Culture Shocks of Repatriation: My First 24 Hours Home

Photo by Martin Castro on Unsplash

It’s tricky to pin down the meaning of “Home”. As a first generation American with a deep connection to my roots in Iran, having lived as an expat in Spain, and traveled the world for months at a time, “home” has been transient. Comfortably so, I’m happy to say.

For the last five years I’ve lived in Spain’s capital city, Madrid. You can read all about my love affair with life as an expat in this beautiful city, and why I made the move, in this article.

Why Repatriate?

After a wave of changes and shifts in priority, I decided to move back to the US this year. I was longing for a version of home I couldn’t replicate abroad. It was a tough decision. Not only because I was leaving the place I called home for half a decade, but also because I didn’t know what would await me once I got back.

I was nervous to relocate to a country that was still being referred to as a dumpster fire by many. Why? Why are you coming back here?! friends would ask. Don’t come back, they told me. Keep traveling and live your best life!

People who envied my ability to travel to more exotic places than Walgreen’s during the pandemic, saw through a lense of the romantic. Something I recommend doing, but within limits. This freedom came at a price, like most wonderful things do. I struggled to explain my “Why to anyone in a digestible way, especially those who feed off of social media and FOMO. It was more of a feeling I had.

There were compromises I wasn’t willing to make anymore, and I missed friends and family dotted around the US. Though it would take years to see everyone, it would be more geographically realistic.

It also felt more urgent after the tsunami of sea change the past few years, the distancing and overall dystopian vibe. I had watched the horrific series of events unfold in the US from afar, in disbelief.

The news reported conditions as unlivable, pinning absolute horrors as absolute realities. It felt like I was watching news stories about countries in other parts of the world.

What was happening at home?

It wasn’t possible for me to shrug off the surge of violence against minorities, on top of the tragedies of the pandemic. It weighed heavy on my list of reasons to not return, among other striking disparities with my comparatively idyllic life in Spain.

Photo by Johan Mouchet on Unsplash

I Felt Stuck.

It wasn’t exactly an exciting time to move to relocate anywhere in the world, but the US appeared to be falling apart at an impressive rate.

The timing when I had left the the US couldn’t have been better. Though I wasn’t one of those people who had threatened to leave the country if Trump won the election in 2016, I was in fact one of the people who did.

Stroke of luck.

Returning to the US was a different story. The sense of dread I felt was very much rational. Though it wasn’t like me to catastrophize, I gave myself allowances under the circumstances. I avoided booking a ticket home for months until I could make peace with the new set of challenges ahead.

A friend eased my worried mind with one word just before I made the move.

Repatriation

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Como?, my Spanish infused brain blurted out. This was not a word or concept I had heard of before..

It’s harder to adjust to life in your native country than it is to acclimate to life abroad. It makes absolute sense to feel overwhelmed.

I didn’t have the language to communicate what I was afraid of until she told me that. It was true that my overwhelm emerged within a bubble of truth. It would not be easy no matter what the circumstances were. She offered comfort from first hand experience, having gone through a similar move herself

My arsenal of coping mechanisms included being cautious, clumsy, and curious for as long as I felt necessary.

Since coming back, a lot of people have asked me about culture shocks I have experienced. Below are some of what I am grateful to say have been minor curiosities and comically alien moments.

Most of the culture shocks have been positive, and even what I would call cuddly, having lost track of some of what makes home feel like home in the first place.

Welcome to America

Photo by Dyana Wing So on Unsplash

I cannot overstate how amazing these words sounded. A friendly smiling eyes at border control and those three magic words warmed my heart after I landed at LAX.

There is no other place in the world like America. It felt impossible that the tensions I had watched play out on the news could exist in the same space. It was life as usual, diversity all around me.

It was incredibly comforting to see people of all colors, and hear languages from around the world. Not having access to international travel made me forget what a comfort and luxury that was. More striking was the realization that America was still badass as ever, and people landing from all over the world were still welcome to America.

Suspending Judgement

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Airport hotels aren’t exactly a welcome home. I recommend suspending judgement on repatriation immediately after arriving. Wait until a more fitting reality presents itself, maybe a few days after relocation.

I booked an airport hotel so I could take another Covid test in the morning after my flight back. Though it wasn’t required, I wanted the extra reassurance before staying with family, and to sleep off a long flight.

Once I stepped into the large lobby, it was an exercise in patience not to let myself regret the decision to come back. There I was, with three enormous suitcases, surrounded by the same dispensers of hand gel and surgical masks as in Spain. Would it really feel like home here? I thought.

Airport Hotel. Dead Zone. Suspend judgement.

Being Cautious

After check in, I got in the elevator to go up to my room and a guy snuck in just as the doors were closing.

What floor? he asked. I took a step back and told him two floors above the button he had pushed. This was not the floor where my room was.

I felt tense being in an elevator with someone who didn’t have a mask on. This wasn’t allowed yet in Spain when I had left. We all wore masks in public indoor spaces, especially elevators!

I rode up the two extra floors after he got out, and then came back down to the floor my room was on. I felt like if he wasn’t wearing a mask, he could be waving a gun in my face just as easily.

