I recently spent my longest period back home (The USA) within the last 15 years. I was there for about two and a half weeks. I really enjoyed the visit and while I would not go so far to claim I experienced reverse culture shock, there were a number of observations I had which would seem to have been influenced by having a slightly different perspective from the average American, which comes from my living abroad for many years.
I was pleasantly surprised at how friendly, polite and nice the people were. Maybe this was because I was primarily in smaller towns and rural areas, but even while in the airports in Chicago and Denver, it just seemed so easy to strike up conversations with the people I were interacting with. I am not implying that Americans are friendlier than people from other countries, but in comparison to my memories and expectations, I was pleasantly surprised.
Everything seemed so big. The people seemed big (in comparison to people in Asia). I am not a small (thin) guy myself, but it seemed a little unusual to be surrounding by so many people my size and larger.
Nearly everyone seemed to driving huge vehicles. Having recently spent quite a bit of time in Vietnam, I have grown accustomed to seeing huge blocks of building supplies or other equipment being transported while strapped to 90cc motorcycles. However in America, it seemed normal for people to drive around in huge six or eight passenger SUVs with additional cargo space while only carrying a single person and maybe a briefcase. Another time I watched as a farmer was using an extremely large tractor, which could easy pull an eighteen disc plough, to pull a small mower in order to mow the grass alongside his house. Seemed like a whole lot of machine to use for the job at hand.
I went out to eat a few times, and while I am a pretty good feeder myself, the serving sizes seemed huge. I ordered a burger and fries at one place and it looked big enough to feed a family of four (however, I buckled down and finished it off as to not waste the food). Another time I went into a fast food outlet and ordered a large soda, and was given what looked like a tub while could easily hold a half-gallon of liquid. In addition, the prices for most items seemed pretty big as well.
Also houses and yards around houses seemed so big. Roads were big and compared to most of Asia, often seemed nearly empty. The space between houses and buildings and the comparative emptiness gives the impressions of a big country, with plenty of room to spare.
Stuff (material possessions)
Although the current economic slowdown was a major topic of conversation while I was back home, my general impression was that on average people in the USA have much more stuff than they did when I lived there in the mid 1990s and earlier. Despite the fact many families have very large houses, in comparison to what is seen in Asia, people still don't have enough room to store all of their stuff. Therefore one sees storage facilities all over where people can pay money to store all the stuff they don't have room for in their homes. In fact, from my impressions of driving around and seeing all the new storage facilities, it would appear the stuff storage business is one industry that is growing in the USA despite the economic slowdown.
Many conversations between family and friends seemed to be focused on stuff; where to buy it, the prices of it and how to use it. There were many times I was completely left out of conversations for lengthy periods of time as others were discussing brands and products in detail that I had little knowledge of or interest in. I do like my stuff, but I just seem to have less of it, as well as less knowledge and interest in it than do many people back home.
I went with members of my family grocery shopping, and was amazed at the fact they did their check-out without interacting with another human being. They were able to scan their own items through the bar code reader and then bagged their own groceries. Amazing! Of course, I was used to the self-service gasoline stations which have been used extensively for decades, but I couldn't figure out how the self-service check-in at the airport worked. Also, when I went to a fast-food outlet for the one time during the trip, I made a fool of myself by ordering a specific drink when all the person taking my order did was give me a cup to fill up myself with whatever drink I wanted.
While staying in a modest hotel during the business part of my trip, I inquired about getting my clothes washed and the staff at the hotel looked at me like I was from Mars and informed me where I could find the coin-operated laundry machines where I could wash my clothes myself (which I did). Also the breakfast the hotel provided was all self-service (I could even make my own waffles). I understand the primary reason for all of this self-service and automation is in the high wage country of the USA machines are generally more cost effective than are people, still it took some getting used to after living and working in areas where labor is generally cheaper and more service is provided.
Overall I really enjoyed the trip and might return to live in the USA again someday if the right professional opportunity arises, but some adjustments in the attitudes and behaviors I have grown accustomed to while living abroad would have to occur.
Scott Hipsher is the author of
Expatriates in Asia: Breaking Free from the Colonial Paradigm,
as well as numerous book chapter, academic journal articles, conference papers and other articles on international business and other topics.