Leaving Taipei and Taiwan Behind: The Shock of Reverse Culture Shock

I had full blown reverse culture shock when I moved home from Taipei.  I’m talking sleepless nights, forgetfulness as to how to operate a vehicle, the feeling that nobody cared I was back, the whole shebang. Yes, I just said “shebang”.

The only thing is, I had no idea what reverse culture shock even was before returning home.  Why would it be odd for me to return to the place I grew up, definitely understood the culture, and already had a built-in network of friends and family?When moving abroad, one naturally worries about culture shock.  It’s obvious to think about the task of acclimating when arriving in a new country, especially if you’re like me and decided to move to said new country having never visited it.  It’s like learning a whole new way of living life.

I thought the first few days in Taipei were among the most taxing of my life at the time.  I was on a 24/7 translation bender, which is surprisingly exhausting.  I even spent a full hour in the grocery store my first time in (Welcome market in Taipei, at the end of Wen-Zhou street where I lived) and emerged with only 3 items: ramen noodles, dumplings, and merlot (wine is universal, my friends).

I’ll be honest. I broke down and cried a few times the first few weeks.  I felt overwhelmed.


Can I just hide today?

I didn’t set out on the journey expecting that any leg of it would be easy.  I didn’t want it to be easy, either.  The rewarding things in life seldom are.  I figured once I got used to Taipei, I had made it through the toughest part. 

But why did nobody warn me about reverse culture shock?

When I moved back home, it seemed as though nobody really, oh I don’t know, cared.   I half-expected my friends to drop everything to see me like they did before I left, but it didn’t go that way.  I learned a painful lesson back then, that I would have learned eventually anyway, about who was really a friend, and who was nothing more than an acquaintance.

My real friends would be curious about the adventure, they’d ask how the “trip” was, and then slip into a comatose state five minutes into my story. They weren’t really interested in the details.

I felt like everything was so different.



The oddest thing about all of this is that nothing back home really changed much while I was away.  Everything carried on just the way it did back when I was still a part of it.   It seemed so wildly different and difficult to me because it was I who had transformed. 

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the moment I moved abroad was a turning point in my life.  It was an event in which I was one person going in, and a completely changed person coming out.   My old life ended the moment I stepped on that plane leaving LAX, and my new life began the moment I stepped off of it and into the sticky Taipei evening.

Even now, thought it’s been over three years since I left Taipei, sometimes triggers make me yearn for that life.  Every time I get in my car and someone cuts me off and we show our mutual displeasure by flipping the bird, I think to myself, people were nicer in Taipei. Every time Lunar New Year rolls around, I think about the lantern festival, and I deeply miss my night-time walks, which I can’t safely take around here – I miss living somewhere safe.  I also miss going to the doctor and paying only $12, without insurance, to see her.  I miss the truly amazing food, and the unique mixture of East and West.  Heck, I even miss the honest people who returned my lost iPhone to me (before it had even been released in Asia) after I accidentally left it at 7-11.   Gosh, that would NEVER (ever, ever, ever!) happen here.

Don’t get me wrong, Southern California is amazing, as evidenced by the amount of people who live and vacation here.  Moving home had its perks.  For the first time in 8 months, I was able to walk into a store and speak English, and be fully understood.   I was finally back with my family, whom I had missed.  I was able to buy all of the food and beauty products that I had been missing,  there were no longer mosquitoes torturing me, and the weather was truly a significant improvement.


Home, sweet home?

But, if I’m honest, I yearn to take off and move abroad again almost every day.  I ask myself if the grass is just always going to be greener somewhere I’m not.  This could certainly be the problem.  Either way, I’ve been struck with wanderlust and I can’t shake it.  There’s something so beautiful about being somewhere completely new, where nobody knows you and yesterday and tomorrow don’t matter.

I wish there was a way to travel the world and still put something away into a 401k.  So, for now, the nagging need to be financially secure has kept me sedentary.

But you know what? Writing about it always makes me feel better and reminds me of the best times I had over there.  Visiting old friends I met abroad and reminiscing about our time together takes me back in such a deliciously giddy way.   We always ask each other, will you go back?  Some of us have, and some of us only flirt with the idea.   Either way, we’ve all been changed.

What about you??