At least that’s how the news had portrayed people without masks. Anti maskers and vaxxers resented people with masks. Everyone in the US has a gun. No one is safe; that was the narrative. I was being cautious.

Being Clumsy

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I am saying “Hola!” to everyone, it’s so embarrassing. . . when elevator doors open, to the driver of the airport shuttle, the person who checked me in. I feel like don’t know how to be me in America anymore.

Everything came out Spanish. Not just hello. It dawned on me that I wasn’t me in America anymore. At least not as I had remembered me to be. I didn’t recognize myself from before I moved abroad, a then non Spanish speaker. I was getting to know an America 2.0 through the lense of myself 2.0.

I indeed loved that I blurted out words in Spanish. This felt like success in terms of reaching what I considered fluency in the language. Definitely also awkward. I was clumsy in my interactions, still processing where I was and how to communicate.

I have always been fluent in clumsy, so I embraced the sea legs.

Being Curious

I decided to approach the inevitable hiccups with the same curiosity and sense of adventure I had when moving abroad. I wasn’t the same person, nor was the country I had called home almost my whole life.

It was important to explore with a magnifying glass and not a roadmap that no longer applied. Safe to say, I would be blurting out more words in Spanish, and in Southern California that would make me feel completely at home, as I later learned.

I Accept Tips

In less than 12 hours of being on American soil, I heard this 4 times. Mostly it was directed at me.

I took a free airport shuttle to and from the hotel after I landed, and another one to take a Covid test before my flight the next morning. Each of those ten minutes rides, the driver of the free shuttle said,

I accept tips.

I would have preferred being charged for a shuttle than confronted with that phrase, so firmly and comfortably spoken.

I accept tips.

made me feel a bit violated. Even as a veteran service industry employee, having spent years waiting tables or slinging coffee, it was off key.

The concept of tipping coupled with the reminder to do so, made me feel very foreign. Why was it so jarring to hear the words?

I accept tips.

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

Naturally, my heart sank because I wanted to do what was the norm. It was written in some part of my psyche, from a past where I wore a name tag and an apron. I stood there with nothing but my passport and credit cards peeking out of my purse. Sorry, I said, I don’t have any US dollars on me.

We accept foreign money.

The persistence was a slap in the face. I was not expecting the sophistication of modern day, or airport tipping, whatever this strange encounter was. I also didn’t have cash in any type of currency.

I felt like I looked like a liar regardless of the truth. It was a horrible feeling. I told them thank you very much, sincerely, I will make sure to bring cash next time.

In Spain you tip when there is change left over on the bill, or if you had a nice experience. This does not mean that the absence of a tip signifies a bad experience. It is in no way expected to leave one. It would be extremely culturally tone deaf to ask. This became normal to me, and nothing else could.

I accept tips.

It rang out as a reminder that nothing is free in America, not even a free shuttle. If it doesn’t cost you a couple dollars tip, it will cost you some embarrassment. I would make sure to carry loose bills next time.

More Subtle Versions of I Accept Tips.

This culture shock had its plus and minuses.

I brought you some water while you wait!

I would add the protein to the salad!

The salad is really great with chicken, in my opinion!

If you add protein, it’s just $4 more!

Photo by Anh Nguyen on Unsplash

For my first meal back I had to choose between ordering on GrubHub or grabbing a bite at the restaurant in the hotel lobby. I chose the latter because I was feeling more than my normal peckishness after a 12 hour flight.

Though I had marked to have a gluten free meal when I purchased the ticket, they didn’t have any. To make up for it, I was given a tiny bag of nuts so small it could fit into Barbie’s handbag. I was famished.

The waiter at the hotel restaurant brought the menu almost immediately after I sat down. Though he wore a mask, a big smile beamed through his eyes and he spoke with an upbeat voice. He placed a tall glass of water, with ice, on the high top table in front of me.

I brought you some water while you wait!

I was speechless. Compared to my consolation nuts on the airplane, this was like winning the lottery. After a long flight I was so thirsty, too disoriented to remember to drink water. I was met with the cuddly feeling of being at home, where water is very much a part of the tipping courtship.

Yes, this is what tipping can do!

One does not just get water delivered to their table in Spain. You may wait the entire meal, ask fives times, and then after paying the check, asking again, and not getting up to leave, someone brings you a glass water.

This exact scenario happened to me only once, but in general, I am not exaggerating. I would say 9 times out of 10 your water is not coming unless you order a bottle.

The differences in the service industry are a mutual culture shock. The European customs strike Americans abroad as rude, when in fact, it’s just not part of the meal ceremony in some countries. Europeans often view the American tipping culture as unfair for employees, pandering for wages, and the friendly service, as cloying and insincere.

Attention Please

It is an extreme sport to flag the waiter down at a busy restaurant in Madrid. If you want sauce, asking for it is more of a suggestion of something that might be nice with your fries. If you want water, bring a bottle with you or expect to pay more for it than a glass of wine.

In some cities you pay for water because it may not be potable, but in Madrid, it’s mountain fresh and clean. You have to ask specifically for agua de grifo, which is, water from the tap.

When you do, buckle up and enjoy the meal because like I mentioned above, you may be in for a dry ride until the very end, or never at all.

