Managing Reverse Culture Shock: My Return To The U.S.

In this guest post, Daniel Arthur shares the culture shock he experienced after returning to the U.S. from his expat life in Colombia. Here is his story…

Greetings from the beautiful Pacific Northwest—Harstine Island (Shelton, WA), near the capital city of Olympia!

My home base is Medellín, Colombia; however, I’m back in the U.S. as of this article’s writing.

Since early February, I’ve been in the U.S., caring for family issues, doing medical checkups, filing taxes, etc. -things that are easier to handle within the country without all the complications, nuances, and processes while living abroad.

Many expats have written about their experiences after returning home for the first time after living abroad, an idea or concept known as “reverse culture shock.”

For those who have never lived abroad or experienced expat life, this idea of reverse culture shock may appear to be some sort of fallacy. For those of us who have been fortunate to experience expat life abroad, I’m sure you can relate to my experience, too!

It is pretty sudden, a little odd, challenging, and some might say stressful, and quite unsettling and uncomfortable (at least in the beginning) to be “home.”

I felt a little uneasy at first, but unlike other expats who have been gone for a very long time, I only encountered a minimal sense of stress and anxiety.

The fact that we changed the time by “spring forwarding” here during my stay from standard time to Daylight Saving Time (DST) was the most significant “readjustment” for me. I don’t like (and never have) changing time twice per year, nor do I fully understand why it continues to be necessary in our modern, technologically driven, and advanced society.

Nevertheless, I’m going into my sixth week back in the U.S., and here are some observations and experiences I’ve encountered regarding reverse culture shock.

International Travel and Reentry to the U.S.

I left Medellín shortly after 1 AM on a Monday. My first connection was in Miami later that morning, where I passed through Immigration and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.

This process was relatively simple since I have Global Entry privileges and used the CBP mobile app to pass through the Airline Crew queue instead of waiting for a kiosk to fill out my declaration form and waiting again in the “general” line to pass.

The only “snag” (if you will) in the system was that connecting international passengers arriving outside the U.S. must collect baggage, recheck it, and go through TSA again. That morning, there was no TSA precheck queue available.

A quick two-hour layover in Miami to catch my next plane to Dallas/Ft. Worth before reaching my final destination in Seattle, which made for a very long day of twelve-plus hours of travel.

Upon landing in Seattle, my brother was already waiting for me in the cell phone waiting lot, so I quickly collected my one checked bag, and we were on our way home near the capital city of Olympia and the surrounding peninsula.

First Week Re-Transition

The first few days of my first week back were spent primarily at home with family. My brother and sister-in-law work for the State of Washington and have flexible hybrid/remote schedules to work from home on those days.

My nephew attends the local public high school as a freshman and swims for the varsity swim team. They qualified for regionals and swam at the state finals in Tacoma, so I saw him swim competitively in the finals. I’m a proud uncle here!

I spent much of this week scheduling preventative medical, dental, and eye screenings. Unlike the U.S., Colombia does not understand and define “preventative medical care.”

Readjustment and Receiving Preventative Medical Care

Most Colombians are underinsured or uninsured and do not receive preventative medical care. Due to this limitation, patients often go untreated and do not receive proper medical care, leaving doctors and health practitioners to develop elective preventative care plans.

These plans can be costly for most middle-class Colombians earning the minimum salary. Therefore, the system becomes heavily burdened with more emergent or urgent care situations.

Furthermore, one of Colombia’s medical, dental, and eye care drawbacks for expats like me (i.e., those with preexisting conditions) is that medical insurance coverage for patients with preexisting conditions is challenging to obtain and non-existent. Similar to the government and society’s view on preventative medicine, those with preexisting conditions are considered an anomaly and are viewed as a burden to medical providers.

All medical insurance policies in Colombia go through medical underwriting–no exceptions! It is easier (and cheaper) for me to return to the U.S. to obtain my annual prescription renewals and preventive care under my domestic medical insurance policy than to pay for (and qualify for) an international medical insurance policy.

I use Colombia’s EPS system for urgent or emergent care and my U.S. health plan for preventative care management.

Readjusting To Food in the U.S.

One of the things many expats comment on when they return home to the U.S. is the readjusting to food. Many of us need help at first becoming reacquainted with processed food prevalent in the U.S.

I’ve lost 60 lbs abroad. Amelia and JP also discussed losing weight in one of their YouTube videos when they moved to Ecuador and some of the issues of returning a few years ago. They dive further into their experiences with grocery prices, eating out at restaurants, and the overly processed foods the U.S. is known for.

Like them, I attribute this weight loss not to starving myself to lose weight but to the quality of ingredients and pureness and freshness of the food available in Colombia.

I believe the availability of fresh fruit, vegetables, and meat that do not contain preservatives and hormones is why I’ve lost weight, leading to my success.

Additionally, the fact that most countries do not have the availability of packaged foods and the necessity of preparing food from scratch with raw ingredients has helped me live a healthier lifestyle.

On this trip, I overindulged more than my fair share. I look forward to returning to Colombia in April and consuming more nutritious and fresher foods.

Readjustment To Driving vs. Relying on Public & Private Transportation

Thankfully, I did not have to drive during this visit. My brother and sister-in-law carted me around amidst our various outings.

My situation, however, is different for many expats. Often, they have to rent a vehicle or utilize a friend or family member’s vehicle while also finding insurance coverage to protect themselves in an accident.

I would never attempt to drive in Colombia (the stories are true—they are terrible drivers—and this coming from a native of Southern California).

From an economical and cost perspective, it would require approximately $1,000 to obtain my pase de conduccíon to drive in Colombia, excluding insurance, gas, car payment, etc. Uber, inDrive, Didi, and Cabify are far cheaper alternatives to driving in Colombia, costing a few dollars per ride in comparison.

A drawback is that the rideshare and taxi system is unpredictable, and some expats have reported being stranded without a ride. We’ve been fortunate not to go out late at night and try to minimize and consolidate our trips to when drivers are generally available.

Final Thoughts

While every situation is different, I’ve outlined some common reverse culture shock readjustment woes that many expats encounter when returning home, either permanently or for a visit.

Most expats and nomads experience reverse culture shock at some point during their journey. The key factors to managing it are anticipating it, developing strategies before embarking on your trip, being open to surprises and challenges that come along the way, and expecting the unexpected.

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I’m Daniel, an “unconventional” living in Medellín, Colombia, with my Colombian partner. I was born and raised in Southern California. I have a Bachelor of Arts from California State University, Long Beach (1995) and a Master of Science in Higher Education from the University of Miami (2000). I am a former “corporate worker” with 25+ years of experience in finance, banking, wealth planning, and tax.

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