Reverse Culture Shock: An Expat Cartography of “Home”

In early June I went “home” to visit my family—home to the US, home to lovely Lexington, Kentucky—the horse farms and rolling hills, and the craziness that comes from the people I grew up with and the culture I was born into.

I’d done this before—a number of times. I’d lived as an expat both in Haiti and in Vietnam. However, this home-coming was different. Very different.

You see, somehow, during the 13 months I’d been away from the US, “home” had up and moved away. Damn home. The nerve of it. Home was not where I had left it.

I think of this as the cultural equivalent of jet lag, only bigger, deeper, and more all-consuming.   Jet lag is all about being “up in the air”—more similar to culture shock than what I encountered. This experience was more hard core, more about the bedrock of who I am and what’s important to me, how I define and create meaning.

My first hint that something had happened was a linguistic one, one that I noticed on my way to the US, when my original flight from Quito landed in Miami. I noticed then that I automatically assumed I needed to speak Spanish. I found myself speaking the language, slaughtered as it may have been, to anyone I talked with upon deplaning in south Florida. I’d have a few words out before I realized I was making a linguistic assumption that I struggled to interrupt. Yes, this may have been appropriate in Miami, where a lot of Spanish is spoken, but my impulse continued at the airport in Chicago and during my stay in Lexington, as well.  It’s true, in fact, that my Spanish is pathetic, but some change has occurred at a linguistic level—a shift I had not even recognized until I reentered my culture of origin.

I associate this with stepping onto land after having been on a boat for an extended time. Folks have to regain their footing, even though they have walked on something solid their entire lives. Sometimes this happens literally, sometimes linguistically, and sometimes in a larger cultural sense, as well—even though that thing we encounter upon returning to our culture of origin is basic to who we are and where we’ve come from. We are wobbly on our feet at first.

I only know, having been in the US for going on two weeks, that on my way back to Ecuador, when my 3rd of 4 flights landed in Quito, I was relieved in a fundamental way. It didn’t matter that I’d not yet arrived in Cuenca. Despite the elevation I was breathing more deeply, taking more oxygen into my lungs and inflating them more fully than I had during two weeks thousands of feet closer to sea level.

Clearly, I’m no expert in the dynamics of culture shock or its opposite. I can only speak to my own experience.

I don’t know how to explain this phenomenon. I don’t know what to call it. I don’t, to be honest, understand it.

I only know the sense of dislocation it creates, the strange, dizzying awareness that something fundamental has shifted, that an internal geography has remapped itself, creating a crazy and hardly recognizable cartography.

ecuador map 2

Have you ever experienced a radical change that disoriented you temporarily, even though you were returning to something that should have felt familiar? Just how malleable is culture? How do you define home?

The WordPress Writing Challenge this week is about origins.  To read other responses to the challenge, click here.

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118 thoughts on “Reverse Culture Shock: An Expat Cartography of “Home”

  1. The castle of my mind needs not stone walls, nor amethyst floors, I am satisfied with paths of sand, ceilings of azure skies with billowing white clouds draped by an ultramarine sea…

    Home is were I lay my hat and heart.

    Though upon reading Jane Eyre’s experience of four foodless nights on the heath huddled under a crevice, I have to wonder…



    • Oh, I love Jane Eyre, but I’m embarrassed to say I’d forgotten that part. Don’t think I’d want to spend a single night on the heath! Thanks for reading, Robert. It’s always wonderful to hear from you, my friend.

  2. When I returned home from Europe, I sometimes had difficulty expressing myself in English. I found that there were concepts I wanted to express that I just couldn’t figure out the English equivalent for. It could even be difficult explaining what I had done while I was overseas.

    On the positive side of things, I had never realized how green home is until I lived somewhere a lot more gray. I noticed a lot of other little things too, again because I had simply grown accustomed to something else.

    • Yes, yes, excellent insight! I notice the intense green of Kentucky, as well. Though, I must admit, it’s pretty green here, as well. I had just forgotten how green Lexington is. Weird how all of this happens.

      It’s wonderful to hear from you today. Thanks so much for stopping by and have an awesome week!

  3. Love this, Kathy. I love the comparison to getting off a boat and trying to get your balance on solid ground. Everything is disorienting, and it’s strange that it can be so, after you’ve lived most of your life in one place (in my case the USA), and have only lived abroad for 3 years (in my case; in yours, it’s much longer). How can a place you’re so familiar with be so strange? I often feel that there’s a huge disconnect between me (after living abroad) and my fellow Americans. It’s as if I’ve expanded and morphed into some alien being, and they have remained the same; thus the huge gulf that now lies gaping between us! I would love to know more of the details of the challenges you encountered. Maybe I could relate?? :-)

    • Yes, I suspected you would be one person who could relate to this. I also felt fairly alien. And it did feel like they had all stayed the same, but I was a different person. I have no idea how that dynamic occurs. I suppose I should write more about this. Thanks for the encouragement. I just ran out of time. Hope your week is going well, my friend. Thanks so much for stopping by!

      • I loved the metaphor you used of wobbling on shaky knees, as if trying to regain the use of your legs when transitioning from the undulating sea, back to solid land. And also love the whole concept of the world you encounter in this foreign place having remained stagnant, while it feels like you have evolved to someone else entirely. How you have changed, but others seem to have remained the same.