To have the waiter appear at my table seconds after I sat down was remarkable. I was so happy to have his attention in the crowded restaurant, as I would be having my first meal in 14 hours very soon!

Ice Water

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When I opened my mouth to place my order, I shivered. There was so much ice in the glass that my teeth felt frozen. In Spain you will not get ice water unless you ask.

But if you ask for iced coffee, you will get a glass of ice, and a hot coffee on the side.

Similarly, ice water will be a glass of ice and a bottle of water. To put ice in the tap water and bring it to the table is not common. You will have to specifically ask for this water cocktail. My teeth experienced this culture shock, but were soon reptriated to very cold water. It is delicious.

Any Questions?

Fantastic! Because if you’re in America, you can play 20 questions with the waiter and get all the attention and answers you ever wanted.

A waiter in Spain will visibly jump out of their skin to move onto the next table if you start asking questions. In LA I asked the waiter what he recommended, and after listing nearly every meal on the menu and choosing the salad, I was told several times,

Protein pairs really great with the salad if you’re hungry.

This was stated several different not so subtle ways to increase the ticket size. I was going to tip the waiter regardless, so this felt excessive. It made me not want the salad. Did I just fail at salad? He made it sound like the salad experience was entirely awful without the protein.

No thank you, I said with a smile. One day I will be a vegetarian and that won’t be so awkward, I thought. Maybe I wasn’t hungry to add protein.

How hungry are you? has been asked zero times in my US restaurant experience. Bigger orders mean bigger tips. Upselling food is common practice. If you’re hungry, you can take it home.

In Spain I only ever experienced waiters suggest that we order less, not more. They would ask,

How hungry are you?

to gauge whether or not it was enough food. Often they would suggest, without even asking how hungry we are, that’s too much food, maybe one less is better. It’s about the overall experience, not the size of the check.

It Getting Cold in Here. So Put on All Your Clothes.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

The lobby was also ice cold. Pack a jacket for LA because once you’re indoors it can feel arctic. We love our air conditioning in America. I had to remember to layer up no matter how hot the weather app promised.

Was it always SO cold? I thought, Maybe we should normalize serving hot water indoors.

I had gotten use to not having air conditioning in most places, and when it was on, the purpose was to cool, not to give you freezer burn. I’ll have mine to go please!

Volume Up

Waiting for my salad, I remembered to call some people I had promised to check in with when I landed. This proved impossible in the restaurant. There were 7 TVs stationed around the restaurant, all with different sports channels on, all with the volume way up.

Spain is loud because people are talking. America was loud because people were not talking. Most people were looking at their phones, and very few were having conversations. People were on mute, and the televisions were full blast.

The Running of the Credit Cards.

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When my order was ready, there was the matter of the bill. The receipt already had three suggested tip amounts carefully listed below the order total. It was a convenient way to facilitate the ceremony of the tipping.

I decided to pay with a credit card and this was the most embarassing of my minor alien behaviors. The waiter asked me to give him my card, that he’d run it behind the bar and bring it back.

Give you my card?!

I reacted as if he had asked to borrow my purse to go run an errand. Why would I give you my card? I blurted out. I immediately texted a friend to ask if I was being clumsy or of if I was being cautious, choosing to pay with cash instead.

In Europe the machine is brought to your table when you pay with plastic. It felt insane to give a stranger my card to then sashay around the restaurant with, when he could just run the machine right there at my table.

I thought this modern technology was something we had introduced stateside by now, but it was the same when I worked as a waitress in college, so I should have known.

The credit card goes into a black folder with the receipt, slips into the apron pocket, and off it goes to behind the bar to get rung up at the register. When I got my change I left a big tip and waved goodbye to nobody, as the waiter’s back was turned, sashaying toward the register with someone else’s credit card. I would run away from me too.

Strangers

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Casual conversation is less common in Spain. I can count on one hand how many times I have had a conversation with a stranger in passing. I don’t mean in a bar or with someone whose job it is to talk to me. I mean someone on the bus, or the Trader Joe’s like banter at the grocery store. I’ve attempted and it’s not the same. It’s like announcing to everyone you are mentally ill.

In the US, you can make your new best friend at the grocery store, in the parking lot, walking your dog, or all three in the same day. People are so friendly! I missed this boundaryless feeling of community.

Spain is centered more around family. It’s not unfriendly, just less talkative out in public with strangers. No one would, for example, get your attention while you are scooping up your dog’s morning constitution. . . for example.

My first day in San Diego I took the dog for a walk. I was on bluetooth talking to a friend and scooping up a big heap of you know what.

Naturally, I was narrating the event to my friend. After a very amature scooping session was complete, I looked up for a trashcan nowhere to be found, What do I do with all of this hot heavy poop?! I shouted, rhetorically of course.

A neighbor across the street and down ten yards shouts back, There’s a trash can over there you can take it to! with a smile, pointing to a trail behind her.

I felt like my privacy had been violated once again. How long was I being watched scooping poop? What else did she hear me say? I hope she knows I have headphones in. I need to use my inside voice.

I smiled, waved back, and shouted,

Gracias!

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