to LIVE in that aisle!” I can only imagine what the people around me were thinking.

Driving? What’s driving?

I have never enjoyed driving all that much, so I was more than thrilled to move to a city where buses, subways and trains take me everywhere I need to go. My first day back, I had to hop right back into my car. My mom and I walked to the driveway and I saw my brother’s car sitting behind mine while the other side of the driveway was wide open. I looked at the tricky situation and then at my mom. “Do I have to maneuver around this car? What am I, a wizard?!”.

Then came getting gas. My mom lives in the suburbs, a trusting place, as long as you are not of color. Honestly, I was always a little too dark for that place. The point is, our gas pumps were always pay at the pump or pay inside when you are finished. When I went to get gas, I was shocked to see that I had to pay first. Once I got to the register I realized I had no idea what gas cost. I stared at the cashier, looked at my wallet and just said “Um…25 I guess?”.


Being back in the US is wonderful, but I definitely feel like an alien a lot here. I also feel like people are constantly quizzing me or looking to me for incredibly adventure filled stories. My second day back, some friends introduced me to a new guy and told him I had been in Argentina for the past year. His first question? “What kind of feral animals do they have in Argentina?!”

I simply stammered “Um…I’m not sure. They have these things called Maras. They are like a rabbit and a dog…there are really cute…not dangerous…”

I fail at interesting facts, clearly.

Despite the unexpected culture shock, being in the US for awhile has been great so far. Have any of you every experienced culture shock in your own country?


26 Responses to Culture Shock in My Own Country

  • katherina says:

    I get a shocked with how cheap Spain is compared to Switzerland. I seriously get some kind of rich attitude, invite my family for dinnes, and don’t even look at price tags when buying clothes. I’m all about pure consumption back home – terrible for my wallet, though!

    Also, Iget shocked about how unorganized things are and about the slow pace. I actually feel anxious!!!
    katherina recently posted..Photo Essay: Hiking in Aletsch, Switzerland (Part II)My Profile

  • alec says:

    His first question? “What kind of feral animals do they have in Argentina?!”

    this is treated as a normal question? eh? weird.

    anyway. you could have said dogs. there’s hundreds of the feckers.

  • Björn says:

    I actually find your experience pretty normal, walking into a shop or restaurant and getting a reply in german just feels wrong to me these days. Or answering with the correct words but in the wrong language – no need to be alarmed.
    And after about seven years outside of my home country I have started to forget parts of my mother tongue.
    So – welcome to the club – its only going to get worse 🙂

    Just one question – did the toothbrush shopkeeper not ask you for a credit card when you only had the 100$ note? I would have thought that he’d gone down that route to avoid having to give change.
    Björn recently posted..A very expensive way to get a haircutMy Profile

  • Steph says:

    I remember feeling culture shock as soon as I walked off the plane into O’Hare after only a semester in London. Even sitting in the airport I kept thinking, AMERICANS ARE SO LOUD!

    The driving thing also got me,(AMERICA IS SO HUGE! EVERYTHING IS SO SPREAD OUT!) and it was annoying when walking/public transport wasn’t an option (C’mon Rease, you know the STL Metro system).

    And the money? I suddenly understood the Sacajawea dollar! The $1 bill was useless! Bring on the coins!

    I think it took longer for me to adjust to being home than it did being in a “foreign” country, which is what surprised me (I use quotes because, really, I was only in the UK, where you assume there’d be a lot more cross-over culture). So have fun with your Argentina to US experience 🙂

  • I know exactly what you’re talking about with many of these things! Especially the language issue and the water fountains. I still marvel at water fountains in public places. Free water… it still blows the mind.

    I still say “Doch” (“on the contrary”) occasionally, since the English equivalent doesn’t have the same exact meaning and weight.

    • Rease says:

      Free water is such a magical thing. I keep trying to kiss people on the cheek when I meet them – totally not acceptable here. I bet you are happy to return to a land of high fives though, right?