        I felt that way in my marriage for a while. I went through a period of intense personal growth, and everyone around me was still speaking the old language, (without the benefit of my new-found insight and experience). At the time, I remember that it made me feel as if we were living in different dimensions. Somehow I had found this new space, filled with light and promise, and everyone else was still stuck on the perpetual escalator of life; go to work, feed the kids, watch TV, go to bed … rinse and repeat, again and again. I was hungry for adventures and new experiences, and everyone else was content in their routine.

        I also remember wondering what was wrong with me. I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to figure out that there was nothing wrong with me at all, and, in fact, there was something RIGHT with me. For far too long, I resisted and ignored my new knowledge, because I simply couldn’t get anyone else speaking the same language. Eventually, though, I couldn’t ignore it any longer, and I had to find my own way.

        You and Sarah have created a life in Ecuador, and Quenca has embraced you both, and has welcomed you home. It’s no wonder that you felt displaced when you returned to Kentucky. When we never leave our comfortable routines, it is easy to forget that there is an entirely different world out there; a different way of being; a different way of existing; a different way of living. Culture shock doesn’t really describe the feeling, although I suppose it’s as close to anything as I can conjure up at the moment.

        More like entering a parallel dimension, where everything is familiar, yet totally foreign.

      • Thank you! Glad you like the sea analogy. Sorry you had to endure a difficult marriage. I’m so thankful I escaped that trap. But, once in, I can see how hard it would be to leave. It’s a wonderful anyone finds the strength. I also alike your image of the parallel dimension, as that’s exactly what reverse culture shock can be like. It’s crazy-making.

      • I know this comment will appear out of chronological order, but wanted to say that for the most part, I had a good marriage, and I should be more careful about portraying it otherwise. Yes, we did eventually reach a space where it seemed we were speaking different languages, but we remained friends throughout the separation and divorce. I recognized he was disinterested in expanding his range of view, and that he preferred that things remain the same as they had always been. On the other hand, I was beginning to unload a lot of psychological baggage, and needed the freedom to become a different version of myself.

        Just wanted to say that I’ve never lost sight of the fact that being in an otherwise strong and supportive marriage very likely gave me exactly the right environment for personal growth, even though in the end, it was the personal growth that helped put distance between us. I remember knowing this would happen long before it actually came to pass. I kept hoping he would begin opening doors and windows, but he was perfectly content to leave the discovery to others, preferring his comfortable routine to exploration. But together, as a team, at least for a while (18 years), we managed to share a good life. And lots of humor. Thank goodness we both liked to laugh.

      • Fascinating and insightful distinction you are making here. Really insightful, my friend, to be able to recognize the strengths and weaknesses and how they worked (or eventually didn’t) along side one another. Thanks for sharing this! Humor DEFINITELY helps in almost all things, I think. LOL

      • Yes, yes, you, of all people, would certainly know this experience. Sounds from recent blog posts like you are experiencing it now in the DC area, and, thus, the decision to go back overseas. I totally get that! Thanks for stopping by. It’s always wonderful to hear from you!

  4. Superior description of dislocation, especially the linguistic points of interest….grist for the academic mill.

    • Thank you, JK! I’m always happy when I can get you thinking about something. You, of all people, are bound to have brilliant insight. Can’t imagine what your experience must have been like after so much time in the jungle!

  5. I understand Kathy. I lived in Spain for a year, many years ago and when I returned ‘home’ I felt like a stranger in the country of my own origin, with my own family and familiars. Something had shifted and it’s never quite shifted back to it’s original place. I still live in the US, but there’s a part of me that never returned from Europe. Your post made perfect sense to me. xo

  6. More than once my friend. But for me, it is always Texas. No matter where I go, where I live it is always Texas. No matter how much I love some place else, I always come home and when I get here, I can feel myself more grounded, my heart more rested. I don’t know that I will ever feel that anywhere else.

    I loved this sense for you though. I love that perhaps you have found your heart home.

    Hugs and much love


  7. I loved this post too. You may not have the exact words you seem to be seeking to describe the experience but you certainly got across to me that sense of foreignness and dislocation. My automatic “thank you”s and “excuse me”s come out in the wrong language when I have been away for an extended period, but the thing I remember best about my return to Canada after living for 6 months in Namibia was Toys R Us … I could feel my stomach perform a snakelike wriggle when I contrasted this gaudy emporium with its huge shopping carts trundling down aisles filled floor to ceiling with plastic toys with Africa. I remembered the children I had seen on dusty streets playing with a single homemade toy constructed by hand from garbage components. The one commemorated and taught gluttony and materialism; the other, thrift and ingenuity. Needless to say, places like Costco and yes, even the Supermercados in Ecuador give me pause too. We have to be very careful that we do not export some of the values we do not still hold, I think, or we will create abroad what we sought to escape.

    • Yes, yes, Barbara, that’s exactly what I’m referring to–the automatic thank you-s and excuse me-s. It felt so strange to me. I did soemting similar when we returned to the US from a year in Haiti, but I spoke much less French than I do Spanish, so the experience was a bit less extreme.

      Love your description of the Toys R US. I felt similarly when I entered my first Kroger grocery store after having spent a year in post-earthquake Haiti. It felt obscene. And yes, we need not change Ecuador into the places we wanted to leave. Excellent point!

