Reverse Culture Shock: From Vancouver to Southeast Asia and Back

I was standing in a Vancouver supermarket aisle when a boy suddenly came flying down the aisle wielding a shopping cart … backwards.

“OW! SORRY!” I yelped, as he rolled over my foot.  

The sharp pain gave way to glee when I realized that my over-apologizing Canadian instincts were back.

Moving Abroad Reshapes Your Experience Of ‘Home’

In the summer of 2016, I moved back to Vancouver after four years of chasing my career in Southeast Asia. After four years of pounding concrete and actual jungles, I expected the move back to Canada to be more of a breather. I was wrong.

The next year would turn out to be a year of painfully awkward reverse culture shock.  

What is Reverse Culture Shock?

Most people are familiar with the term ‘culture shock’ – disorientation you may experience when exposed to a new culture, environment, or unfamiliar belief or value system. Reverse culture shock occurs when you return “home”, but feel largely disoriented or distressed by readjusting to a culture/environment that you expect to feel familiar…but doesn’t.

As a tourist, you’re aware of your foreignness. You watch and experience your surroundings as an outsider because everything is new. But when you travel in the reverse direction back to familiar territory, your expectations of cultural fluency are quickly met with a disjointed reality.

From social blunders to feelings of isolation and frustration, here are 7 social observations I made over my travels.

1.   Cleaning up after yourself – In Vancouver, you can guarantee a room of side-eyes following you out the door if you don’t clean up after yourself in a publicly shared environment like a food court. In both Singapore and Manila, this habit of returning my tray of dirty dishes to the service counter was frequently met with bemusement by staff, or an actual scolding by designated clean-up crew who made it clear I was slowing down their well-oiled system. Any attempts to recycle items individually will be mocked.

Photo: Devon Wong

2.   Expectations of customer service – North Americans often forget that our customer service is one of the few cultures that is tip-based, ensuring that service staff go the extra mile because (when everything goes right) it pays off. In other words, the “customer is always right” because the customer is going to pay that extra 15-20% in tips. In Asia, it is perfectly socially acceptable to raise your hand to wave over the server because they’re not being paid extra to offer up pleasantries, pretend to care about how your day is going, or notice that your glass needs a top-up. Oh, and don’t even think about asking for a refund!

3.   Building and losing vocabulary – It’s an obvious point that sometimes needs to be restated for those of us living in our North American bubbles: English is not the first language for most of the world. In fact, it sometimes isn’t even the second or third language. There is such a brilliance of dialects across Southeast Asia that puts North Americans to shame. With each move, I built a small vocabulary in the local language to get by in day-to-day interactions, while deepening my understanding about each culture’s implicit beliefs and values through local expressions. For example, in the Philippines, I loved hearing the common phrase Bahala na, (rough translation: “if God allows it”) because it revealed the deep faith that locals held to see them through challenging times. Over the years, my command of English began to shrink as I adjusted my communication style to connect with non-native English speakers. Coming back to Canada has been a complete re-education of my English vocabulary, expressions and idioms. (Though, I should probably just learn Mandarin.)

4.   Office management styles – I had the experience of working in 4 different organizations in Manila and Singapore, where I generally found the management style to be hierarchical. “Bosses” were both revered and feared, and feedback was rarely invited. Since returning to Vancouver, I find it a huge adjustment to be expected to exercise my voice in meetings with superiors, or view my managers as peers actively seeking my input and collaboration.

Photo: Devon Wong

5.   Making fast friends with complete strangers – As an expat, you have a natural conversation topic in your arsenal: “Hey! Where are you from?” This would typically lead to fast banter and anecdotes about common experiences as foreigners, what parts of the country you’ve both visited, the price of rent in different neighbourhoods, and bonding over common expat challenges like opening bank accounts and filing applications for permanent residency. More often than not, first meetings would rapidly progress to an invitation to “grab a drink” later in the week. Back in my hometown, I have found it more difficult to connect with strangers in the same way.

6.   Splitting the tab with friends, or not – Bless my Malaysian friend, Apple, for politely letting me know that it’s considered poor taste to “Go Dutch” by local standards. I soon became so accustomed to taking turns footing the bill, that I still find it counterintuitive to not grab the receipt and do the (very Asian) dance of “who gets to pay” since I’ve moved back to Vancouver.

7.   Developing a deeper empathy for others – There is something profoundly humbling about realizing that your personal values, culture, and beliefs you take for granted as “normal” actually reflect nothing more than the attitudes you’ve absorbed by being surrounded by other people just like you. I don’t believe you can truly understand your own moral fiber until you are immersed in a completely different environment, and confronted to dig into your “why”. I have also learned that, wherever you go, people are simply doing the best that they can with the tools that they have. And that a little empathy goes a long way.

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