Reverse Culture Shock–Where did all these white people come from?

I was torn whether to post this.  Discussing race always has the potential to be offensive, especially coming from a white person.  However, one of my biggest goals for Expat Bostonians has always been to be honest about my expat experience.  When I began writing a post about reverse culture shock, the section about race took up more than 1/3 of the essay, and I realized it needed to be its own topic.  Rather than begin with the light hearted anecdotes about not remembering which side of the road to drive on, I want to open with this more serious post.

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The night before we left for the US, Ellie and I attended Toys for Tots at the American Club–it is a charity that gives toys to kids in need, and one I love to support.  However, I found myself feeling a bit odd.  My discomfort in being a room with so many white people with American accents should have tipped me off that I was in for some sort of race/ethnicity/identity reverse culture shock upon arrival to the US.

Singapore and the US both deflect and discourage discussions about race/ethnicity, especially those less comfortable discussions.  I’ve been blessed with a group of friends who are comfortable discussing these topics, but I still find myself grasping for the right words to convey what this sort of reverse culture shock feels like, and where it comes from.

On my first visit back to the US, I remember feeling ashamed at my relief to be in a country where my skin color didn’t necessarily signal my belonging/outsider status, or imply anything about my economic privilege on its own.  It is lowering, and somewhat shameful, but one of the ways in which going back to the States was a relief back in my baby expat days was that I got to exercise white privilege and fade into the majority.  Knowing that it was slightly shameful didn’t stop that moment of relief because it was part of the larger feeling of belonging.

During this trip, though, I found myself acutely aware of race/ethnicity in the US.  I was conscious of being in overwhelmingly white spaces.  I felt far more comfortable in the urban jungles of Boston and New York City, which are fairly diverse than I did in the suburban and rural parts of Maine, Rhode Island and Massachusetts that I visited which were overwhelmingly white.


When I have visited Australia and New Zealand, my whiteness doesn’t mark me as other, but the moment that I open my mouth, my accent betrays me as an outsider.

I think part of what was so disquieting about my being white in America on this trip in particular is that I feel like an imposter who is “passing.”

When I bought cold medication, I had to produce ID (cold medication has sales limits on it because apparently you can make crystal meth if you have a significant quantity).  The cashier was baffled by my passport instead of a driver’s license.  Most people do have a driver’s license, but those that don’t will get a state issued ID card (so that they can buy alcohol, tobacco, cold medication, verify photo id, etc).  The number of Americans who would pull out a passport is microscopically small.  It was a visible crack (along with the weird vocabulary) that mark me as being “off.”  There were plenty of other little cracks, but I’ll cover those in the lighter reverse culture shock post on Monday-this is just one example.


One of the things I worry about when it comes to the idea of moving back the US is that the girl’s teachers won’t really understand how alien the US is to our girls.  After all, Ravi and I are American–while we might be a bit off or odd, we sound American and we can easily pass without betraying how alien being there may feel.  In looking at us and talking to us, will a teacher be able to still remember to treat our kids with the extra care they’d need during an adjustment/acclimation period?

I don’t know what I am anymore.  I’m American, sure.  Even if I gave up my citizenship (no, not happening) I’d still be American deep in my bones.  But I feel Singaporean too, although I’m acutely aware that I’m not Singaporean in the same way I’m American–I just don’t understand too much to be Singaporean in the same way someone who grew up here is (or even that my children are).  But I’m acutely aware that I’m also neither American nor Singaporean in some intangible way.  In some respects, if you stay abroad long enough, I’m told this happens to us all–that we become some sort of “other” identity a bit outside.  I’m not as aware of it in Singapore because I expect to be out of step.  I don’t expect that in the US, and hence from the moment I’m surrounded by white Americans, I become acutely aware of how I no longer fit in.

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5 Responses to Reverse Culture Shock–Where did all these white people come from?

  1. Marcia says:

    Crystal. First thank you so much for your wonderful blog it has been both helpful and entertaining. We were transferred to Singapore for a short time and found your blog. We were expats in the UK when our kids were young, they are now grown with children of their own. I will never forget when one of my children’s Teachers said, “Well she does not know American money”. This was after spending 4 years in the English school system. So you are right there is very little understanding for where your children are coming from, however the joy will be the empathy your children will always have for others just a bit different and their willingness to try new things that may be just outside of the box.

    • Thank you!

      I used to think a move back to the states would be the easy, seamless transition. Now I know that when it eventually happens, there will definitely be a period of adjustment for all of us.

      I hope my children grow up to be like yours in their empathy and willingness to try new things. Hopefully your children realize how lucky they were to have had that experience with you.

  2. bookjunkie says:

    to me you feel like one of us.

    But yes I guess as a child I felt like the child of the world and later wondered why there had to be all these geographical boundaries. I wanted to just get myself everywhere and I had no concept of a passport or restrictions.

  3. Alexander Riley says:

    Interesting blog. Especially the comments on race/ethnicity. Who would have thought that a white American male would feel like an outsider in a predominantly white environment – in America.

    • I’m a white American FEMALE, actually.

      Why do you find it surprising? People feel like outsiders for all sorts of reasons, ethnic, religious, economic, sex, orientation, etc.

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