      Thanks so much for stopping by and taking the time to leave a comment. It’s wonderful to hear from you today!

      • I love this concept – of not changing our current environment into what we wanted to leave. As for the whole obscenity of poverty versus wealth, I’ve experienced some of that as well, having volunteered in the Philippines after a hurricane. How easily we take ease and abundance for granted.

        Just yesterday, I was watching some late night program about incredibly-built RV vehicles. They were spotlighting the RV’s of the super-rich, and one in particular had me shaking my head. It was huge, and had a very high wheel base, so it was capable of easily traveling across even the most rugged of terrain. Inside, it was decked out with marble and mahogany and sparkled with solar panels and gold faucets and even one of those fancy toilets that practically does your business for you. The couple that owned this rig talked about being able to “go where the beauty of nature is unblemished by other humans”.

        It struck me as incredibly ironic, and made me shake my head in sadness, that they didn’t even seem to grasp the concept that their landscape-eating monster tires were damaging the very beauty of nature that they were out there seeking. The video footage of them traversing across gorgeous gullies and valleys left a horrible trail of chewed-up terrain behind them. Their impact on the beauty was immediate, and it saddened me that they didn’t realize they were destroying the very thing they loved.

        Sorry for the ramble, but that story seemed to echo the idea of “not creating the very thing you wanted to escape”. I went to sleep thinking of all the beautiful landscapes that would be marred by those huge monster tires. It made me want to find a place … any place … where people had not come in and destroyed what nature and God had created. Again, sorry for the ramble. I’m one of those “leave no imprint on the land” kind of people, and that program just rattled my sensibilities.

      • Another great comment. I’ve seen some of those RV shows on HGTV. It’s incredible what those things cost and the damage they do–not only with wheels but also with emissions. You are kind to refer to this fellow’s comment as ironic, as it is, but he also sounds like an idiot, I’m afraid. Sometimes I fear that wealth itself skews perspective. I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong and should be as charitable as you. What do you think?

      • I fear that wealth itself skews perspective

        Having been on differing ends of the wealth spectrum, and now finding myself closer to the bottom of the ladder, I would have to agree that having wealth certainly skews perspective. Of course, I’ve never been mega-wealthy, so I can’t speak for that experience, but it does seem that the more wealth people are able to accumulative, the less they seem to be able to see things in a basic manner.

        Maybe it comes down to the simple equation of wealth tending to multiply or exaggerate who a person is at their core, in that having access to money simply gives them opportunity to more freely indulge their desires. I’ve always tended to be a person who tries to help as many people as possible. When I was earning a good wage, I was always gifting people money or helping in any way that I could help financially. There were times that I was technically helping to support at least four households, if not more. I caught a lot of grief from one of my sisters. She would always say that if I kept giving away my money, that one day I would be flat broke, and there would be no one around to help me. She thought of me as a fool, and believed my generosity simply gave others a means to take advantage of me. I believed my compulsion to help others in any way that I could came from a place of recognizing the needs of others, rather than turning a blind eye. Maybe because all my life I had been looking for someone that would be willing to help me (out of a horrific situation). I don’t know why I’m basically a “giver” and she’s basically a “taker” but I do know that she is evolving more and more into someone that is willing to share. She is the very sister that now helps me out financially from time to time, despite her hard-fast rule of never giving money to others. Even when I refuse her help, she finds ways to offer assistance.

        These days, usually the only thing I can give to others is a smile, or a kind word, or my time, or the ability to see a friendly face. Even when we have little to give, I still believe we should give what we can. That’s always been my philosophy, and I suppose (and hope) that it will continue to be my core belief. I’m not sure if she’s a convert exactly, but she’s certainly leaning in that direction. I’m sure she’d deny it, though.

        And about that emissions thing … yes, that, too. It hurts my heart to see those that could be using their wealth to protect our world, inflicting damage on it instead. Fulfilling their own selfish desires, rather than viewing the bigger picture. Does wealth actually narrow a person’s vision? Hard to say.

      • Interesting that you agree that wealth tends to skew perspective, and I love your explanation for why that might happen. Again, excellent insight, my friend. I fear that I’ve never really had enough money to be able to help others significantly, but it’s awesome that you were able to do so much without even actually being “wealthy.” Another awesome comment, my friend. Hope your week is going well.

  8. I can relate to this because I had a similar experience “home” this spring — the home I’d grown up with, my childhood bedroom, was no longer my home but my Mother’s House. It was fine just unsettling – and your analogy about coming off a boat and needing to get your “land legs” back was spot on. I finally acknowledged that I’ve lived away longer than I’d lived there and while that was my childhood home, it’s no longer my home. My home is with my loves .. as yours is now in Cuenca :)

    This song captures it for me (Daughtry)
    “I’m going home .. to the place where I belong .. and where your love has always been enough for me …”

  9. Great description of a phenomenon that occurs essentially because you committed yourself , with a “burning desire” to your “new home”, because, YOU adopted that new culture whole-heartedly and, your deep, inner self is really happy where you are. Like every good artist, you stepped back to admire your creation and appreciate it to make it perfect, the same way now you are confirming the effectiveness of your initial decision.

    • I’m fascinated by your comparison of the expat to the artist. Really, that is a brilliant insight. And, interestingly, I am an artist, as well. Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to leave a comment. Hope to hear from you again, soon.

