Culture Shock

Everyone who moves abroad expects a certain amount of what is known as ‘culture shock’: the feeling of being disorientated by the fundamental differences that surround you. All the things you have been conditioned to accept as ‘normal’ are, in fact, far from normal in your new home; your brain has to totally rewrite the concept of ‘normal’ according to the rules, rituals, customs and expectations of this unfamiliar, alien place. Most people anticipate the big stuff – the climate, the pace of life, how religion has shaped the culture, perhaps… But it’s the small stuff that is actually the most difficult to adjust to: the fact that a taxi ‘booking’ here is more of a foolishly optimistic plea than anything else; or that the indicators on a car are purely decorative. And I don’t think I’ll EVER get used to someone snorting, hawking and spitting their viscous phlegm – totally unapologetically – just a few inches from my feet. Par exemple.

Human beings are remarkably adaptable creatures, though, and most of the significant differences are rapidly assimilated. So much so that, on returning home, I suffer from a kind of reverse culture shock – a phenomenon I have named WEIRD! Syndrome – Wobbly Englishwoman In Repatriating Disorientation! (This reads a bit like an awful local newspaper headline, doesn’t it – perhaps for a dramatic and heart-rending story about a returning expatriate who accidentally got on the wrong bus). My first instance of feeling WEIRD! on my last trip to England was in the M&S Food shop at Heathrow, Terminal 3. For about three or four minutes I just stood there staring at the alcohol – amazed that there were bottles and bottles of it, just sitting there on the shelves! For people to buy! Dubai is, of course, an Islamic city, so if you want to drink or purchase alcohol you have to obtain an alcohol licence – which is absolutely fair enough… Obtaining the licence is a valuable and enriching cultural experience in itself (and in no way a desperately frustrating quagmire of bureaucratic bilge) involving many forms, letters of no objection from employers, tenancy contracts, passport photographs and visa photocopies. And cash. Our licence is due to expire soon, and one wonders if the occasional G&T and glass of Sauvignon Blanc is really worth the headache (of the paperwork, I mean – not the hangover. Although…). The booze shops are tucked discreetly away, attached to the back of supermarkets or malls and have blinds over the windows, heavy metal doors and bold, red warning signs. One feels that owning a year’s alcohol licence is very much the same thing as leasing your soul to the devil for a twelve month tenancy. But here, back home, and in M&S of all places – the booze was freely and fabulously for sale. I was genuinely surprised. I wanted to buy some JUST BECAUSE I COULD.

Wye ChurchMy second WEIRD! experience was on the Underground – just minutes from Heathrow – when I found myself staring at a couple who were having a bit of a snog. I felt a brief jolt of panic – What are they DOING? In PUBLIC! Are they MAD?! She was wearing a very short skirt too, which made it all the more appalling for my newly cultivated prudish persona. Revealing clothing and public displays of affection are considered immodest and insulting here in the Middle East. Holding hands is supposedly ‘tolerated’ in Dubai, but anything more intimate is offensive to local culture and can, in extreme circumstances, get you into rather hot water. It took a few seconds for my brain to register the fact that while their behaviour may have been a little indecorous and impolite (especially for the poor so-and-so squashed up right next to them), it certainly wasn’t illegal.

The Tube itself came as something of a shock – the rattling darkness, the dust, the dust-coloured mice darting about between the tracks – it all felt so gothic and archaic. Just for a moment. While I adjusted. While I remembered. Coming from a place in which just about everything is new and shiny, it takes a while to get used to the presence of old things again. (Don’t get me wrong – I like old things very much. I’m rapidly becoming one.)

I’m reminded of the feeling of returning to one’s home after a long holiday. For those first few moments when you open the front door, you see everything with the eyes of a traveller – as if you’ve never seen them before: the colour of the carpet, the arrangement of furniture and, most noticeably, the smell of the place all strike you as unfamiliar. But it only lasts for a few seconds; soon it is Home again and all these things become as wallpaper – familiar and unnoticed.

While WEIRD! Syndrome is indeed rather weird, what’s even weirder is how quickly the novelty disappears. Within a matter of hours it’s as if I’ve never been away from England, and three whole years of my life evaporate as if they had never happened. Dubai melts away in my mind like a strange dream from which I have awoken. ‘Normality’ is restored.

