Reverse Culture Shock in Washington, DC – An Expat Visiting “Home”

June 13, 2019

Life as an expat. It seems like an adventure – full of excitement and new discoveries each day. While that can be true, after a while, expat life is just life. The little things that you find strange when you first move abroad become normal. You adjust to the flow and rhythm of your new life. So then, what happens when you go “home”?


Returning “Home” as an Expat

Before moving to Hong Kong, I lived and worked in the Washington, DC metro area for over 10 years. I went to college in DC and basically never left (except for 1.5 years of expat life in Laos). DC is “home” to me. So why does it feel so foreign when I visit?

Want to know more about me? Check out the About section on Becky Exploring.

For me, this is one of the drawbacks of expat life. Although I’ve gained a new home in Hong Kong, just as I did in Vientiane, I lose the feeling of “coming home” that I feel returning to DC should bring. Instead, it feels like traveling abroad to anywhere else from Hong Kong. Though there's a weird sense of familiarity thrown in.

A couple weeks ago, I made a last-minute trip to the U.S. for a funeral. Since I was flying into DC, I decided to stay for a couple days to see some friends. People frequently ask me what it’s like to live in Hong Kong. But as the months go by, it’s harder for me to pinpoint the differences. As I made my way to downtown DC after ~20 hours of travel though, I was confronted with some reverse culture shock that made some differences stand out. I thought would be fun to share some of my jetlagged reflections.

Immigration Queues – Like Disney, but without the Fun Ride at the End

Going to any country, the first thing you do is go through immigration. In the U.S., this is always a shock to me because it’s such a nightmare. I don’t have Global Entry because I only come back to the U.S. about once a year. If I still lived in the U.S. and frequently traveled internationally – I would definitely apply for it!

On my latest trip, I arrived at Dulles International Airport on a Monday afternoon. What I forgot when booking my ticket was that Monday happened to be a holiday in the U.S. Dulles was PACKED! I mean switchbacks upon switchbacks for the U.S. citizen line. The visitor queue was much shorter! For some reason, Dulles removed its immigration machines and went back to human inspection. 

crowds of people waiting in line in Washington, DC

I know you're not supposed to take photos at immigration, but I was so far back in line that you can't see anything!

It took me 2 hours to get through immigration! Yes, it was a holiday, but still...didn't make me feel the most welcome!

How Does Hong Kong Compare?

As a Hong Kong resident, I use my Hong Kong ID card when leaving and re-entering Hong Kong. At immigration, I wait behind usually no more than 2-3 people. When it’s my turn, I step up and enter my card into a machine. It takes ~10 seconds to read it, spit it back out, and open the first doors. For the second step, I put my thumb on the reader. It reads it in about ~5 seconds, then opens the second set of doors. I’m finished. 

The whole process takes between 1-5 minutes depending on how long the line is.  

Public Transportation – You Can’t Beat Hong Kong

One of the things that I love about Hong Kong is its public transportation system. Because it’s extremely expensive to own a car in Hong Kong, most people use and depend on public transportation in their daily lives. And the public transportation system is dependable, efficient, and CLEAN. This is not the case in DC.

DC Metro map

The red circle is pointing out that the entire south part of 2 lines is closed for the summer!!

When I lived in DC and Virginia, I relied on public transportation to get me to work. But it was a constant struggle. Returning to DC, I was reminded how lucky I am in Hong Kong. Although I didn’t experience any major delays on this trip, the metro trains and buses run much less frequently. The day I arrived, I waited 15 minutes for a very old and dirty train in Reston (near the airport). In Hong Kong, a long wait for the MTR is around 4 minutes.

DC Metro car

For the entire ride into downtown DC, the train never filled up and seats were still available. This would never happen in Hong Kong. Even on weekends, trains are full throughout the city. I often wonder, if the public transportation system in DC was more like the one in Hong Kong would more people use it? Or, would it be doomed no matter what because Americans like their cars too much?

Slow Going on the Metro Escalators

This one made me laugh. I’ve gotten used to Hong Kong MTR’s escalator speeds. They are FAST. I don’t really think about it anymore since I know they’re fast, but I still occasionally see tourists surprised by it.

In DC, the metro escalators are SLOW. At the Woodley Park station (and some others), the escalators are incredibly long. At the speed it was moving, I wondered if I’d ever get to the top! Slower is probably safer, especially given the height, but I still prefer the faster-moving ones.

escalator in DC metro

Such a long escalator... but kind of pretty with the lights.

Clear, Unpolluted Skies

Returning to the U.S., I’m often struck by how clear the skies are. I’m not just talking about whether it’s cloudy or not. I’m talking about the level of haze. When I arrived in DC, the skies were beautifully clear - blue sky offset by puffy white clouds. I caught myself just staring up at the sky in wonder a few times. 

Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC
Washington National Cathedral

This isn’t to say that Hong Kong doesn’t have clear days or that DC doesn’t have hazy days. But Hong Kong’s pollution, especially in the winter, is hard for me to take on certain days. Plus, Hong Kong has had a rainy spring this year so I was ready for those blue skies!

Why Is It So Quiet?

Since I arrived on a holiday in DC, the streets were dead. Barely any traffic and it just seemed incredibly quiet to me. But even during the week walking around, it still seemed quiet. It took me a while to realize exactly why I thought so. It’s not like people in Hong Kong are honking their horns all the time or that the traffic is particularly noisy.

The reason – the pedestrian-crossing signals! In Hong Kong, they beep CONSTANTLY. They beep quickly for the green walk signal, slowing down a bit for the blinking green walk, then finally slowly beeping for the red stop signal. I hear it constantly walking around Hong Kong. I hear it in the background when Jeremy calls me to tell me he's on his way home in the evening. I can even hear it sometimes up on my balcony on the 61st floor, echoing off the surrounding buildings! 

When I visited Hong Kong before moving, all that beeping drove me nuts! Now, I don’t even hear it anymore. It’s just part of my daily life. In DC, the pedestrian signals rarely make sound unless you’re in a very busy section of downtown. I missed a few street crossings that way in some of the quieter neighborhoods (because I was looking down at my phone…).

pink flowers, statue and green grass and trees in a park in DC

So many quiet neighborhoods with pretty parks - this one is in Georgetown.

People Look at You!

Mentioning the phone brings me to another shocker – people look at you when walking! Walking around in Hong Kong, I feel like I’m invisible, blending in as part of a giant crowd. (Unless I’m trying to walk faster than the crowd, in which case I feel like it’s an extreme sport where I’m weaving in and out of people coming from every direction.) 

But generally, people are going about their business, usually looking down at their phones while slowly meandering through other pedestrians. No one really talks to you, or says “excuse me” if they bump into you or step on you, they just keep on going.

In DC, people LOOK at you! Sometimes right in the eye. Sometimes they even say ‘hi’. It’s disconcerting after months of being invisible walking down the street to suddenly feel visible again. 

The funny thing is, I used to be one of those people that randomly looked at someone and smiled. Or said ‘hi’ because I caught someone’s eye. It’s funny how time away can change that. (But quickly change it back because I smiled randomly at someone on the street today in Hong Kong!)

Tell Me about Your Reverse Culture Shock Experience!

These are just a few initial things that surprised me when I first arrived back in Washington, DC. I could go on and on though about the little reverse culture shock moments I had. After being abroad for any length of time, you’re bound to see your “home” differently and feel like you don't quite fit in. I always think it’s fun to reflect on these things and think about how I’ve changed since being away.

Share in the comments below what surprised you when you came home after being abroad!

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