Reverse Culture Shock: Visiting the US after Nine Months Away

Besides seeing all my friends and family for the first time in two-thirds of a year, I was looking forward to seeing the differences that I noticed in my home country. Everyone talks about ‘reverse culture shock’, saying that sometimes it can be even more jarring because home no longer feels like home and things that you once found familiar may now seem strange. I don’t know if it was more jarring, but it was definitely strange to be back, and not just because Enrique Iglesias was now on the radio singing in English (also, um, no, it just sounds weird).

I’m not trying to say that things in Spain are better or worse than in the United States, these are just differences that I’ve noticed. Since I have a tendency to rant once I get started, I want to say that I don’t want anyone to take offense and welcome your responses and thoughts! There are tons of things that bug me about the way things are done in Spain (absence of air conditioning in schools, any sense of tact, and barbeque sauce, to name a few). Sometimes I’m painfully aware that I’m not Spanish so I’ll never truly fit in here. I can’t emphasis how nice it was to be back in the place I’ve lived my whole life, with people who have known me for years (my flight back to Madrid was my first flight to Europe that I wasn’t excited to get on). Still, there are a few differences I noticed (in no particular order):

1. Eating Out

One of my more memorable meals the Alpujarras mountainrange.

One of my more memorable meals here…in the Alpujarras mountainrange.

This is a big one, and something that I did notice when I first came to Spain. Here, waiters come to take your order and bring you your food. That’s it. If you want something else, you have to flag them down, including for the bill. You can hang out in a restaurant or bar for hours and it’s quite normal – no one will rush you by giving you the bill before you’re ready. And for Spaniards, that can literally be for hours. Dining out, or just eating in general, is a ritual that cannot be rushed, even when the meal itself is finished. Then there is coffee, and more talking. They even have a phrase for this – hacer sobremesa – basically hanging out at the table chatting after the meal is finished. There’s generally no room for this in restaurants in the United States, because as soon as they take your plates away they bring you the bill, and you’re expected to pay it, pronto, and then scram so they can take the next table (and make more tips).

Since waiters in Spain are paid a normal salary, they don’t need tips, and usually people only leave small change. Isn’t this better for everyone? Then if there aren’t many people in for lunch one day, the waiter/waitress still gets their salary, and not just the sad four dollars an hour that they’re allowed to be paid. Tipping seemed especially ridiculous to me in bars – do I really have to tip the bartender a dollar on my already six-dollar beer just to open the bottle or pour it from the tap? Seriously?

Different people have different opinions on restaurant service, but personally I prefer the Spanish way, although I have had some experiences where I do get frustrated if I want to leave and there’s no waiter in sight (hint: they’re probably outside smoking). Others argue that they miss waiters asking how the food is, or being friendlier (it’s not that Spanish waiters are unfriendly, they just don’t care about anything else besides your order).

And while we’re on the topic of eating out, let me just add that I found menus kind of hilarious. In Spain, the menus will just say what it is, e.g.: ‘Ham with potatoes and spinach.’ This will apparently not fly in the US, because instead of that basic but informative phrase, an American menu will say “Tender leg of pork drizzled in a butter garlic sauce nestled on a bed of wilted lettuce and potato wedges.”

2. White Eggs

Distribution of white vs. brown eggs across the world. Click for more egg info!

Distribution of white vs. brown eggs across the world. Click for more egg info!

Okay, this may seem like a mundane thing, but I had a shock the first day when I opened the refrigerator and saw a pile of white eggs sitting innocently next to the yogurts. They looked so strange with their red stamped dates, so stark and bright! That’s when I realized that I had only seen brown eggs since October. I wondered if eggs were bleached in the United States, and did a little research. Turns out it’s just a different breed of hen that lays white eggs than brown eggs. White hens lay white eggs, brown hens lay brown eggs – how complex! And apparently they’re nutritionally the same, just a different preference.

But as long as we’re on the topic of eggs – something that surprised me when I first came to Spain and spent a good fifteen minutes roaming the local supermarket looking for eggs and finally found them…on an end shelf next to some tomato sauce! Unrefrigerated! Barbarians! Didn’t they know eggs had to be in the refrigerator?!

Later when I had recovered from the trauma of my first shopping trip, I learned that it’s because in Europe, eggs aren’t washed before being packaged and sold, meaning that their natural protective covering is still intact, and they don’t need to be refrigerated. On the other hand, in the United States, we wash the shit out of our eggs (literally – you can get eggs here with bits of chicken poo and straw on them), and therefore have to refrigerate them. Also salmonella isn’t a thing in Europe because their hens are vaccinated. So you can eat all the chocolate cookie dough if you want…that is if you can find brown sugar and chocolate chips…

So, since we’re continuing on the topic of food, let’s talk about probably my biggest culture shock moment.

