On Reverse Culture Shock


Disclaimer: this is a personal website. All views and information presented herein are my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.



Fulbright teacher alumni jumping for joy at last year’s orientation.  Photo cred: Stacey Tatera

In two days, I’ll kiss a plane.

As much as I love the opportunity to see stars from a different vantage point in the world, I’m terrified of flying to get there.  So, as superstitious and silly as it may be, I must kiss every plane I walk onto.  I’ve been caught once or twice by flight attendants who gaze at me with a mix between amusement and pity, and I’ve gotten ninja-quick with how fast I can kiss my hand and press it against the plane.  Sure, it’s a small, futile gesture, but it’s something that calms the panic building up in my ears.  And makes me feel oddly sunny to know that there are planes in the air right now that have my smooch-blessings on them.

I’m going to Washington D.C. to greet the newest batch of incredible Fulbright Teachers at their orientation.  It’s strange  to think that was me two summers ago, feeling mostly like I didn’t belong there, that they had chosen the wrong girl for the Fulbright.  I was unconfident in myself, and I spent more time studying my shoes than facing forward toward the transformative experience that was to come.  And now, two years later, I refuse to look down, and I find much gratitude in being able to embrace things head on.  


Presenting at the Fulbright orientation last year 

One of the most impactful sessions for me during the three and a half day orientation was on reverse culture shock.  I had never considered that when I returned from my trip that I’d feel anything other than happy and grateful.  But as the speaker Craig Storti, the author of The Art of Coming Home expressed, home has changed. And I have changed.  When I returned, I did struggle with adapting with feeling like I constantly wanted to talk about this life-changing-sound-the-trumpets-I-uncovered-the-best-me-and-I-want-to-conquer-the-world-now year, but never actually talking about it as I felt that no one would really understand it.  Luckily, the orientation helped me moved pretty seamlessly into my new kiwi culture, and it got me emotionally prepared for the occasionally turbulent transition back into US culture.  But what it didn’t prepare me for was how occasionally funny that transition could be.

When my family picked me up on Christmas Eve eve from the airport, we decided to stop into Buffalo Wild Wings because I was dying for some Asian Zing chicken.  Within a few moments, I turned to my brother Danny and exclaimed, “Why is everybody screaming?!”.  For the first week or so, I felt like everyone was talking at me in all CAPS, and I put earplugs in my Amazon wishlist (which coincidentally I realized I still had in there as of a few days ago, so I swapped it for back-to-school scratch n’ sniff stickers).  


My brothers and I reunited after my Fulbright experience. 

The funniest thing I couldn’t get used to was driving upon my return.  During my Fulbright, flatmate Tricia and I decided to rent a car one weekend in order to travel around sunny Napier when we needed a bit of a mental break from a particularly intense stretch of research.  Tricia didn’t want to chance driving, but I thought I’d give it a go.  I knew that the driver’s seat would be on the right side of the car, and that the shifter would be to my left.  I knew I’d have to drive on the left and turn into the opposite lane then I’d be used to…. But I didn’t ever consider that the turn signals and the windshield wipers buttons would also be switched.  

So there I was, on a crayola crayon sky blue day going on the round-a-abouts with my windshield wipers going like mad.  And it happened every. single. time.  I’d like to think that every time another driver saw my hot mess car with its windshield wipers going at full blast when there was a 0% chance of raining, he thought, “GET OUT OF HER WAY!”


Driving on the wrong side of the road in New Zealand! 

The trip was successful in that I didn’t become one of those statistics of tourists who cause highway pileups or drive into ditches of sheep.  But it could certainly have been more successful at seeing the beautiful New Zealand scenery without the distraction of rapidly moving black plastic chunks obstructing our view.

That act of having to concentrate so hard both when driving and when crossing the streets in New Zealand (I had a few pretty close calls when I stepped off the curb looking the wrong way) translated into a pretty significant difficulty of remembering which side of the street to turn onto when I first started driving again in the U.S.

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The cutest place in Napier/Hawke’s Bay to have coffee and crumpets: Birdwoods

One time, just a couple of days after arriving home for the holidays, my mom drove to the grocery store in her new blue grey van, and I ran in to try to find some non-alcoholic ginger beer (why oh why is this not a thing in the United States yet?!).  When I came running back from the store disappointed, I hesitated at the blue van before I ran up to the left side of the van–which would normally be the passenger side of the vehicle in New Zealand–flung open the door, realized it wasn’t the right side, slammed the door, ran around the car, flung open the correct passenger door, and exclaimed, “I can’t seem to remember what side of the car to get in on!”

I then paused at a shocked brown eyed woman who was decidedly not my mother and screeched in embarrassment, “… or what van to get into.”

As I apologized and closed the door, my mother was looking up from her phone in a nearly identical van two parking spaces over. I ducked and jumped into the correct vehicle, and my mom looked over at the brown haired woman openly laughing in her seat, and then looked back at me in pure confusion.  

“Why don’t they lock their doors here?” I grumbled, slumping down in my seat.

And so, the first few weeks were filled of little humorous moments like this, where I had occasional lapses in car judgment, or would use New Zealand lingo with gusto only to be met with utter confusion.  I missed really, really strange things about New Zealand, like hoping I could order a burger with beetroot (yes, that’s really a thing in NZ, and I didn’t even really even like it when I was in New Zealand).  

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Trying a burger with beetroot at the famous Fergburger in Queenstown


Attempting McDonald’s “Kiwiburger” laden with beetroot

Other non-normal things I did when I returned home:

  • Overused the term “dodgy,” which oddly enough is actually a term I picked up when I lived in Britain a year, not in New Zealand.
  • Used a hot water bottle to keep warm even though I had heat.
  • Made the recipes of foods my kiwi friends taught me to make.  And on a food note, tried to find anything that could closely resemble a New Zealand pie.  A “pot pie” is the closest we have to it, but it’s just not the same.
  • Told someone to “bring a plate” to a gathering.  Which–um–doesn’t mean to bring a literal plate.
  • Ended my statements with an “up” inflection instead of “down” like most non-valley girl Americans do.
  • Couldn’t remember what size coin coincided with the proper U.S. currency amount.  

So as I start to pack my bags to cheer on the future of the Fulbright program as they receive their Fulbright pins and embrace their transitions into their new lives, I chuckle about these little moments.  Sure, reverse culture shock can be tough, and there were times when I felt incredibly lonely and isolated.  But the next day (or even the next moment), I’d be laughing about a silly thing I did or said.   I grew through those ups and downs, that constant turbulence.  And as long as my plane on Sunday isn’t that way, in the long run, I’ll be better for it.  Just in cases, I’ll leave a kiss-print near the front left exit.


Fulbright orientation last year.  Photo cred: Den Binderup 




3 thoughts on “On Reverse Culture Shock

  1. Aaaàaaaaaah Mah gurl…….kno exactly how ya feel…..being a KIWIFROM DOWN UNDER I felt exactly the way you did in your country driving on the wrong side of the road.
    Loved all your blogs. ….
    Glad you had such a gud time here….in God’s Own Country😍😍😍😍

    Liked by 1 person

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