  • Sheryll says:

    “it smells like Target!” YES!!! hahahahahaha! I’m pretty sure I said the same thing when I went to Target after 5 months in Europe. It’s crazy how things like that come back to you instantly.
    Sheryll recently posted..100 Posts LaterMy Profile

  • rodrigo says:

    Dear Mr president’s relative,
    I had, and somehow still have, a huge cultural shock when I came back to Argentina after staying for more than 2 years in Japan. I think it has its own name but many other travellers told me that they had the same experience. Anyway, you will finally get used to it.
    Your blog is a great !!

    • Rease says:

      Thank you, Rodrigo! My last name has caused so many issues in Argentina haha. Japan would be huge change so I am impressed that you were able to adjust to Argentine life again.

      I hope to see you in the comments again soon, Rodrigo, welcome to Travelated.

  • Rease,

    I remember coming home after 11 months abroad. Still in the airport, I ended up for some reason with a few quarters in my hand. They were so tiny. My hand felt weird holding them. I had become accustomed to the 100 peso Chilean coins, which are closer in size to a US dollar coin, without realizing it until the moment my hand had a contrast.

    Never heard of a Mara before, even living in Argentina! Sounds like I’ve got to go mara hunting next visit.

    Jared Romey recently posted..Is My Underwear Inside-Out or Is It Backwards?My Profile

  • Hey Rease, just found you via Twitter, where I was told we were “similar.” Turns out the Twitter gnomes were right – I also live in BA, and am also back in the States after being gone for about 14 months (I’ve lived in BA for 4+ years altogether). You’re so spot on about this stuff – it happens to me every time I come back after being gone for a while.

    Soon after I got back I was sitting on a park bench in Philly and kind of freaked out when a guy spoke to me in English. Luckily I got it together enough not to respond in Spanish! And I have a really hard time meeting people and knowing if I’m supposed to shake their hand or what, and then when we part, do I hug them? Another handshake? The cheek kiss is so much easier!

    In general, I just feel a little bit off when I’m back in the States, and it’s frustrating to sense that people think I’m acting weird! It’s strange to feel like a foreigner in my own country in some way. My Spanish is feeling rusty already. But it was fun to eavesdrop on a guy speaking Spanish on his cell phone at Walgreens who surely had no suspicion that I understood what he was saying. Heh.

    Oh, and I definitely can’t wait to go to Target before I head back. 🙂

  • Eugenie says:

    I l lived in Argentina for six years. I am back in Europe now, and I know the feeling.

    The worst thing is my name. I’m surprised people can pronounce it right, and when I have to spell my last name, I always say I griega for the y…

    I’m also chocked to see that men aren’t gentlemen, they cut the line in front of you… That’s like rude

    I miss a translation for the words listo and permiso…

    I also have trouble with greeting people, they are so distant and I feel strange not giving a kiss when we meet or say goodbye

    It’s in the little things… I miss Argentina

    • Rease K says:

      I am struggling with the idea of this right now. I am back in Buenos Aires and trying to decide when to leave. I knew I would be leaving sometime in the first half of 2012, but it is still so hard. I know I want to move on, but I also know that no matter what, I will truly miss Argentina.

      • Eugenie says:

        It’s a strange country isn’t it, there are a thousand and one reasons that can get you upset every day, but in the end you still love it.

        I hope your move will be easy, but untill then keep enjoying!

  • grasya says:

    i have a similar post travel culture shock even if I’m from a different place in the world… nevertheless it’s still culture shock, and fitting in is hard the 1st time.. but after a few more long term trips and going back home, i think i have managed the feeling and treat reverse culture shock as part of the experience when coming home
    grasya recently posted..How to deal with Reverse Culture ShockMy Profile

    • reasek says:

      Where are you from?
      I think reverse culture shock can happen to anyone. I definitely deal with it better now though.

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