Thursday, June 20, 2013

Domesticism–The Forgotten Phase of Reverse Culture Shock

I am 6 months home from almost 3 years living in Asia. For a while I thought I was over my culture shock, but truth be told, I’m not so sure anymore. I’ve realized that I seem to be going through another phase of integration – or discovery; one that doesn’t appear to have a name or even a mention on any of the culture shock posts I’ve found online, so I am dubbing it domesticism. So what is domesticism? Well, in order for one to understand I need to give an introduction of the beginning stages of reverse culture shock (RCS) because I find that many people have quite simply never heard of this before. For those of you who have lived abroad and don’t feel like reading a tldr post, skip to the 3rd from last paragraph for my explanation of domesticism.
When I arrived home just before Christmas I suffered from the classic symptoms of RCS. It started with conscious shock at the strangeness of things such as public toilets, eating customs, the bitter cold, and the cost of living. Outside of these obvious foreign customs however I was in a state of excitement fueled in part by finally getting to have a traditional Christmas with my family and the sight of snow.
Once the holidays ended I started thinking about my old friends again and wanted to call them all and go out, but something got in the way. For as long as I can remember I have struggled with a nearly debilitating shyness, but this was generally not a problem after I had an established relationship with a person. At this time however, I found anxiety arising at the thought of seeing old friends again. I felt like a stranger who no longer knew the people listed in my cellphone. I wanted to reconnect, but my anxiety was such that to this day there are still a few people I have not yet seen. I had to take it slow and see people one at a time over time.
During this time I had a contract to teach at UWM. It was my first time being a lecturer in Anthropology (as opposed to being a TA) but it was not my first time running my own class as I had been an ESL teacher for a while in Taiwan. Educational culture is not the same the world over however, and I found myself alternately  pleasantly surprised and sometimes irritated by my students the first few weeks of class – even though I remembered being just like them before I left America.
Over the course of the semester I felt constantly awkward, like a foreigner in my own country. This was likely exacerbated by my social anxiety, but also by my living arrangements. When I returned I decided to stay with family because I wasn’t sure how long I’d be staying in Milwaukee and so I didn't want to sign a year lease for my own apartment. Now let me make one thing clear before I continue: my family has been awesome and my problem with living at home has nothing to do with them doing anything wrong. My problem is that they live so much differently than I’ve been accustomed to. Before I left the States I had lived on my own for several years, always in the city and near campus. Then I spent 3 years living in the middle of downtown in a city of 5 million people in a popular hostel where there was always something going on. My family on the other hand lives in a suburb nearly 30 minutes from school. Other than my family there is no one around and nothing I can walk to. I was isolated and lonely and to make matters worse, the price shock often prevented me from even trying to go out.
As weak as this may sound, I now think the weather was also a factor in the depression I felt during this time. I moved from a subtropical island with palm trees to Wisconsin in the middle of winter. I missed being able to wear dresses, eat outside, and work in open-air cafes. Fortunately, all things pass, and I am writing these words sitting outside Anodyne cafe, wearing a dress. Its like I found a little piece of me.
There are other pastimes I am also rediscovering. Despite the convenience of public transportation in Taipei, I love driving. After 3 years without a car I had forgotten, but when the weather began to warm I started crawling out of my skin and was unable to sleep. One night, well after midnight, I got into my car and drove to the lake. It was too late to call anyone and everywhere was closed. There was no where to go so I just drove up and down the lake. I had forgotten how beautiful Milwaukee is. I do this now every once in a while. I drive East along the lakefront or West out into the country. This had the added benefit of clearing my mind to the point that after months of writer’s block I finally began writing my dissertation one morning after one of these lakefront drives. I have been a prolific writer since grade school. Never before have I suffered such a block. I am coming back.
All of this ‘til now I expected to some degree. The internet is full of such stories. So why do I bother writing this? Because everyone else ends the story here, but this is not the end. Over the past few weeks I seem to have slipped into another phase of discovery – domesticism.
I feel a zeal for all things America and Milwaukee. I want to eat beer brats, go for drives, and sit with friends on lawn chairs in front of an open garage drinking beer. I smile when passing American flags and check out every Harley and pick up truck that passes. These are all things I liked before, but I don’t remember the feeling being as strong as it is now. Added to this are new found American pastimes like listening to country music. Furthermore there are things that I’ve realized I simply prefer done American style, like clubbing and flirting.
Domesticism is like becoming a born-again American. It began when I finally started rediscovering my old pastimes and hangouts, but I am not the same person I was before and so it didn’t stop there. I found new pastimes, friends, and hangouts. I am discovering my home.
It wasn’t until I went abroad that I consciously thought of myself as an American. I didn’t expect this identity to reappear while back at home.


  1. Very nice and intelligent article, as always. Now you might be able to understand why we can't settle any more, after 12 plus years of perpetual traveling. Love, Konni & Matt.

  2. I can very easily see myself retiring like you two for this very reason :)