3. Supermarkets

Who knew these innocent looking containers were just the beginning of a disorienting trip to the supermarket? Not my photo, click for a great and hilarious photo documentation and article on  American supermarkets.

Who knew these innocent looking containers were just the beginning of a disorienting trip to the supermarket? Not my photo, click for a great and hilarious photo documentation and article on American supermarkets.

My eyes were round as saucers as I followed my mom into the Stop and Shop to buy provisions for my sister’s graduation party (the reason I was back in the US for such a short time).

I was so overwhelmed by all the choices that I was like a bobble head, swinging my head in every direction and staring at the entire aisle of chips or types of ice cream. What got me the most was the entire freezer section for Cool Whip in gigantic containers. Really?! Is that really necessary?

In the words of my mother (one of few but poignant words) as I stood wide-eyed with an overflowing armful of bags of different flavors of Chex Mix, “You are acting quite strange.” To which I responded that I was experiencing sensory overload and needed to leave.

One thing I did not miss though was the hanging pork leg (jamón) section, or it’s offending odor that I don’t think I’ll ever get used to.


4.Big Box Stores

Driving around American suburbs for the first time in nine months the first thing I noticed was the amount of stores, and huge ones at that, coupled with gigantic asphalt yards in front of them (aka parking lots). Walmart, Target, Toys R Us, Best Buy, etc, etc, etc. I’m not saying that they don’t have shopping malls in Spain or in Europe in general. There is a mall called Xanadú in the south of Madrid where you can learn to ski.

One of the biggest and fanciest malls I’ve been in was in Kraków, Poland.

But these are concentrated places, shopping centers where everything is located in one giant building, instead of endless miles of huge, standalone stores and their massive parking lots taking up space. And then once you’ve driven five minutes from one Target, you pass by another one!

5. Lawns

I guess this is also related to sprawling and taking up space, something that people can’t afford to do in Europe because countries are so much more squished together. But thing that struck me was the size of people’s yards and lawns and how spread apart the houses are in the United States. The fact that people take care of their lawns and spend time and money watering, cutting, and grooming them seemed so weird! Why? It seemed to me like such a waste of resources for something that many people don’t even do anything with, just to have as a status symbol or something. Here in Spain things are more concentrated – even in towns people will have only small yards, with attached row houses. Then there are large open spaces in between towns with farms.

I know there are many advantages to lawns: it’s a place for kids and pets to play year round and to hang out and barbeque in during the summer. But somehow, the rest of the world seems to be doing just fine with public parks…

6. Shaking Hands vs. Dos Besos

I didn't even make this meme so I must not be the only one.

I didn’t even make this meme so I must not be the only one.

While I was home I didn’t meet many new people since I didn’t even have time to see everyone that I already knew, but the few people I did meet, I had to hold myself back from doing the dos besos or two kisses, one on each cheek, and instead revert to the shaking of hands. I have to say that shaking hands felt super weird and cold now that I hadn’t done it in so long. I already had reflected on this when I first came to Spain, but now I’m sure that I prefer the Spanish method, since its always the same, dependable and expected. Whether you’re meeting a best friend, stranger, or casual acquaintance = dos besos. You don’t need to think about it! For a socially awkward penguin like myself, it’s nice to have one point of awkwardness removed from the equation. For example, you’re leaving a person you just met..what do you do, shake hands again? Give a little wave like you have t-rex arms? Simply walk away? Am I the only person that has these problems?

Now as I look back at this list, I realize that the majority of it has to do with food…hm…is it because the biggest cultural differences are always seen in food or is this what I pay attention to? Any other expats want to weigh in? From Spain or otherwise? Americans offended by my rants? Give me all the opinions! Don’t worry, I’ll soon get around to a good ranty post about all the things that bug me about Spain, it’s not perfect either.