  10. Kathy,

    My whole recent past has been just that! I don’t belong in suburbia, yet I try to make the most of it. For almost four years I lived in “community” away from most of the world. Wrapped in nature, surrounded by sky, trees, and almost silence. Human’s usually came to us, for retreat, so interaction was completely different that everyday life.

    I am not going to write my “story” here. I am grateful for the language to know that my experience was not just my own.


    I am Love, Jeff

    • Interesting to hear about your former living situation. Sound fabulous, my friend. And I’m happy to hear you won’t be staying in New Jersey forever. Now you need to come visit us!!!!!! We just found our new home in Cuenca just today. Probably won’t move in for another month or 6 weeks, but it’s a FABULOUS place. Let me know when you want to come!

  11. I wondered how you found “going home” and then how “going back home” to Cuenca felt for you. Your posts from Ecuador have a joyful energy to them that wasn’t there so much while you lived in Kentucky, after Haiti. Having been in France for a year, it will be interesting to see how we feel once back in Canada. although we don’t plan to stay too long as winter in Cuenca is definitely calling us. Home feels very ephemeral to me right now and yet…I have a longing to nest somewhere that fits my values and desires. So we will see. thank you for sharing this.

    • Yes, I was not at all thrilled to be back in the US. And it’s an interesting observation about my energy in Kentucky post-Haiti, as I didn’t want to be there then either, to be honest. Yes, it will be fascinating to see how Canada will be for you after France. And can’t wait for you to come here for the winter. We just put a deposit down today on our new place in el Centro. Will do a post about it next week. God, I’m excited about it! Won’t move in until mid-August, however. Wonderful to hear from you, Joss, as usual!

  12. Kathy just love love your stories! Especially the darn home that kept moving away…the NERVE of it. I can especially relate to feeling this alienation once I moved 26 miles to the north in January 2001 to Ft Lauderdale…..It became my OZ. Every time I renewed my passport to drive South to Miami it NEVER was home even after 40 years.Even after the TREK ones takes to return, like the one back in December while feeling delirious I almost took a header with many suitcases DOWN the escalator (wink wink)…Cuenca is and will always be HOME now!

    • So, so glad you enjoyed this one, dear Juan. And I TOTALLY LOVE your comparison to moving from Miami to Ft. Lauderdale–too funny, my friend. Thanks for reading and commenting. Gosh, can’t wait to show you our new place tomorrow!!!!!

  13. On our return to home after being in Ireland for three weeks…I had to stay stopped at intersections for long periods of time…I needed to get oriented to where to turn. and stay on right side of the road!!!! That’s about as close as I can come to this Kathy. It truly felt odd.

    • Yes, I remember feeling the same way when I returned from a summer in the UK. When I arrived there, I feared I was going to die from driving on the other side of the road. Then when I came back the US I felt the same way. Your example is exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about! Great to hear from you today, Colleen. Good luck to David with the new adventure! Hope your week is going well! Hugs to you both!

  14. When we lived in East Africa we had annual home visits to the UK, but over the years going ‘home’ seemed less and less like home. It took us very many years to adjust to being back in the UK. And in some ways I don’t think it’s even an adjustment – more like a deadening of certain perceptions and sensibilities. In different ways, although we knew that Africa was not home either, and sometimes it was scary there, we left behind something very significant – part of our souls perhaps, some part of us that had not been evident to us before we went to Africa in the first place. I think you grow more senses when you live ‘abroad’. V. interesting post, Kathryn.

    • Thank you so much! It’s interesting to read about your experience in Africa and the UK. We felt very similarly after we had lived in Haiti for a year. It was painful to leave. And we have never been the same since. Glad you enjoyed the post. Hope to hear from you again soon! I SO appreciate your comment!

  15. Kathy – That’s oh-so-interesting! I wonder, do you dream in Spanish too? I remember when I was studying Spanish in Junior High and High School, that I dreamt in Spanish.

    For me, home has less to do with a physical structure (and/or geographic location) and everything to do with positive, loving energy.

    • No, I have not begun to dream in Spanish. I wish I did. I wish my Spanish were that good. Fascinating that you did dream in Spanish, however. I’m jealous! Thanks for reading, Laurie. It’s wonderful to hear from you!

  16. Can happen even in the US of A. I grew up in Michigan under a canopy of trees in the summer and the unyeilding monochromatic grey landscapes the other 3/4 of the year. When my Michigan born and bred father arrived in NM for a visit and we were driving up the La Bajada on our way to our home in Santa Fe he commented, “How do you live in this God forsaken place”.
    I remember feeling confused. How could he not notice the briliant blue sky, the colors of the Mesas, the vistas of the Sangres and the view that extended as far as his eyes could see?
    It was then that I realized Michigan was no longer “home”.

    • Fascinating comment, Lannie. I suppose there would, indeed, be a huge difference between Michigan and New Mexico. And even more interesting to hear your dad’s comment. I have never been to NM! I hear it is gorgeous. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to leave a comment. Great to hear from you!

