You drive on the wrong side of the road and other Reverse Culture Shock Moments

When I first became an expat in 2010, trips home were like a life raft to me.  It was the opportunity to return to a world that made sense to me.  A return to a land where I wasn’t constantly out of step.  Arriving in the US felt like unclenching a muscle I hadn’t realized was knotted up.  It’s thrilling to see friends and family.  Food, glorious food I can’t get in Singapore.  Target–I could weep at the mere sight of a Target.

This is no longer true

I have, over time, become more ambivalent about our visits to the US.  Those things I loved about visiting home are still true–to an extent.  But the reality is that I am increasingly a square peg trying to fit into a round hole.  Instead of feeling culture shock when I return to Singapore and struggling to find my balance here, I feel that unclenching when I step off the plane into Changi airport.  And rather than feeling like I “fit” in the US, I am adrift in an ocean of reverse culture shock.

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You drive on the wrong side of the road

I’ve been driving a car in Singapore for almost two years.  In that same time, I’ve only driven in the US three times, most recently December of 2012.  It is now natural for me to get into the left side of the car.  While I am fine when moving with other traffic, on a quiet road in suburban Massachusetts without any other cars to cue me, I have to consciously think about into which lane I should turn.  Which side of the car is my gas tank on?  A horn blares, reminding me I can legally turn right on red (at least in MA and some other parts of the US).  Driving is disorienting, to say the very least.

What does my car look like again?  Picture me wandering aimlessly through a massive lot, shivering and clicking my keys in hopes of setting off the rental’s alarm so I can find it.  Then picture me constantly checking my doors because the beep signals for what “locked” and “unlocked” are the inverse of my SG car, and I have no clue if my car is locked or not.

I learned how to drive in 1996 as the season turned from fall to winter, so I have oodles of past experience driving in the snow.  That doesn’t mean I want to anymore–I stayed in more than I would have in the same weather five years ago.  That my rental was not properly winterized with snow tires in no way helped.

It still blows my mind that gas is half the price, though.  Quit your bitching, Americans.

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Screw it, we’re calling you Aunty and Uncle and other linguistic FAILS

In the US, the only people you address as “Aunty” and “Uncle” are your blood relatives or close friends who have earned the honorific (with the exceptions of certain ethnic communities, who only use it within the community).  On previous trips I have tried to teach Elanor to code switch and not use “Aunty/Uncle” when referring to strangers.  These efforts were generally met with resistance.  On this trip, I said screw it and just kept using Aunty and Uncle.  It’s easier and my kids feel comfortable with them.  There’s also no handy American English/cultural equivalent.

This attracted no small number of looks.

“Get in queue, Ellie.”  I use “line up” or “get in line” sometimes, but queue has overtaken line in my everyday usage.  Much as with Aunty/Uncle, I just continued to use whatever worked, regardless of whether it was “American English” or not.

Lift or elevator?  Whatever.  Just get in.

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How do I pay again?

You hand your credit card to the cashier with both hands when you pay, yes?


I don’t know how to use any of the payment machines in the US.  I forget I’m supposed to.  The cashier looks at me as I offer my card and points at the machine.  I have to swipe, not insert.  Then it’s push this button and push that button.  Oh, and the reason there’s no receipt yet?  There’s one more button to push.  Did I sign?  Do I have to sign?

It’s sort of funny to share this anecdote, I suppose, but in the moment it’s quite embarrassing.  Unlike my linguistic stumbles, being unable to do something basic without a great deal of confusion made me feel quite self conscious.  I’d deflect it with humor like “mom brain” or “sorry, long week” or some excuse about being preoccupied with Christmas.  But I could feel my cheeks burning.  I was acutely aware of how out of step I felt.

While we’re on the topic of money–all your denominations of bills are the same size and color.  Dude, that’s just confusing.

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How do I get there from here?

Some places and the routes there are burned deep into my brain.  I don’t know that it’s possible for me to get lost getting from my in-laws home to the Natick Mall, for example.  I could likely do that blindfolded.  A place I went to with low frequency?  Don’t ask me, ask google maps.  With so many store fronts changing and new stores being built, the once familiar landscape is a now full of potential wrong turns and missing landmarks.

This sort-of-but-not-really familiar landscape drove me crazy.  Along with the way my friend’s children have morphed from babies to toddlers, or toddler to kids in the sixteen months since we last visited Boston, the changing landscape are a visible reminder of how time passes without you.  I find myself acutely aware that the place I thought of as HOME for so many years, that I still refer to as Home, is no longer my home.

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Despite the reverse culture shock, there are still those irreplaceable moments

It is true that I am out of step in Boston.  It is true that I am ambivalent about trips to the US at this point–we’ve actually decided not to leave Southeast Asia in 2014 for a variety of reasons and I am happy to take a break from US travel.

What is also true is that there are things we just can’t get from all the facebook posts and skype dates in the world.  We can’t get a hug from Curt (as in the picture above) or any other friend/family member back home.  We can’t spontaneously hang out with people.  We can’t just pick up the phone and call without doing timezone math.

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We can’t eat cone head sundaes at Friendly’s or any other yummy food you just can’t get in Singapore.

IMG_1205But while I can’t genuflect at the glory and wonder of Target, Singapore is now home.  And I am happy to return here.

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5 Responses to You drive on the wrong side of the road and other Reverse Culture Shock Moments

  1. letto31 says:

    I haven’t been back to the US since November 2012. I’d forgotten about the card swiping!!! I too just say queue now too – lift, lorry, trolley, tissue, toilet – and what my kids use now too. I’m terrified to head back and drive on the other side of the road. Over here in KL, lanes are a suggestion and I’ve learned to just go with the flow…I do still miss Target desperately btw and every US expat I talk to says the same thing. 🙂 Great post!

  2. Jim says:

    When I’ve traveled in East/Southeast Asia, I always make a conscious effort to hand money/credit cards to people with both hands. Come to think of it, I don’t remember any machines there like the ones in the US where you swipe your card and then sign. In general, Americans seem to like (or at least tolerate) self-service, whereas I think other countries would find that odd at best and extremely rude at worst.

    Yeah, American money is ridiculously badly designed. I have no idea how visually impaired people manage.

    • In some places, you insert your card into a slot, but you don’t swipe. Local credit cards have a chip embedded in them, which is why they’re inserted rather than swiped.

      I used to think Singaporean/other money looked weird. Now I realize the American money is the weird money.

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