When I moved back to the United States, I knew to expect “reverse culture shock.” I just didn’t expect it to hit me very hard. I had been away for four years, not forty. I visited the US frequently. I followed my friends’ and family’s lives on Facebook and caught up with them during holidays. While in Honduras, I had friends I could speak English with, I watched shows on Netflix, I read the Washington Post.
In my first few weeks back, I ran into my share of novel concepts (Tik Tok, Lizzo, pay-by-the-minute electric scooters). With fresh eyes, even the familiar seemed strange (grass lawns, thirty-two-ounce coffee cups). Those little oddities weren’t intimidating. What was much more difficult for me to adjust to was the shift I felt in my identity and in the way that others perceived me.
Being a visible foreigner shapes every moment of your public life. You stand out, and you become used to the attention that you draw. People are constantly singling you out and asking about your culture, your experiences. People laugh at you, but they also give you grace.
Even as I represented and explained US culture in Honduras, I also began to make space inside me for another way of being. I experienced new ideas, stories, jokes, art, and political inclinations. Without ever losing my own culture, I began to love another one. This was hard for me to explain to people—coming back to the United States didn’t feel like substituting one culture for another, it felt instead like half of a hybrid identity suddenly disappeared. My differences became invisible and certainly less immediately interesting.
I’ve had experiences that were life-changing to me, but they’ve all happened in one small country in a very big world. The third time in a short conversation that I heard myself saying, “Well, in Honduras…” I stopped myself. I didn’t mean to be a bore; I simply didn’t have other experiences to draw from.
Living in Honduras made me a different person, but it also didn’t make me Honduran. I was thrilled the first time I met a Honduran living in DC. She was kind, pointing me to a restaurant with good Honduran food and a place where cultural events were often held. There were many Hondurans that lived nearby, she told me.
“I’d love to meet them!” I chirped, and I don’t know what I was expecting—that she would wave someone else over? That she would hand me a phone number? I realized that I wanted this connection much more than she did. No one owed me their friendship, or an invitation into their cultural space, particularly not when I had the choice here about where I lived, worked, and traveled, what language I spoke.
It took time to feel like I was acting “normal.” Before, I could blame any awkwardness on my foreignness. Here, I didn’t have that excuse. I felt like I was always saying things in the wrong way, at the wrong time. I seemed to hold my body in a strange way, respond oddly to texts, interrupt people by accident. This clumsiness came—at least in part—from adapting back to a culture I was no longer very familiar with. But it felt even more uncomfortable because there was no visible indication that I should be struggling with these social cues.
It hasn’t all been hard. I’ve met people who have lived abroad, or people for whom the US is “abroad,” and we ask each other the sorts of questions that we wish we would be asked. Laughing, we turn our own cultures inside out and marvel at their strangeness. I’m starting to settle into US rhythms, remember US expectations, and push back against the ones I don’t like.
Last week I went away for the weekend on a work trip. I came back late, and as I stepped off the train, stretching my legs, taking in the muggy air, the smell, the clamor of the people and the lights of the station, I thought, surprised:
Katerina Parsons (’15) lives in Washington D.C., where she works in advocacy at Mennonite Central Committee’s Washington office and studies international development at American University’s School of International Service. She spends a lot of time thinking about US policy towards Central America and North Korea, writing, singing, and searching for the city’s best pupusas (suggestions welcome).