Sunday, February 15, 2009

Reverse Culture Shock

Blog Follower Barrie Summy ( asked me to show the changes I made in dress and deportment due to the pestering of my well-meaning Chinese friends. I thought this post would be a good place to start with my photo essay "The Transformation of Teresa" before I talk about the reverse culture shock we experienced on our first trip home after a year in Taiwan.

I had two problems in the eyes of my Chinese friends: I dressed like a slob, and I was wild and crazy. Here I am actually lying down on the dirty grass at a park. (Notice the pretty heeled sandals and skirt on the woman standing properly behind me.)

This is dressed up for me in the early days in Taiwan. I have 3/4 sleeves on a clean t-shirt, khaki pants, and a belt. Notice how my Taiwanese friend is in a frilly blouse and skirt.

Here I have made some progress in that I am wearing a skirt on the bottom with a t-shirt on top, but the wild and crazy gene just will not quit.

But now they have me in a real dress with a proper straw sun hat to protect my complexion in the hot sun. (This dress was one that my roommates forced me to buy. It was pretty comfortable, though, and I liked the colors.)

Even though I can look nice and behave properly in the presence of an elderly grandmother, the wild and crazy comes out as soon as I'm alone with my friends.

Finally, they have me growing my hair long, wearing skirts and sweaters and posing like a lady. What has become of me?
One thing Lynne and I had not expected to experience when we arrived in America was reverse culture shock. We had been living for a year in an entirely Chinese setting. The Chinese culture at the time was much more conservative than the American culture, especially in the matter of dress. Women did not wear shorts out on the street unless they were baggy culottes that went below the knees. Especially in Taipei, people dressed up to go out of the home. Men wore white shirts, slacks and ties. Women wore skirts, blouses, hose, and heels. They all buttoned the top buttons on their shirts.

When we arrived in LAX in the middle of summer, we were not prepared for the shock of seeing so much skin. Tourists were pouring through the LAX terminals in shorts, flip-flops, and tank tops. It was a jolt to our systems.

After a day or two of American food, we discovered that we were having trouble digesting all the meat and raw foods which make up the bulk of the American diet. Just as we had had trouble adjusting to a diet of mainly rice and vegetables the year before, so now we couldn’t stomach large portions of meat or large plates of salad.

Many of our friends from DC signed up for the conference just to have the chance of welcoming us home. They wanted to hear all about our adventures, but there was a lot that we could not express in words. At least Lynne had been speaking English with her students for the entire year; I had not spoken English since quitting my tutoring jobs in May. I kept trying to tell people what I thought, but the words just would not come out. I also found that traditional American mannerisms made me feel uncomfortable. It had taken me so long to get accustomed to the Chinese way of relating to people, but now I didn’t know how to be American any more.

Of course, I was busy doing Spanish interpretation and helping with the Taiwan contingent, so I did not have as much free time as my friends from DC wished. But they understood that I needed to work, and they were glad that I would be able to continue my Chinese studies now that I had a job with the publishing company.

After the conference, the Chinese head of the company told me I needed to spend time with my parents to be sure they approved of my going back to Taiwan. I didn’t know how to tell him that I hadn’t had any income for the past two months, and I didn’t have money for a plane ticket to Seattle. The only reason I had the money to return to Taiwan was because the publishing company was paying for my ticket back.

In the end, I called my brother, who was going to vet school at UC Davis. My parents agreed to come down to Tom’s place, and we all met in northern California. All I could afford was Greyhound bus fare from LA to Sacramento. My brother picked me up at the bus depot, and we went to San Francisco for a day before my parents arrived. We had a good time walking along the waterfront and watching the break dancers. I was really out of the loop in Taiwan, and I had never heard of the break dancing phenomenon. America had changed a lot in the year that I was gone, too, but in a different direction from me.

The time with my family was nice, but it was hard. I no longer felt comfortable speaking in English, and I think my views about what a family should be and how people should act had changed, too. I guess some of the Chinese attitude about young twenty-somethings being just kids until they got married had rubbed off on me. My parents seemed to think I was acting irrationally at a time in my life when I should have been going out to get a real job and starting a career. In the end, we agreed to disagree. I took the bus back to LA, did some training at the publishing company headquarters, and headed back for Taipei as the lone American in my sphere of existence.


Travis Erwin said...

Interesting transformation.

Teresa said...

Actually, Travis, I think the transformation was only skin-deep. I can clean up pretty nice, but I much prefer jeans and t-shirts, still.

Joannalynne said...

this is very interesting...I like your pictures. Now I understand why I am so crazy.

Teresa said...

Sweetheart, we're not crazy, just eccentric.

murat11 said...

This was very interesting - the experience of a reverse culture shock. I've experienced something similar after long periods out in the country, as well as on the long walkabout journey from being a therapist for 20 years to finding new life as a teacher. Different paces, different values, what was once important falling away, what seemed irrelevant suddenly becoming very dear...

Teresa said...

Actually, this blog is something in the way of journaling through more reverse culture shock. Although we have been living in the States for almost twenty years, I was homeschooling my kids and doing translation and tutoring work among the Chinese community where we lived. I think I have spoken more Chinese than English even here in the US.

Now that the kids are grown and gone, I am back in school getting my Master's and working in the Caucasian world. It has been a shock to find how much more Chinese I am culturally now than when we moved back to the States in 1990.

This blog serves the purpose of examining what I did to get to where I am today, as well as providing a record for my kids and family of a period in my life that they did not always see or understand, and it seems to make a good story for the world at large. I hope that in some small way, at least, my experiences can help break down barriers between ethnic groups and cultures.