Rye Clock Tower

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75 Comments

  1. Thanks for the grade A chortle. Fabulously well written, as always :-)

  2. I do love your writing!

    • Thank you, PP! Always a pleasure to have you here on H&H :-)

      • Now that life is getting back to normal, I’ll be back more often. :)

      • Glad to hear it – and sorry to read that you haven’t been feeling great lately. All the best x

  3. great post, I have been to Dubai on holiday…where everything is bigger and shinier, and had a taste of culture shock also – in reverse, though I must admit some of the stories we heard beforehand were worse than the actuality!

    • Hi Joan, thanks for popping by. I agree… It does all get rather exaggerated, doesn’t it :-)

  4. I remember exactly that feeling after a year in Cairo! Brilliantly written too. :)

    • Thanks, Sarah. My husband’s been travelling to Cairo on business a fair bit recently – he loves it there!

  5. The clothing thing is always a shocker for me as well. Last time I was back my friends met me with a beer and a bacon sandwich. Happiness is…

    • :-) Absolutely. We had bangers and mash on my first night home this trip! And we always have fish and chips at some point too – it’s impossible to get decent fish and chips out here…

  6. You have it absolutely right here! Whilst living in France for a few years, I always used to get this exact same feeling. When I went home to visit the UK it always felt very quickly as if my life, job, cats etc were some sort of dream. I got the exact same feeling about the UK when I went home. That feeling of not being entirely at home anywhere is one of the things I definitely don’t miss since we moved back to the UK.

    • Yes – it’s like living a double life! Glad to know it’s possible to settle happily after all the upheaval :-)

      • Oh yes definitely! We chose to go to a part of the UK we’ve never lived in before, so that it felt like we were going forward not back. We certainly landed on our feet and are very happy now.

      • Good advice – I know exactly what you mean about moving forward and not feeling like you’ve just come full circle…

  7. Great post, though the process for getting alcohol is quite tragic!

    My WEIRD! is definitely seeing the smiling American faces after all those stoic Russians.

    • Yes – all that open friendliness must be quite startling at first! Thanks for visiting H&H :-)

  8. Another little masterpiece, thank you for this!!!
    I am looking forward to suffering from WIERD syndrome myself back home in England quite soon :)

    • Hello, S.H! Thanks so much for dropping in and taking the time to read. Have a wonderful trip back home! :-)

  9. These blogs do make me smile and I too am looking forward to popping into the local Co-Op to pick up a bottle of Cava, how novel! It’s reassuring to know that others feel like never quite being at home, especially when my husband is ‘so at home’ here!

    • Hi Sarah :-) So glad you enjoy the blog. Think of me when you’re raising that glass of Co-Op Cava!

  10. Spitting amidst all that shininess seems even more inappropriate somehow! Brilliant post as always!

    • Thanks! I’m so glad you pop by regularly – I love reading your blog too. Yes – Dubai can be a place of bizarre contrasts…

  11. I’m not sure I’d cope with Dubai…let alone the other Gulf states…so it was lucky that we did not have to move country as part of the job, but could choose somewhere to live on a frolic of our own.

    What strikes me as strange when visiting Europe now is that there is no hand automatically stretched out to help me off a coach.

    • Yes – the variation in manners is an interesting one. I can’t cope with the Metro here in Dubai – no one stands back to ‘let other people off the train first’; they just barge on. I get really cross!

  12. Great read again! Being on my first visit to England I can now relate to the post you wrote when you were “home” not long ago. I’m just travelling, not living here full time bit it seems the little things have more impact on me too. Just a couple of random ones – no one seems to put the toilet lid down in England and I can’t buy iced coffee in Ireland. Hope you settle back in okay.

    • Thank you! Think I’ve settled again now – though I’m starting to feel like I lead a double life! Your toilet lid and iced coffee observations are very interesting; please keep me updated on any further oddities :-)

  13. Gosh, I never realised one had to apply for an alcohol license, and that it’s such a cumbersome process. I think I’ll stay in Europe. Forever. lol.

    • :-D No fear of an alcohol licence in Europe, that’s for sure – it would be seen as an infringement of human rights!

      • You know, still remember the days when they covered up the alcohol sections in UK supermarkets with plastic curtains at certain times (weekend mornings…?) To somebody from the continent, this would have seemed totally ludicrous!

      • Bloody hell – completely forgot they used to do that!!

  14. Barbara Backer-Gray

    Wonderful post!

    • Thanks, Barbara! Hope all is well in your world!

      • Barbara Backer-Gray

        Yes, pretty good.

  15. moi

    Once you get back to Dubai does it strike you as weird out there too, or do you settle back in over there quicker than when you visit the UK?

