Day 27: What is {Reverse} Culture Shock?

Have you ever been relaxing in the hot tub in the winter, and then jumped into the chilly pool? The shock of the cold water knocks the breath from you, but after you swim around a while, your goose bumps shrink and it starts to feel normal. Then, have you ever jumped back into the steaming hot tub? Pins and needles jab at you all over your body, your body feels like it's being burned it's so hot, and you feel tingly in your fingertips and toes. After the initial thirty seconds or minute, though, you adjust to the hot water again, and it too feels normal.

This jump from the freezing water back into the hot tub is reverse culture shock. 

It's deeper than the way the absence of honking and blaring horns surprises me on the roads back here in America. It reaches beyond the short shorts and difference in fashion and modesty. 

My favorite definition is this: "Culture shock is the disorientation of discovering that all the cultural patterns we have learned are now meaningless" (Paul Hiebert, "Culture Shock: Starting Over"). 

This is why, four months after I returned to the United States, I still feel inklings of disorientation throughout my days. All the cultural patterns I learned in Cambodia - the ones I studied and worked so hard to understand and remember - are useless here. The language, the mannerisms, the greetings, the socially acceptable ways of interacting and the complexities of humor. A lens through which to view the world, a persona outfitted to operate in a certain setting.

Here, though, the outfit I wove for so long to match those around me in Cambodia is set aside. I take it off and fold it and put it neatly in storage, next to my elephant pants. Of course I still have my jeans and t-shirt, but they feel stiff and strange.

What's stranger? The days I wear them again and finding them uncomfortable, or the days I wear them and find them just as comfortable as ever, as though I never changed out of them?

Some people have this amazing elasticity in their minds and hearts. They can transition from culture to culture easily; they don one pair of clothes and switch to another in a heartbeat.

That isn't me.

I'm learning to be okay with this. I'm learning to take life slowly, one day at a time, chewing my food all the way through before I try to swallow.

I take changes slowly, especially changes in culture, countries, language, people. I wade through the change carefully, inspecting and noticing all the differences. I inch forward a little, pause to take it in, and then inch forward a little more.

I still miss Cambodia. I miss the people and laughter and jokes and places and of course, the food. I miss the community. I miss so many things, and I'm sad and sometimes angry all the cultural patterns I learned there are meaningless here. It calls for grieving. This is a huge loss.

Perhaps this is the simplest way to explain culture shock:

Culture shock is experiencing tremendous loss.

Day 20: What's His Name?

It was senior year of nursing school. I sat in the auditorium, the huge room able to house half of the entire college of nursing. My peers were scattered throughout the room, seated in every other chair, the way we always arranged ourselves when we were testing. Each test was downloaded on our laptop, and we opened a special software to block out all other applications until our test was submitted.

I sat in my chair and sighed. The software wasn't opening for me. I restarted my computer, and when nothing changed, I raised my hand. Mrs. Gant walked over to me and leaned closer as I quietly explained my software wasn't working. I showed her the icon on my screen showing the critical care test was downloaded but wouldn't open. She asked me to restart my computer again and then sat down in the chair next to me to wait and help me troubleshoot.

Mrs. Gant had short hair and a kind but witty smile. Though there were dozens upon dozens of students in my class, Mrs. Gant knew my name because she'd been my clinical instructor during the ICU rotation at the hospital. The computer screen went blank after the reboot before my desktop screen popped up, colors vivid. My mouse icon spun as the desktop setting loaded. My desktop picture was of a little boy in Cambodia, who was proudly posing for the camera, his hands leaning against a railing and his little face turned upward, right at the viewer. His smile was radiant, with missing teeth and just a hint of mischief.

It was months since I'd been in Cambodia. Still, though, I rotated pictures from this dear country to serve as my desktop backgrounds and screen savers. Not a day passed I didn't think of the other side of the world, the one where this little boy lived.

Mrs. Gant glanced at the photo. She could have been silent - most teachers were when they helped troubleshoot in the middle of a test, since all the other students were already well underway and pondering questions - but she wasn't. She looked at the photo and then looked at me.

"He's cute," she said.

I couldn't suppress my smile. "He's from Cambodia."

"What's his name?" she asked.

A confused expression clouded my face before I replied, "I don't remember..." I could remember exactly when and where we met this child, but I hadn't had time to build a long-term relationship with him.

She nodded. "How old is he?"

"Five," I responded this time. Just looking at his little grin lit up something inside me. Ignited a longing to be in his country again.

The desktop flashed and then all the usual icons repopulated, and when I clicked on the software for testing, it opened up without a hitch.

"Thank you," I said as she wished me luck, pushed back from the desk, and walked back to the front of the room. The thanks was mainly for the troubleshooting help, but that's not all for which I was grateful.

She'd asked me something no one else had--ever. All the people who had seen my pictures, my desktop. All those who knew half my heart was stuck in Cambodia. I suppose they - and I - had come to accept I wasn't in Cambodia anymore. No one asked me questions anymore; it was months since I'd been in the Southeast Asian country. The memories surfaced often, but as the questions stopped coming, I stopped offering answers. Wasn't everyone tired of hearing about Cambodia?

What's his name? How old is he?

She knew it'd been a long time; she knew I hadn't been out of the country in almost a year. But she still asked. And to my surprise, I was still overjoyed to talk about him, this little boy from a little country on the other side of the world which had stolen my heart.

What's his name?

These words whispered care and interest, both in me and in him, and they carried the weight of genuinely valuing relationships and valuing people.

What's his name?


I went to a dinner the other night when I was visiting a life group, and someone asked the woman sitting next to me if she missed India, where she had formerly lived for a while. "Always," she replied.

She said it so naturally, and the conversation quickly glided on to another topic as soon as the word left her lips.


Here was a woman who had been Stateside for longer than me, and away from India for longer than that, and she still expressed she always missed India.


She didn't make a big deal about India, or her memories, or her time there. She spoke more of her life in the present than in the past, but I could tell from the way her voice gained energy when she talked to the girl across from us about food and towns in India that she would be more than willing to talk about it if people were interested to hear.


I will always miss life in Cambodia. I may not talk about it much, and I may not broach the topic often, but I will always miss it. I will always be willing to talk about it. Sometimes it just takes someone asking, "What's his name?", and the treasure chest in my heart storing Cambodian memories opens up, and I get to delight in showing them to other people. What treasures. They're still there! Even now! Days, weeks, months, years later. They're still there. Always.

As more time passes since my return to the States, as the questions become fewer, these queries become more and more valuable to me, like Mrs. Gant's question months after everyone else's interest faded and disappeared. An unexpected offer to show others a glimpse of the beauties of Cambodia. All in a simple question.

What's his name?