  17. When I returned from two years in the Peace Corps in Slovakia, “home” was a cultural change, and I had to adapt to everything that once had been so natural. The language, the food, the stores, the money, the conveniences, all were strange. I had all the answers, but no one asked the questions. There was no one among my family or friends who could relate to my “re-entrance.” Therefore, I called my Peace Corps friends to talk. They were having the same experience. For the first couple of months, we relied on each other to ease into American life once more. The other life never really leaves you. I still get nostalgic around Christmas for the little kiosks in the city square. I miss the incredible opera, ballet, symphony, and stage performances I attended for $2 or less, American money. I miss my university classes and students and the joy of their learning to speak English well. I returned from Slovakia 18 years ago, but the memories are still fresh, and I am still in close touch with some of my Peace Corps friends. Now, I am completely into the swing of life back in California and am happy with my family with no desire to settle anywhere else.

    • I loved hearing about your Peace Corps experience. I felt very similarly when we returned to the US from Haiti. That was extreme culture shock. It’s also interesting what you say about the inexpensive performances in Slovakia, as here in Ecuador the theater, symphony, all of the arts are free–totally subsidized by the government. We surely reap the benefits. Thanks so much for your comment. Great to hear from you!!!

  18. Mine wasn’t as much culture shock as class shock. Having lived on welfare supplements to my dad’s income since I was born I thought everyone had a refrigerator that was mostly bare. The first time I saw the inside of Jim’s mom’s refrigerator I nearly fell over. There wasn’t even room enough for air to circulate around the food! One of many such occurrences that left me realizing the gap in incomes between our two families, not to mention the literal culture shock of seeing folks who live like the people on TV, something foreign to me. I have to say I feel the same as a writer. I don’t have the first clue how to approach people about my book. I feel very comfortable amongst my writer friends, but when having to talk to people who aren’t writers, but readers, I clam up like I’ve never spoken to a human being before. I’m passionate about my writing but only among those who share that same passion. What’s up with that?

    • Now, dear Sista, this may be the most interesting comment of them all so far. I hadn’t thought to compare culture shock to the kind of adjustments one makes when encountering a new economic class for the first time. I can’t imagine what that must have been like. Gosh, I wish you would write that memoir.

      And I understand how you feel about talking about writers. That has long been my comfort zone, as well. Interestingly, I have been MUCH for social and outgoing since we arrived in Ecuador. Now you tell me. What’s up with that????????? Hugs to you, Miranda!

      • You’ve found your place in the world! THAT”S what’s up, lol! And what is this I hear about a new apartment?!?!?! Did I miss something?

      • Yes, yes, we have found our place in the world. And yes, we have found a home much more suited to us, several miles from here, smack dab in the city center. Not exactly an apartment. More like a town house. Did you see the photo my friend Juan took on our terrace? We won’t move in until August, however.

  19. No, I cannot say that I’ve ever experienced anything like what you’ve described here. But, when I moved across country from San Francisco to New York City, I felt like I was in the perfect city for me — and then I suffered horrific food poisoning. Cuenca just might be the perfect place for you. Just be careful about what you eat.

    • But that is very much the kind of thing I’m talking about. Cuenca very much feels like the city for me. It feels very much like coming home. Yikes! Food poisoning sucks. Hope your week is going well, my friend. Thanks for stopping by!

  20. Excellent.
    Your depth & substance continually move me, Kathy.
    Home? Home is inside the mind.
    Home is where the people I LOVE dwell.
    Home IS NOT a place or geographical outline.
    Home is internal.
    LOVE u.
    PS. My true home will be where I am going next. XX

    • Oh, thank you, Kim! So glad you enjoy my posts. I feel the same way about yours. I love your reference to home as an internal place. Excellent insight, my friend. Hope your week is going well. Hugs to you!

  21. I had to think really hard about this one. I’ve done my share of traveling, but I’ve only really lived in one place. I’ve experienced the culture shock of having been away and “coming home” to a country I struggle to relate to. I remember coming back from India and being appalled at the fact that you can’t go 5 min. in America without being confronted by the idea of eating beef. I adapt quickly to my environment. My ex wouldn’t let me drive in Minnesota for 3 weeks after spending a week driving in Boston. But HOME really being someplace else? That would be a big perspective shift. Having Sara has to help.

  22. When I came home from 2 years in the Peace Corps, I was told at the close-of-service conference that no one would care about what I’d done or where I’d lived for 2 years, and the listening attention span would be about 3 to 5 minutes. I couldn’t believe it, but they were RIGHT! One of my fellow volunteers said she went into Kmart to buy a paisley cotton neck scarf, and there were so many colors available she couldn’t make a decision, so she left without buying one! Your essay, Kathy, caught the whole experience right-on, and made me think about “re-entry” in a new way. I can’t even imagine moving back to the US now, and am currently planning how to make my next suitcase-run as short as possible!

    • Interesting that the Peace Corps told you that and that it turned out to be accurate. However, I’ve noticed that about most places overseas I’ve lived. Folks just don’t seem to care. Strange. Love your friend’s scarf story, as well. Yes, I recommend making your next run short. I was borderline miserable being in the US. Hugs to you, my friend!

  23. Yes. It’s happened twice to me, albeit on a much smaller scale, and in both instances “home” was literal. Driving by my old townhouse just a week or two after moving into an apartment already felt odd – even when I still had keys to the place. I was not expecting that. Same thing with my last house. I actually ended up INSIDE there, invited by the new homeowner two months after moving out. There was a shiny new stainless steel fridge in place of my old one, and the scent of Vietnamese cooking wafted through the air. Despite the familiar green carpeting, I knew in that instant my definition of “home” had changed.