    • I suppose I do settle very quickly in Dubai these days; the process all becomes less clunky and weird the more to-ing and fro-ing I do… Thank you for reading :-)

  16. I totally get it. I lived in South Korea for awhile (long time ago now, sigh) and when I returned to Canada all kinds of things went wrong/wonky at first. No doubt it was partly sheer jet lag, but when presented with a fork with which to eat my lunch the day I returned I couldn’t remember what to do with it and I began weeping…in public. I was in a greasy spoon, in smallish-town Nova Scotia, asking the stunned waitress for some chopsticks!

    I really love your blog, by the way, and am so glad to have found it!

    • Thanks Colleen – so glad to have you here on H&H! Your chopsticks incident sounds very traumatic – and symptomatic of the whole WEIRD! syndrome (though you are of course a Canadian, not an Englishwoman…) :-)

  17. Rick

    Yet again, beautifully observed and written comment with humour and a light touch that brings it all to life. You’re getting rather good at this!

  18. Rick

    We are really looking forward to, and hoping for a massive culture shock on Guernsey!

    • Hope you have a glorious time and some lovely, relaxed days exploring. Wish I were coming too! xx

  19. hurricanechrissy

    I couldn’t agree with you more! Reverse culture shock can be far more alarming and disheartening! When I cam home after living in Japan, I had the misfortune of returning during Biketoberfest in Florida. Which is basically the culmination of all things redneck and leather… put on a motorcycle. The air is thick with exhaust, the streets are littered with beer bottles and fringed bikini tops, ratty beards everywhere you look, and a plethora of flabby, saggy skin gushing out and over tight leather outfits–all for your viewing pleasure. Needless to say, after Japan, which is arguably one of the skinniest first world countries on the planet, quiet modest when it comes to showing shoulders and bosoms, and remarkably clean for having so many people smushed into such a small area, “shocked” was somewhat of an understatement.

    I also had an issue with “blending” in again. Just one amongst the multitudes. At first that was a shock in Japan, being stared at wherever I go because of my “gaijin”-ness (it helps that many of the Japanese love foreigners, so they were nice about it). But then when I got back I felt a bit sad about disappearing back into the crowds.

    Glad to know I’m not the only one who was met with a bit of “did I get off in the right country?” when returning to my homeland!

    • Biketoberfest sounds like it would be an horrendous culture shock for just about anyone coming from just about anywhere! – Terrifying!! Thanks so much for reading and commenting :-) I hope Florida soon felt more homely and familiar!

  20. Excellent post. I remember how hard it was getting used to the traffic driving on the ‘correct’ side of the road when I came home to the UK after a year away. :) I was fine if I was driving, but as a pedestrian it was tricky!

    • I have nightmares about driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road! And – whichever country I’m in – I now check both sides of the road extra carefully before crossing as I’m never quite sure where it will be coming from! Thanks for visiting H&H, Elaine! :-)

  21. Hah – this post made me chuckle, but it also provided me with some useful information. I plan to have some major culture shock here in a few months when I move from the US to the UK – but it probably won’t be as drastic as yours! I don’t think I would appreciate people spitting feet from me though, either. ;)

    • Welcome to H&H! Good luck for your move to the UK – I’m sure you will love it! Whereabouts will you be living? :-)

  22. Really enjoyed your post. Good to know I’m not weird for still being homesick after all these years. I would probably feel the same as you described if I went back home. Driving on the other side of the road would probably be the worst. I still have mental slips here and try to cross over and there is still the occasion when I get in on the wrong side of the car and wonder who took the steering wheel. Love your writing style. Thanks for stopping by my blog site so I can follow your posts.

    • Hi and thanks so much for visiting! It’s certainly an odd feeling to have two such different places that are both ‘home’. Do you plan to stay in Australia for much longer or do you think you’ll go back to the US one day?

  23. I agree with you on the small stuff being the most difficult to adjust to. About six or seven months ago, I wrote a post about that on my blog. And I still feel that way now. It’s getting to the point where all these daily frustrations are irritating me to the point that I kind of just don’t like living in Oz anymore. I’m sure for some people it gets better and maybe it depends on the place, too. I’ve never had this problem last so long or become worse over time when living abroad anywhere else. Regardless of how long the small differences nag at you, though, it certainly does still wear you down.

