The mail function has been disabled by an administrator.

Digesting Reverse Culture Shock

After months overseas, Adele starts small with the simple act of ordering a coffee.

I was standing in line at Starbucks, scanning the menu above the counter and giddily anticipating my first real, large-sized, strongly-caffeinated espresso drink in seven months.

The line creeped forward, I placed my order and reached for my wallet. “$4.25,” the girl behind the counter said. Only three simple numbers and yet I was momentarily stunned. I stared back at her blankly, holding a wad of colourful bills in my hand. My heart rate began to speed up and I mumbled a quick apology, escaping backwards through the line and shoving Chilean pesos back into my pocket.

It was there, at an innocuous Starbucks in the centre of Miami International Airport that I experienced my first bout of reverse culture shock. I had been prepared for feelings of terror, loneliness and confusion upon arrival in Chile, but I was not as prepared for the same feelings to hit me when returning to my own country.

Determined not to let America get the best of me, I took a deep breath, dug my virtually unused credit card out of the bottom of my backpack and returned to conquer Starbucks. And when I finally got my tall, steaming beverage I retreated to a corner of the food court to think.

Although I felt like the same person who had left the same airport seven months ago, that girl would never have tried to pay for a grande Americano with pesos. That girl didn’t even have any pesos. That girl was used to throwing her toilet paper inside of the toilet, had a cell phone that worked off of WiFi, and had never tried an empanada. She hadn’t developed a tolerance for instant coffee, seen a rat or lived at the base of a volcano. And she definitely didn’t feel uncomfortable in her own home.

As I mused over these new discoveries the coffee hit my system and I found myself running for the nearest restroom; apparently my digestive abilities, too, had changed.

The intercom buzzed, people began to stand up and dig out tickets, and I got in line to board the last plane of my 24-hour trip home. It was then that I realized that this feeling in the bottom of my stomach—the uneasy, anxious whirlpool that began raging the moment I set foot on US soil—was exactly why I wanted to travel in the first place.

I didn’t move abroad just to eat different foods and post Instagram photos of volcanos (although there may be more than a couple on my account), but I moved abroad to challenge my beliefs about the world and myself. I wanted to grow, to learn something new every day and to meet people that shifted my perspective. I wanted to struggle with a new language until it became a natural part of my daily life, and I wanted simple things like going to the supermarket or the post office to become adventures. I wanted to be able to see how lucky I was to grow up where I did, but I also wanted to realize what I had been lacking from my comfortable life in New England.

There are many clichéd quotes and phrases about how travel has the ability to change a person. Most of these phrases are overused, over-glorified and slightly vomit inducing. However, in the seven months that I spent in Chile there were handfuls of noticeable changes. I gained weight and I lost weight. I began to feel more comfortable in my own skin. I fell in love. I started to eat dinner after 10pm and I picked up a new sport. I learned to survive comfortably on $1.20 an hour and I developed some relationships that gave me new ideas about how friends and family treat each other. My hair turned blonder, I honed the ability to maintain a woodstove fire well into the night and I forgot what bagels tasted like. I even acquired a fake front tooth.

The list goes on; small, large, superficial, and mental changes can be added. And it was because of these changes that I felt like a foreigner in my native country; a place that I never expected to feel so out of balance and off-kilter. But this feeling—like walking down the aisle of a moving plane with one eye closed—is also a confirmation that I succeeded in my travels.

Add this article to your reading list
Published in Work Abroad Blogs
Adele Priestley

From a small town in Vermont, Adele Priestley is currently enjoying the frustrations and joys of being a first-time TEFL teacher in Puerto Varas, Chile. Adele loves to take risks, laugh a lot and dance on elevated surfaces.

Website: www.wedancedanyway.com

Join the Verge Community

Verge Magazine Membership

Join our community of savvy travellers and put nearly two decades of inspiring articles, authoritative information and expert advice to work for you.

Show me more > Login >


Travel Intelligence Bulletin


The latest openings overseas—direct to your inbox.

Subscriber Login


Travel with purpose; travel for good. Articles, resources and events for ethical and meaningful travel, volunteering, working and studying abroad.

Verge believes in travel for change. International experience creates global citizens, who can change our planet for the better. This belief is at the core of everything we do.

Like what you see?

Follow us on social media