Culture shock, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is “the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life or set of attitudes.”
Sounds easy enough to understand. When you’re in a new place, you face difficulties trying to adjust to a new culture.
Reverse culture shock, according to Investopedia, is “the shock suffered by some people when they return home after a number of years overseas. This can result in unexpected difficulty in readjusting to the culture and values of the home country, now that the previously familiar has become unfamiliar.”
Not so straightforward now, is it?
And nothing illuminates reverse culture shock better than language.
When I first arrived in the United States, I remember going to Maccas (aka McDonald’s) and asking for “nuggets with to/mah/to sauce” (sauce being pronounced similar to horse), telling my friend I had to “chuck my rubbish in the bin,” and referencing the time as “10 to three in the arvo.” These were, and still are, just a few of my most common expressions. But it wasn’t until my feet were firmly planted back in the land down under that I realized the extent of my use of the Australian accent, slang and spelling.
I struggled with many little things in the United States. Some were as simple as understanding that an Americano (espresso with hot water added) is basically a long black in reverse (hot water with espresso added). Others were as complicated as trying to comprehend the need for the measurements Fahrenheit and miles, terms I still can’t seem to wrap my head around. Nonetheless, they were the jigsaw pieces of culture shock that I was slowly but surely putting together to understand the greater picture of the American way of life.
But now that I’m back in Australia I have to, once again, remember to put the ‘u’ back in colour, substitute an ‘s’ for a ‘z’ in ‘organise’ and swap the ‘er’ in centre. Not only that, but every time I write the date, I have to recall that the day comes before the month and numbers such as 00111 would be said as, ‘double zero, triple one.’
I’m relearning everything I had to abandon while assimilating in America.
It’s an odd predicament that’s both slightly amusing and marginally frustrating. Studying abroad is all about immersing yourself in a new culture and experiencing a way of life that’s different than your own. Although I may have lived in Sydney before, I’m still struggling with these adjustments.
When I was acclimatizing to the United States, I would catch myself saying words “American style.” I would do things like ask for “haff and haff,” rather than “hahf and hahf.” This was partly because of the people and environment that surrounded me, but also because I found it easier for others to understand me and I didn’t have to go around explaining myself. It’s even more absurd that I find myself doing the same thing in Australia.
Now, after being in America, I ask for the “restroom” without thinking twice. But these phrases, which are met with a slight pause and blank face by Aussies (you’d just ask for the “toilet”), make me feel like I really am coming from the United States and not back to Australia. Do I revert to my old speaking habits just so I can adapt to the culture more easily, or do I continue to say things the way I’m now used to?
Every day as I encounter new people and situations, I’m exposed to more opportunities to figure out exactly how I should, or more importantly, want to say things. It’s easiest to go with what comes out naturally, and if that means that I say “college” or “school” instead of “uni,” then I’ll happily explain the differences.
Instead of correcting my language, I learn from my experiences.
Note: Some people claim that Aussies essentially speak another language. But, I’m pretty sure it’s plain English when someone says they’ll be chucking a sickie because their rellies are coming down from Brizzy at 20 to four in the arvo and they haven’t barbie’d any snags for the sausage sizzle yet — or made space for the game of backyard cricket later on.
Then again, mate, maybe it’s not.
“Throwing a shrimp on the barbie” was a catchphrase created by Paul Hogan, who was advertising Australia to Americans. Aussies don’t even say shrimp. We say prawns. And yes, there’s a difference between them.
Jenisha Sabaratnam writes the weekly Travel column on her study abroad experiences in Australia. Contact Jenisha Sabaratnam at [email protected].