    • It’s so fascinating that you felt that way about your townhouse. I wouldn’t have guessed that either, but your description is right on. Isn’t it funny how that can happen so quickly? So glad you all are enjoying your new place! Great to hear from you, Mark!

  24. It’s so wonderful that you’ve found, not just a place where you hang your hat, but a place where you feel most yourself. I’ve been exploring those themes in the new novel I’m writing. I think it’s fascinating what draws us to one place and not another, and how it feels like a breath of fresh air when we’ve found the right place.

    PS – thought you’d enjoy the hat reference. :)
    PPS – I hope Sara’s Spanish is coming along.

    • LOL, Jackie. LOVE the hat image! I tip mine to you! It’s cool to hear about your next novel. Hope it is coming along well. And, no, Sara’s Spanish is not so great. Languages are not her thing. Mind you, mine is not too terrific, but I’m no afraid to use what I have, mangled as it may be. Hope your week is going well, my friend. Lucy and Ralph wag their tails to Reggie!

  25. First I think it’s funny that your first instinct was to speak Spanish. Wish I could’ve been a fly on the wall. But I had a similar experience for a different reason. When I was still in high school, I went to visit my brother one weekend in college. I was blown away by that experience. College seemed so cool, being able to do what you want with no parents breathing down your back. I loved his friends and we partied all night. Then I experienced the culture shock of going back to high school. Suddenly, it felt provincial to be there. Provincial and depressing. I couldn’t wait to have a college experience of my own.

    • I remember my first college visit as a senior in high school. Gosh, I thought it was glorious, too. And if you had been a fly on the wall in the Miami airport, I’m sure you would have laughed at me and my Spanish. It’s not good, but I use it anyway. No other way to learn, right? Take care, dear Monica! Wonderful to hear from you!

  26. Kathy, I can so relate. I continue to be linguistically, culturally, and economically challenged every time I return to the states. In fact, as I write, I am in Managua after a 10 day trip to visit my mother in the states. One more plane and I’ll be home. Seriously, “home” is an abstract concept for me. Home is where I hang my hammock, where there is a feeling of comfort, peace, and familiarity. “Home” no longer exists in the states for me, although it is an odd feeling, because we still have a house that we rent. My mother’s “home” is now a memory care center. While my mom sits silently in her wheelchair, other residents shout, “Can you take me home?” I tell them, “But, you are home.” And I try to comfort them and distract them. It may be true that home is where the heart is. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself. :-)

    • Doesn’t surprise me that you get this one. I bet that was not an easy visit. And those trips “home”–in either direction–can be too long. It took me THREE days to get back to Cuenca. It was SO good to be home. Have a safe trip, my friend. Great to hear from you!

  27. It sounds to me as if Cuenca and Ecuador have become home to you, and your former home is now a foreign locale. We never stop growing and moving forward. I felt sharp pangs when my grandparents’ and my husband’s grandparents’ homes on Cape Cod were sold out of the family, one right after the other. But Cape Cod still feels like home, even though one day, it too, will slip into the sea.

    • Yes, it would be painful to see family homes sold–especially in a place as beautiful as Cape Cod. And, goodness, isn’t it sad to think that global warming means it will, one day, be under water? Hadn’t even thought about that. So sad!

      Great to hear from you, Barbara. Hope your week is going well!

  28. I’ve lived in Chicago for 25 years and adore the city but never expected to live here this long and then marriage to a born and raised Chicagoan from a very large family (all of who stayed in Chicago) and a baby changed my mind. But while I always come back to Chicago, I always go home to New Mexico where my parents live. I’m pretty sure I live in denial about how much things have changed.
    It sounds like your sense of perspective has shifted, changed and grown in many ways and was a shock to find out just how much you had changed once you hit American soil. A cultural lag perhaps. I bet you caught up in no time, tho.

    • Wow, didn’t know you were originally from New Mexico–talk about different from Chicago! I totally understand going “home” to where your parents live and you were raised. I’m also curious what it was like when you first faced living in Chicago 25 years ago. But maybe it was love that got you through that. Great to hear from you, Katybeth. Hope you have an awesome weekend.

  29. I’m German, lived in Indonesia for several years and now moving on to Australia. Sure, it’s not like going home, but Australian culture must feel more similar to the German culture than the Indonesian. What is that going to be like? Culture shock? Reverse culture shock? Or some sort of light version?

    • This is a fascinating comment, and it raises important questions. Like you, I would think a move to Australia would mean a return to something more similar to Germany than Indonesia could ever be–I say that having lived in Southeast Asia. But, wow, I’ll be fascinating to know what it’s like. Hope you’ll come back and tell me! And thanks so much for visiting!

  30. I remember when my daughter and I visited Europe for three weeks. Most of the time it was really wonderful without too much disorientation. But towards the end I can remember being surrounded by folks speaking in foreign languages and suddenly feeling very much isolated and almost confused. Thanks for sharing this blog about your experiences. It was fascinating. I read it earlier this week but came back now to read again and comment.

    • Oh, thank you, Kathy for reading and coming back by to comment. I suspect that a trip to several countries is a short period of time could be especially disorienting, since you are not in any one place long enough to get grounded. Hadn’t thought about this particular issue as it relates to those “touring” until I read your comment, so THANK YOU! Hope all is well in your neck of the woods–literally!

