On Reverse Culture Shock
I wasn’t expecting this… not now.
When I arrived in England, everything was different. There were no 14-year-old kids singing Pasta con Tonno. People were pronouncing Italian words all wrong. “It’s not Spag-adi – it’s Spaghetti! Two Ts!“ I wanted to shout at them.
I had heard about reverse culture shock, but I thought that it would hit me as a type of sadness when I got back to Canada and started settling into a job. Suddenly and without warning, I’m feeling it now.
After almost two years teaching English in Italy, I didn’t realise how much my life has changed. It’s been slow. You learn how to live, how to appreciate the local life, and then you reach a point where you interact meaningfully with people. This is the phase I was on when I left: the phase where most people marry a local.
There are some things that have changed for me and I’ll try to explain them. I seem like a pretentious person, I know that. I’m not doing it on purpose.
I’m really agitated by waste. I’m annoyed at the amount of shampoo bottles in peoples’ bathrooms. Speaking of bathrooms, they are huge! This is in England. I’m worried about going back to Canada where things are giant size.
I’m annoyed at the supermarket. I’m annoyed at the packaging on products. No one is carrying his or her own grocery bags. Where are all the vegetables? The beautiful English market seems foreign and too organised. The vegetables seem to be perfectly shaped. No one is yelling. Everyone is calm. Wine costs more than it should.
I don’t understand why people are buying water when in Italy there are fountains giving it away for free. I overhear their conversations and no one has mentioned that water costs £1.50. I realise that it’s not part of the language to complain about the price of water.
I find myself speaking Italian without meaning to and sounding really silly. “Okay! Andiamo!” (Let’s go) and I get stared at, wide-eyed. I’m sure it makes me sound pretentious. Speaking of pretentious, I’m now one of those people who actually orders the espresso (without cream and sugar) at Starbucks. I’m embarrassed to comment on the fact that it tastes weak.
Unfortunately, my phrases start with the words, “In Italy…”. I know that I’ve become that person who is consumed by their experience, but I can’t help myself. For me, Italy wasn’t just a trip. It wasn’t a travel. It was my life. It is my life.
I laugh at my friends’ preconceived notions of Italy. Oh ha ha – you think people drink wine in the afternoon, that’s cute! I don’t think they like me anymore.
I can’t use filler words to add to a conversation. My English has changed. One-word responses like nice, awesome and I’m happy. They sound strange to me. I am used to having complex conversations, explaining why something is the way it is. Instead, I ask my friends, “Why?” and implore them, “Tell me more about that.”
I was on the train the other day and I overheard a woman speaking Italian to her friend. I understood her and felt comforted by the language. When she stopped talking, my head and heart hurt. It feels like sensory overload in reverse. My mind is used to reading, writing, and speaking in another language and suddenly it’s not there.
I talk with my hands.
I can’t drink so much liquid. I remember when I moved to Italy I used to take a water bottle around with me everywhere. I’d fill it up several times a day. Slowly that habit faded and I somehow adjusted to the heat. Now I only drink liquid at meal times. An American coffee is much too much liquid for me; it just sits in my stomach. A Frappuccino from Starbucks seems like something from another world… it’s a dessert, but you’re walking around with it? My brain is conflicted.
Speaking of… why am I paying £1.80 for an espresso that should cost £.80?
The speed of people walking around in London was very odd for me. It was too fast. When you go on a walk, you take your time and have a conversation. You don’t go in search of a destination.
In the middle of conversations, I think about mixed-grammar forms, phrasal verbs and expressions. I want to have a conversation about the language. No one knows what a phrasal verb is. They don’t care. This annoys me.
I was in a relationship for the last two years with Italy. A strange relationship where we fell in love hard and fast and went through some bumps. We managed to overcome language and cultural barriers. Now I’m coming out of it. It was no one’s fault; it was mutual (my visa). But it wasn’t just my trip or my travel; it was my life and the only thing I can really relate to right now.
I see immigration in a way that other people don’t. I understand how long it takes to adjust. I hear comments about immigrants and how they “should speak English” and how they should “be more English” since they are in this country. But it’s not that simple. These things take time. Slowly, you try out your new culture like a style of clothing. Slowly, your tastes adjust and then all of a sudden your mum’s coffee doesn’t taste like home anymore.
When you change what comfort and home is to you, it’s a very different feeling. It’s like going through a divorce. Everything was normal and now it’s not.
You come back to your home – your country – and you don’t fit in there either. It’s like going back to your childhood elementary school and realising how small it is. Last night I had a dream that I visited my elementary school. I talked to a little girl who had just moved there from another country. I helped her with her pronunciation.
These are the things that I dream about.
I can’t talk to you about Orange is The New Black. I can talk to you about the reference “the new black” and what it means from the perspective of a language learner.
I can talk to you about the political situation and unemployment in Italy.
I can talk to you about Lampeduza. I’m surprised that no one seems to know about it.
In the end, we can talk about the weather. I feel like a stranger in my own culture, having limited vocabulary to talk about what I want. It’s my first six months in Italy all over again, talking about what the weather is like and what it should be like. In my head I’m translating modal verbs into Italian so I don’t forget.
I realise that I said the word “Italy” nine times in this article. I realise that no one is really interested in a country outside of his or her own. They have their own interesting culture. They have their own experiences. I stay silent. I’m interested in them too, but the pace of our conversations is uncomfortable for me. I’m not used to this.
I realise that I want to go to home but I have no idea where that is anymore.
More than anything though I just want an actual cup of coffee.