Reverse Culture Shock

Posted in Culture Clash at 5:59 am by Benjamin Ross

In the movie Pulp Fiction, Vincent Vega (John Travolta) explains to his partner (Samuel L. Jackson) about his recent trip to Amsterdam. He breaks it down like this.

“They got the same shit over there they got over here, it’s just there it’s a little different.”

After living in China for 3.5 years, and now having been back in the US for 3.5 months, I would have to concur with Mr. Vega on his simplistic assessment of life abroad. While there are some major disparities between life in the US and life in China, it’s the little differences which really strike a chord. With that in mind here are some random observations about myself and my native country which I have noticed during my bout with repatriation.

-American public restrooms which at one time I would have considered below human standard, now don’t seem so intimidating.

-Learning the Chinese language was a formidable, yet attainable task, however utilizing the multiple remote controls now necessary to operate an American television set has proven to be far beyond my intellectual capacity

-I have become a habitual jaywalker.

-I suffer from inexplicable, random cravings for rice.

-Sometimes while waiting to board the subway, I find myself guarding my place in line, so as to prevent others from jumping in front of me and stealing my place. I have even caught myself a couple times trying to sneak into the train before all of the exiting passengers have gotten off.

-I cross streets one lane at a time.

-Friends and family have had to reminded me a time or two that spitting food out directly onto the table is not proper etiquette at an American dinner.

-Before I left for China, I would eat American Chinese food at least once a week. Now I can’t touch the stuff without feeling as if my entire gastrointestinal track is about to implode…Damn you General Tso!

-I now wear far more winter clothes than actually necessary, as after 3 years of baking in the Fuzhou heat, my body is not yet acclimatized to the Chicago winter.

-Planning anything more than a few days in advance has taken some getting used to. In China I would rarely plan anything more than a week in advance, and even if planned, dates would frequently change. Now I am finding myself already having to plan into January.

-I am no longer embarrassed to sing in public.

-On the basketball court, my blocked shot and offensive rebound totals have dropped off considerably.

-I have gone from smoking 2-3 cigarettes per day to 2-3 cigarettes per month.

-The ground is absolutely disgusting! Well not really, but living in China has socialized me into believing (and rightly so) that the ground anywhere outside my own home is filthy and infested. I still refuse to put my backpack or any other personal items on the floor anywhere, and the thought of wearing shoes inside still makes me slightly uncomfortable.

-Often it’s difficult to fully gauge the different nuances of life abroad until one returns to their own country. While the major cultural differences (i.e. different language, eating with chop sticks, etc.) tend to stick out at first, it’s often the little differences which are the most poignant. If Vincent Vega were with me today I’d probably tell him I agree wholeheartedly with his view of life abroad. I might also tell him that a Big Mac in China is called a “Ju Wu Ba,” and I have no idea what they call a Whopper because I didn’t go into a Burger King.


  1. owshawng United States said,

    December 13, 2007 at 8:54 am

    I thought jay walking is a requirement for living in a US city. And I think the ground probably is pretty dirty in any city.

    When you peak English are you more expressive then before you went to China?

    The US must seem really different for you after 3.5 years in China. I did 3.5 yeas in Australia and it took a while to get used to being back in the US. No more beet root on my burgers, driving on the right side of the road, watching Monday Night Football at night instead of during lunch on Tuesday. At least that low carb fad seems to have passed. Thought the whole country had gone nuts when i came back for a visit in 04. I had to switch to malaysian and Korean food, I literally cannot. stomach westernized Chinese food.

  2. Benjamin Ross United States said,

    December 13, 2007 at 9:48 am


    Actually, I find my English to be slightly less expressive than it was before I went to China, mainly because I think my vocabulary has shrunk. Not that I have totally forgotten words I would have used before, but sometimes it does take a moment or two for them to come to mind. It’s not that I didn’t speak much English in China, but moreso that I got in the habit of avoiding certain words or phrases which were overly colloquial or might throw off non-native English speakers.

    As for the Atkins craze, Americans will always manage to find a particular molecular compound (carbohydrates, calories, and trans-fats come to mind) to vilify and blame our pandemic obesity on. It’s just an excuse to avoid the real problems which cause our national girth. It’s not just nuts, it’s ignorant. More on this in an upcoming post.

  3. China Law Blog United States said,

    December 13, 2007 at 2:33 pm

    Explain the basketball thing. And how can you smoke and expect to play at all?

  4. Handan China said,

    December 13, 2007 at 4:35 pm

    Cross streets one lane at a time, haha.

    Great great observations.

    About putting the backpack on the ground, my German boyfriend still does it after one full year in Beijing and four one-month visits afterwards. I know where that is from but really can’t take it.

  5. Vinegar Joe Hong Kong said,

    December 14, 2007 at 1:00 pm

    I bet you say “xiexie” to the attendants in supermarkets and then follow up with “Sorry, I’ve been living in China you know. I mean thank you”, don’t you?

  6. Jeff United States said,

    December 14, 2007 at 1:11 pm

    Ben, this is another great entry since it shows that you lived a localized life here in China, and stayed here a long time. It seems your blog in China also gave you a chance to been aware day to day of the little but interesting things about life here in China, and you are obviously able to continue observing and writing about things back in Chicago. I hope you keep in up (the writing, especially, but also your Chinese).