    I have not been back “home” for a while and have no plans to go in the foreseeable future, but having gone “home” many times in the past, I certainly can relate to how you feel! I don’t really get reverse culture shock anymore, but I am always happy to have my life back to the way it “should” be, even if just for a short visit. :-)

    • Crumbs – you poor old thing. Sorry to hear it’s getting you down – I suppose living far from home just gets like that sometimes. It sounds like you do need a trip home to look forward to or perhaps some sort of positive change there in Oz. We’re moving to a new apartment here in Dubai – to a really lovely part of town. I’m feeling so much more positive now I’ve got that move to look forward to… Hang in there :-)

  24. Great post, when I ‘go home’ to the UK I really have to concentrate to drive on the left side of the road, and roundabouts feel really strange.

    The good side of going home is the Indian & Chinese restaurants. I really miss them and bacon butties.

    • I have dreams about bacon butties :-D Roundabouts here in Dubai are pretty ambiguous devils anyway…

      • Most of the road signs in Italy are really only advisory, even stop signs and red traffic lights

      • … And the speed limit is a sort of challenge?

      • exactly.

        The driving rule for Italy is, you must drive at 10 kph faster than the car in front of you, regardless of the speed limit or the speed of the car in front.

      • :-D What’s bizarre over here is that people drive SO dangerously fast, and then get out of the car and walk SO painfully slowly!

      • ha ha ha ha

  25. Your writing is really the most enjoyable thing! When I look at what you’re saying, there’s nothing really that won’t have been remarked before, but you say it all so deliciously. I’m becoming a fan.
    I should have done my research, but don’t know for how long you’re in the UK. Is return to Dubai imminent? :)

    • Hi Restless Jo – thanks so much for popping in and commenting. Here I am, back in Dubai now – it was just a two week jaunt home to the UK. Just booked my flights home for the summer, though – and I’ll be back for about 6 weeks! – Yippeee!! Thrilled to have you as a regular reader :-)

  26. Anne Coulon

    After three years in Dubai, one of the main things which still strikes me is the gardeners cycling around, carrying a rake and trailing a decrepit lawnmower – coming towards me on my side of the road..
    Just discovered your blog, love your writing! Next time I go home, I will be imagining the pilots with fingers crossed in the cockpit incanting “Wingardium leviosa!”, whilst my husband the aeronautical engineer is explaining the technicalities of airborne flight to me! I know who I believe!

    • Hi Anne, welcome to H&H – thanks so much for popping by, reading and commenting. Yes – the chaps on bikes really are extraordinary out here – quite a different philosophy of road usage altogether! (And how do they manage it in the heat?!) Very glad to hear you enjoyed the post on flying home – though your husband may be a little scathing of my ‘theories’! How long have you been in Dubai for?

      • Anne Coulon

        We’ve been here since the beginning of the school year in 2010, so probably much the same length of time as you. I have to admit we have met you in your capacity as a teacher, and my husband would never dare be scathing about your theories!

      • Ahaaa! You’re Louisa’s mum – of course!! Lovely to have you here, Anne, do stay in touch :-)

  27. Anne Coulon

    Indeed, ‘is I, Leclerc! (I doubt you were born in time for that reference.) Will definitely keep following your blog, which has put me off writing my own as yours is so much better than I can aspire to!

  28. Really interesting read. You’re absolutley right about it being the little things in different cultures that stand out. Loved the bit about indicators being purely decorative. I live in Mexico City and numerous drivers here have told me that if they ever see anyone use them it means you’re supposed to speed up and not let the person complete the move they are signalling!

    • Loved looking at your Mexico blog, Will. Funny you should say that about indicating – exactly that happened to me yesterday. I indicated to change lanes and a 4×4 appeared from nowhere accelerating aggressively towards me. It’s a bit like a REALLY scary game of dodgeball…

      • Oh!! so that’s what you meant by ‘indicators’. I’m in the states and I’ve never heard anyone refer to them as that. We call them ‘turn signals’. That problem is over here too, the people speeding up bit. Too many aggressive drivers. : /

      • Sorry – I forget that some of my readers are American / use American dialect variations… I should put a little English glossary at the bottom of each blog :-D

      • Haha, it’s perfectly alright. I know a few of the common differences, but there’s definitely more I wasn’t aware of. I’m still learning of different terms people use in other regions of the U.S. even. I need to get out more, lol.

  29. This is really fascinating stuff. And I love the good humor it’s written with.
    WEIRD! Syndrome, I’m going to remember that. It actually sounds a bit like the few times I’ve gone on a week vacation somewhere. It feels kind of funny when I’m back in my own house (obviously not to this degree) but then yes, soon enough normality is restored and the place you were is just a memory, not the environment you had to adapt to.

    • Thanks, Lehst – so glad you’re enjoying my blog. I think it is exactly the same feeling as coming home from holiday, just on a bigger scale…

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