This guest blog is by Ava Apollo.

Ava Apollo
Ava Apollo grew up in Southern California where she was exposed to a wide variety of languages and cultures. After her university years, Ava spent a year in Taipei where her love of travel, Chinese language, and writing were intensified.

Ava has since returned to California, however, she remains a lover of writing about Asia and traveling the world. When she’s not writing for MSW, Ava’s blogging about love and life along with her friends Stella Sage and Bella Blue on Super Blogettes.
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8 Responses to Leaving Taipei and Taiwan Behind: The Shock of Reverse Culture Shock

  1. Samuel September 27, 2011 at 5:36 pm #

    I wish I had seen this post about 5 years ago! When I first arrived in Taiwan I braced myself for culture shock, and then was kinda surprised when I adjusted fairly easily. But when I left, nobody told me anything about culture shock back in the States. My first day back home I went to Burger King, and when the girl behind the counter asked me what I wanted, I literally couldn’t talk to her! I had to finally stop, think and then slowly tell her my order. It was the double shock of culture shock plus shock at experiencing culture shock in my own culture.

    I now live in Taiwan and plan on being here for many years to come. And each time I go back to the States the culture shock becomes less. But the less the shock, the less the States feels like home. Odd, no?

  2. keisel September 27, 2011 at 8:03 pm #

    great article. Had a similar experience after a short vacation to thailand..

  3. Amanda Kendle September 27, 2011 at 8:24 pm #

    Totally relate. I’ve been back home now for five years (after six years away) and although it is much better now – the first couple of years were horrific! – I still regularly yearn to be elsewhere. One day …

  4. BonnieJean September 30, 2011 at 9:51 am #

    Thanks for this blog post, Ava — very well put! I could also really relate to it: I taught English for 3 semesters on Taiwan’s little island of Kinmen, having never been to Taiwan before I moved over there, and I’ve been back in the States now for 6 years.

    Yes, terrible reverse culture shock my first year back “home”! There would even be days when I was thinking in Chinese and I just didn’t want to have to interact with anyone in English. But I still had to go about my daily business in this English-speaking country, trying not to get into too many arguments or misunderstandings with people due to my not thinking in English as well as having that weird feeling like my mouth was full of something unchewable and distasteful whenever I tried to form those English words. (But now, of course, my Chinese is so rusty, it’s just pitiful!) =P

    About the grass being greener on the other side, one of the American college professors in Kinmen told me about a concept of someone’s (but I can’t remember the person’s name to credit with the idea now): Let’s say your culture is “blue.” And then you become immersed in a “red” culture. Now you’re not blue or red anymore — you’re actually purple. And so your personal culture no longer completely fits with either the blue or the red culture. You’re a purple person now, and you actually relate best to other purple people. It definitely makes it hard to feel completely satisfied living in either location. =)

    You’ve probably already thought of this, but if not, you might consider career options that can entail a lot of travel as part of the job. I’m actually studying electrical engineering right now, and one of the big factors in my decision to pursue that is because that’s a career field where I can quite likely find a job that would allow me to do a lot of traveling while still having a retirement plan. Or even find engineering jobs in foreign countries and live a few years each in a number of different countries, maybe signing on as a contractor for specific projects, while investing for retirement on my own. Anyway, the wanderlust is definitely there for me, too!

    Best wishes, Ava!

  5. Renee Blodgett
    Renee Blodgett October 3, 2011 at 1:29 am #

    Great addition to Ava’s piece Bonnie. Thanks for sharing as its certainly provides more value to our readers.

  6. Renee Blodgett
    Renee Blodgett October 3, 2011 at 1:32 am #

    Went through the same thing myself awhile back. Thanks for the share Amanda.

  7. Renee Blodgett
    Renee Blodgett October 3, 2011 at 1:32 am #

    Feel free to share a bit of your story. Love more insights and info that readers might find valuable on Thailand. :-) Love that place myself.

  8. Renee Blodgett
    Renee Blodgett October 3, 2011 at 1:33 am #

    Glad you found the article useful Samuel. And a great share. And absolutely -after you’re out for awhile, doesn’t feel like home as much anymore. Feel free to share stories from time to time :-) also find us on http://www.facebook.com/weblogtheworld as well as Twitter @weblogtheworld

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