  7. Benjamin Ross United States said,

    December 14, 2007 at 1:16 pm

    @China Law Blog…

    let’s just put it this way, my basketball game was much better in China, my ping pong game is much better in the US

    …As for smoking, when I was teaching in Fuqing I would play basketball a couple times a week with the teachers from the other departments. Whenever any one of us would jog off the court exhausted and panting for air, there was always a teammate handing out smokes on the sideline. I usually opted for a bottle of water.

  8. Benjamin Ross United States said,

    December 14, 2007 at 2:09 pm

    Vinegar Joe-

    Good point about the language thing. I’ve actually almost caught myself saying 走吧 (let’s go) and 马马虎虎 (it’s just ok) to other laowai…yes, they still call us laowai in our home country. I think mainly this is because these are Chinese phrases which had creeped into the vocabularies of myself and my Western friends which we would use in China when speaking ENGLISH.

  9. Chris China said,

    December 14, 2007 at 7:14 pm

    On jaywalking: Similar thing happened to me when I went to Seoul last year, and probably will when I head there again (very soon). Friends literally had to grab me by the back of my shirt collar to keep me from darting into traffic.

    One advantage, I think, will come of this: I will kick ass at dodge ball.

  10. canrun China said,

    December 14, 2007 at 8:36 pm

    You still didn’t thank me for my 崔健 suggestions :( I don’t smoke, but I guess I’ll just have to numb my sorrow and disappointment in different ways… :( :( :(

  11. coljac Australia said,

    December 15, 2007 at 8:27 pm

    Are the cravings for rice really “inexplicable”?

    “It’s true I ate rice every day as my staple food for a few years, and then moved back here. But I don’t think that’s the reason.”

  12. Rasta United States said,

    December 15, 2007 at 10:30 pm

    I love the observations about life in China. My one month in country definately left an impression on me.
    Always carry your own towel. Rarely could I find a way to dry my hands after using the bathroom!
    Learn to drink Really Hot Water! Everything, usually some sort of weak tea(green), is served piping hot. The gal that sued Mcdonald’s over being burned by coffee has nothing on the average cup of water in China!!! Did I mention they can drink it practically boiling hot! I’m not kidding.

  13. anonymous China said,

    December 18, 2007 at 9:50 pm

    I guess these were meant to be funny, but I don’t get it, from what I gather you spent almost all your time in China in Fujian where there is no subway (and being that you’re from Kansas, how much subway riding experience did you have before?). Do you really find the need to spit food on the table? Even after living in China for 6 years and going to restaurants here, I’m (and most Chinese people) are able to separate between restaurants where it is okay to do that and where it isn’t. Is your tv controller really that complex?

  14. Rebekah Pothaar China said,

    December 19, 2007 at 1:40 am

    Ah ah ah, enjoyable as always. After 9 months in China, I did my first spit on the sidewalk…. there is no going back now. ohhhh and I took up smoking and smoke a pack a day. Damn cigs for being so cheap.

  15. Benjamin Ross United States said,

    December 19, 2007 at 11:08 am

    @ anonymous

    how much subway riding experience did you have before?


    Do you really find the need to spit food on the table?

    yes, it isn’t rude in China, it’s just the way you get bones out of your mouth.

    Is your tv controller really that complex?

    I think a better question would be “Are my roommate’s five TV controllers really that complex?”

    Sorry you didn’t like the post.

  16. Matt Schiavenza United States said,

    December 19, 2007 at 11:52 am

    I’ve been back less than 24 hours so don’t have much reverse culture shock experience yet, but what really struck me yesterday was walking past a giftwrap lady at the Vancouver Airport and hearing her sweetly ask me, “Good afternoon sir! Do you have any presents I can wrap for you today?”. I looked at her like she was crazy, as if to say, “What the hell are you talking to me for?”

  17. Jet So China said,

    December 28, 2007 at 6:47 am

    Hmm, you shouldn’t neglect your enhanced martial art of rapidly deploying your sharp elbows and iron-cuffed shoulders in nudging out the “competition” during shopping melees in after-Xmas or foreclosure sales.

  18. McBetty China said,

    December 28, 2007 at 10:16 pm

    I think if someone had told me about repatriation before I move to China, I would not have made the jump.

    My biggest problems is paying attention when people talk. I forget I can understand what they are saying and comfortably slip into my “sleep mode” in groups of more than 3. I literally had to focus in, eyes wide open to listen and comprehend the conversations. Plus only experiencing chinglish for 3 years with Chinese pronunciation…. let’s say quite challenging.

    Then there is the problem of asking my friends to ask that sales clerk or any service employee questions for me. Finally my one friend looked at me sadly and said “Beck they speak English here. You are in America.”

    Menus are also a problem. I can read every single thing on the menu! In China you understand a few characters know some dishes and that is what you go with. Beef noodles today or pork noodles. Simple. Too many decisions to be made with a menu I can read, especially for a Libran.

    Friends have noted I am amazing at making my way threw crowds. I speak half Chinese and English at all times. One friend even pointed out I walk a little different. And yes, I have caught myself spitting food on the table. I walk into stores with cigarette in hand…forgetting you don’t smoke ANYWHERE you please in America. The most disturbing is my inability to use knife and fork properly and always wanting a bowl of rice to eat from.

    Your Blog is brilliant BEN!

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