  31. Home is such a tangled word … does it mean geography, or people, or that indescribable essence of feeling content and at peace? How do we know when we have come home?

    I know well that feeling of being an alien while standing in familiar territory. I am currently live in a place that has never really felt like home. When I was younger, I never actually had a real home, in that my family moved often because my father followed the work (construction). We were never even able to complete an entire school year in one place until I reach my high school years (after my parents divorced). I was always the new kid; the one with no place that was really home, the one that came from somewhere else. Always somewhere else, some city in some state that meant nothing more than the last place we had lived.

    Eventually, without even recognizing it at first, everyone slowly started gravitating to south Texas (San Antonio), mostly, I suppose, because my maternal grandparents lived there, and we had visited them often while we were young kids. They were the kindest people we knew, and I guess being near them felt comforting. For me, though, San Antonio never really felt like home.

    For me, it was always the mountains of Alamogordo, (New Mexico), even though we had only lived in that area for less than a year during some of our growing up years. I’ve always wondered why my heart feels like Alamogordo is home. My guess is that something very dear to me was lost there, and perhaps I go back, again and again, trying to touch the space where there is an empty longing. And also, because all of me opens up when I am near the mountains. It has a way of pouring peace and contentment into my soul.

    Ironically, I ended up buying a home in San Antonio, more so because my children and grandchildren all live here, but truthfully, I’ve been telling myself for some while now that I probably should have listened to my heart, and gone back to New Mexico instead, so that I could wake up every day in Alamogordo, and feel like I was really home. Every minute I am not there, I wish I was, and that alone tells me that it will always be home, at least for me. If I ever get the chance, I will go there again … and this time around, I will never leave. I will finally be home.

    • Thank you so much, my friend, for a long and thoughtful comment. I’d imagine that moving a lot as a kid would be unsettling. I was the kid who grew up in one city and lived in the same house until I was 19 years old. Guess I’m fortunate in that regard. I still feel an attachment to that house in Pittsburgh.

      And, sadly, I have never been to New Mexico. I lived for a while in Dallas and, thus, know a bit about Texas. However, I’ve never been south of Dallas, which, of course, limits my perspective. I think the thing I’d hate most there would be the heat. In fact, I found the heat during Dallas summers to be completely insufferable. Does the heat affect you?

      I hope you get that home you dream about in Alamogordo! Hugs to you. Hope you are having a lovely weekend! I love getting your comments, as they always force me to think a bit deeper, which I totally appreciate!

      • Oh, yes … the heat in south Texas is unbearable. Which isn’t to say that it’s not also unbearably hot in Alamogordo (New Mexico), but there are two major differences: (1) the heat in south Texas also carries very high humidity, which really saps your energy, whereas in New Mexico, it is a very dry heat, and (2) in Alamogordo, you can always take a very short drive up the mountain, changing elevation. You literally can go from 90 degree dry heat, to the snow-covered ski resorts of Cloudcroft, in only about thirty minutes (straight up the mountain). So you always have a choice.

        I do miss that area. Someday, maybe.

      • Yes, if there is little humidity, it makes a lot of difference. I was in New Delhi a few years ago when it was probably about 120 F, but it was tolerable because of the dry air. Generally, however, I hate heat of all kinds.

  32. I’m not sure that my experiences qualify as culture shock or not. Years ago Lived in cities, but I have lived on a small island with a very low population for three decades now. Every time I travel to the big island or to the mainland I’m immediately immersed in a bustle bustle culture that makes me feel stressed out.The exhaust from the vehicles triggers breathing problems, and the fact that nighttime in the city is just as busy as daytime means the noise pollution and light pollution makes it hard to get a quality night’s sleep. No matter how much fun I have while I’m visiting I never fully relax there. I’m always in a state of subdued angst as I feel hurried and harried by the urban pace of life. You will probably laugh at this but when I am flying home on a float plane or traveling on the ferry and I see my island in the distance I ready to shout alleluia! Home is where the heart is and I’m an islander right to the bone.
    Islanders by Gary Fjellgaard

    • Yes, TT, that’s a fascinating form of culture shock. I hadn’t even considered the difference it might make depending on whether one lived on an island or mainland. And I LOVED the video! You are right, cities are “awake” 24 hours a day and it never really gets totally dark. I can see how that might prevent one from completely relaxing or resting.

      Great to hear from you, my friend. Thanks for stopping by. Hope your week is going well.

  33. Hi Kathy,
    Great post and such interesting comments. This is a topic close to my heart, and one that I hope to “tackle” in the near future.
    I think its hard to go back – not sure whether its because travel changes us but everything back there is still the same; or because we had our reasons to leave and going back confirms our decision.

    You’re lucky that you already feel at home in Ecuador. I’ve never visited your beautiful part of the world. I look forward to it…
    I lived in Africa for two decades, a cold northern country for two decades, and have been in the United States for 17 years, and after all that I don’t know where “home” is, or who I am. I guess I’m a mixture of all of it. While this isn’t “home” I’m beginning to feel more comfortable here and I think that’s what makes a place into a home. I like the climate (can’t imagine going back to those harsh Northern winters), love that the beach is just a short drive away, know and like my neighbors (some of whom leave plants, home baked cake, or Indian dinners at my door!!), and of course there’s all the hiking over here….

    • Oh, I’m so happy to hear from you, Rosie! Hope you are well these days!