10 thoughts on “Reverse Culture Shock: Visiting the US after Nine Months Away

  1. I’m an American and I agree with everything except maybe handshakes, only because I am very comfortable with making the quick hug or handshake decision. Age & experience may have something to do with that. I know I don’t appreciate those few people that just kiss you right on the lips as a casual hello! I am a generous hugger, but still prefer to retain choice. I do feel you have become more approachable for a hug since your time in Spain and I am grateful for that. It was a gift to have a mutual hug greet when you visited the house. I would like to linger longer in a restaurant or café without loitering concerns as one can feel here in U.S. I recently had a rant about tipping being a need more for others survival rather than a reward for good service. I was far into adulthood before I knew waitresses/waiters weren’t paid at least minimum wage! I don’t appreciate helping employers pay for employees after I have paid double to triple what it would cost me to make my food or drink at home, I once justified high restaurant & drink cost to the fact employees have to be paid. Obviously I’m not over my last rant on the subject. I agree we fuss about lawns & yards and take up much space as Americans. But, I also wonder if people in other countries make better neighbors. Can you comment on that? Because I do have neighbors I am grateful to have elbow room from. Yes, our store shelves offer too much choice! Very good blog, I was not offended.

  2. Haha, I should have clarified that with the ‘kisses’ you don’t actually put your lips on the person’s cheek even, it’s more of a pressing of your cheeks together and making a kissing noise. Very quick and short. No way would i be down for lip kissing from strangers!!

    I’m not sure about neighbor customs, since I live in apartment, I can’t speak for what it’s like in smaller towns. But I’ve never had any problems here! I think in general because people have always lived in closer proximity they are more aware of other people being nearby. I couldn’t really say for sure though, it’s an interesting question!

  3. Yes I totally agree with all of these!! Though the lawns and “big box stores” have never bothered me much. I’m always happy to have my backyard when I visit home for some private outdoor space. And Target is my happy place so i can’t hate on it, though I do think having so many places like that is kind of overkill.

    In regards to everything you said about food and grocery stores, YES. My first day back after my first year, we went to Wegmans to food shop and I was bugging out and couldn’t make decisions. Total sensory overload. I find it gets “easier” each time I go home as you can appreciate the options more the longer you’ve gone without them. Though it does make grocery shopping take 10x longer, it also makes me a bit more adventurous with my cooking as the “weird” ingredients are easy to find.

    The whole food industry of the US (restaurant customs included) piss me off. The “regulations” put on the “food” in the US are ridiculous and even sometimes dangerous and it disgusts me that it’s all about the profit. And I totally agree about tipping/restaurant culture, I much prefer Spain’s version.

    I could go on and on, but I won’t. Glad you enjoyed your trip home! That’ll me me in 2 weeks 🙂

    • Haha yes the trip to the supermarket definitely took a lot longer!! I loved all the options on the one hand, but yeah was also overwhelmed and some of the stuff seemed unnecessary. But the options is definitely something i do miss here. Agreed totally on the food industry in the US, it’s pretty scary. You’re so right to put “food” in quotes because who knows what the hell it is by the time it gets packaged and put on the shelf.

      Enjoy your trip home too!!

  4. I 100% understand the dos besos…I ran into this dilemma when I started having more friends from the city actually. The first time I met someone and they went for this greeting I was flustered. “Do I reciprocate the kiss? Do I actually kiss their cheek? Do I just make a kissing noise? ” I felt incredibly awkward with this greeting for a good year, not because I thought it was weird, it just was not a natural reflex. I also found this took the place of hugging so I had to hold back on that reflex. I now think I can pull off the greeting though who knows I may still look like an awkward penguin myself!

    • That’s interesting! I’ve never noticed people doing it in the US, maybe I wasn’t friends with the right people, haha! Yeah I still hug my non-Spanish friends here, sometimes there’s no subsitute for a good hug!

  5. Greeting culture around the world is so interesting. In Morocco you get the extra complication of gender. With a male friend I would either do a handshake followed by tapping our hearts or a series of four air kisses (left, right, left, right). With women it could run the gamut from that handshake to the old Berber lady, who will grab your hand and kiss it like you’re a medieval prince, to women who I’d stick my hand out and they’d look at me and say, “I don’t touch men’s hands.” Between each other women would always do air kisses, but they had a much more complicated pattern than men. I saw a lot of left, right, right, left, but honestly never memorized it. Now it’s weird though, because you always do one of those on meeting or leaving, so now I’ll split off from people and not handshake, and it’s weird, or I’ll show up in a place and not greet literally everyone in the room and it’s weird.

  6. So many reverse culture shocks here! The story about eggs and supermarkets would shocked me the most. I’ve been living in China so everything is possible here, but once I’m back home next month I’m afraid I will experience what you have!

  7. Salmonella is definitely an issue in Europe as well – my daughter’s kindergarden just had a bout of it last week.

    The tipping thing is ridiculous – I am all pro abolishing this obsolete practice in favour of normal salaries. But then again, I’ve ranted on the topic already at my own blog 😉

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