      And, yes, you have lived in a lot of extreme places–or rather, have experienced a number of cultural extremes. You’ve never been to South America, but I’ve never been to Africa either. Glad you are beginning to feel at home in California, and it’s nice to have friendly neighbors, especially ones who leave food! Yummy!

      Thanks for stopping by!

  34. How strange to think that the place that’s always been home suddenly doesn’t feel so much like home to you. Having stayed in pretty much one place for my entire life, I can’t totally relate to this experience, at least not in the physical sense. I do wonder if it’s a bit like me going back to see my childhood home, or to see my grandparents’ former homes. They seem SO much smaller than they did so many years ago. Your experience (and mine) makes me better relate to the saying, “You can’t go home again.”

    • Hmmmmm——LOVE your analogy to size and your childhood or grandparents home! I think that is a perfect fit for what I’m talking about. I think you are fortunate, in a lot of ways, to have lived your entire life in the same area. I envy that, in a way. It will be interesting to see what kind of culture shock your parents might experience, if they go into assisted living. Take care, Terri. It’s always so great to hear from you!

  35. This really resonated with me, Kathy, and I wasn’t sure why, so took some time to think about it. I have never been that far away from home (I live less than four hundred miles from where I grew up) for any extended period, but I definitely feel that sense of disorientation when I go back. I find I often have nothing to talk about. They don’t know my friends, so aren’t interested in their day-to-day events; they don’t relate to my lifestyle, jobs or interests. We love each other, and it’s always a joy to spend time with them, but I have to readjust. Great, thoughtful post!

    • Interesting comment, Cindy, especially in light of the comment Timethief left, a few ahead of yours. I imagine no one would have time to read all of these, but since you both live on islands, her comment might interest you. I wonder, having just read TT’s comment, if your experience might be similar. I lived on Haiti for year–an island–but a year is not a very long time. Thanks so much for stopping by, my friend. I love hearing from you!

  36. Although my shifts have not involved a new language, there has been a small shift in culture (southern vs. midwestern) and weather (hot vs. cold). Going back to what I used to think of home was a little disorienting this last time, so I sort of understand what you mean. It’s not home anymore, and that is what I thinks makes my legs a little wobbly and the ground a little shaky.

    Great post, as always, Kathy! Sorry I haven’t been around. Like you, I’ve been traveling or having internet issues. Isn’t life grand? :)

    • Gosh, Robin, life gets crazy, doesn’t it? And I think it’s always a good sign if one doesn’t have time to read blogs–it means, perhaps, that LIFE is happening. At any rate, I imagine you did have an adjustment to make with your move over the last year. Great example of what I’m talking about. Thanks for stopping by, my friend, it’s always lovely to chat when you do. Take care!

  37. Hi Kathy! Yes, I’ve felt this too – though not on such a grand scale. My parents moved around a lot when I was a child and I had to get used to quickly adapting to a new environment and fitting in. I soon realised that it was difficult going back to a place I’d lived before – even if I’d really loved it there.

    • Yes, it is strange to go back to old homes. I’m just so curious as to why that happens even with places we enjoyed. Fascinating to hear that your experience has been similar. Great to hear from you, Lisa. Hope you and Willie are well!

  38. I’ve only lived in Canada so far…over last 5 decades. There are contrasting areas to Canada which I do have a post lined up. :)

    My cultural-linguistic experiences have been between speaking Chinese (which I’ve lost a lot) and English. In a way I cannot even explain, but after 2-3 wks. travelling in a foreign country outside of Canada..I start pining for certain home cooked dishes…and they tend to be Chinese dishes. Keep in mind, only 60% of my home cooking is Asian based.

    What we know as a child, can leave a strong imprint and for favourite things we like, remember…we want those experiences /opportunity to experience them whenever we want…as a touchstone.

    • Hey, Jean, I’m so happy to hear from you today. Yes, I think your cultural adjustments would be especially interesting, given your Asian-to-Canadian, generational relocation. A discussion of that would make for a fascinating post, so I hope you will tackle it in addition to one about different parts of Canada. Both would be fascinating–especially what you mention about cooking your crave. I always think of food as being so primal, so maybe that has something to do with why you would want it, even if you only cook it 60% of the time.

      It’s always to wonderful to hear from you. Hope your week is going well!

  39. Hello! I love the way you coordinate the mismatch of two places but create a strong reality out of it. There is a depth of wisdom for me in your line ‘Jet lag is all about being “up in the air”’ Your article comes at a superb time for me (we always find what we need to read one way or another I am learning!) as I return from time spent on a volcanic island Stromboli in Italy. Your posts always show us the unexpected, let us claim this on our own terms and I love that they are never predictable. You keep the jolly reader coming back for more Kathy!



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  41. It’s funny, every time I go home, I slip into English slang, such as saying quid instead of buck. But when I’m in London, I slip into American slang. I don’t understand why I do that. I’ll be in NY this August. I’ll keep an eye out for other things I do. It’s always nice to be “home” but it is kinda odd now after living in England for three years and knowing I’ll be here a couple more years. And I moved around in the US so it’s hard to pinpoint a place that is home now.

  42. Kathy – I just realized that I didn’t receive a notice for this post because it’s going to my old email address. I’m going to Unsubscribe and then Subscribe again using my updated email address — I don’t want to miss a single post! :)

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