While discussions around the challenges of relocating to a new country, adapting to a different culture, and adjusting to unfamiliar surroundings are commonplace, there is a lack of emphasis on the difficulties associated with returning to the same environment in which one grew up. This phenomenon, known as reverse culture shock, is often disregarded and even stigmatized in Pakistani society. Their contempt for the reverse culture shock mostly comes with the labels of “burger” or “Americanized.”
Reverse culture shock refers to the unexpected feelings of surprise, disorientation, and confusion that one experiences upon returning to their home country after a prolonged period abroad. As someone who spent over six years in the United States before visiting Pakistan again as an adult, I experienced this phenomenon firsthand. It is worth noting that I did not make any return trips to Pakistan during these six years; I was continuously residing in Alabama.
While I was touched by the warmth and hospitality of the people in Pakistan, my sense of shock, confusion, and disorientation was taken for granted, if noticed at all. Here are the top seven shockers I experienced upon my return and how people responded to my reactions:
Population shock & lack of women in public places
Population shock is the first jolt that hits you as soon as you step off the plane at the airport in Pakistan, where the airport staff flocks around you, offering to carry your luggage. Although I grew up in Lahore and knew about this tradition, it had been a long time since I experienced it and therefore, it felt unfamiliar and somewhat scary and uncomfortable.
Stepping outside the Allama Iqbal International Airport, I was struck by the sheer number of people gathered there, eagerly awaiting their loved ones. It looked like everyone was there to welcome me and I felt like a celebrity walking out the airport door. Coming from a place like Alabama, with a population of roughly two hundred thousand, the sight of Lahore’s teeming masses, with a population of more than 11 million, was overwhelming. As far as I could see and everywhere around, there were people.
Read more: The abandonment of overseas Pakistanis
Living in a place for an extended period can lead to a sense of comfort and familiarity with the prevailing culture, making it difficult to discern its nuances. During my visit back home, an observation struck me– the little presence of women in the public sphere. It was jolting to see that men occupied almost 80 percent of the public space. The trend continued wherever I looked whether it was on the roads, in shops, in offices, or in hospitals.
It was an eye-opening experience, highlighting the vast opportunity and power divide between the two genders in Pakistan. It was a theme that I had never noticed before, but it was impossible to ignore once I returned home with a fresh perspective.
The American accent
Living in a state like Alabama, with few Desi people around, I was immersed in English-speaking environments for most of my day. I was the only Pakistani at my school and as a young girl, learning happened fast for me. The trend of spending most of my day in an English-speaking environment continued even after I got admitted to the University of Alabama at Birmingham. While the university is extremely diverse, I was the only Desi in the Department of Communication Studies, let alone the only Pakistani. As a result, my mind became accustomed to speaking English, particularly in formal settings.
When I returned to Pakistan after several years, it was challenging to reprogram my mind to transition to fully speaking Urdu. I had to make a conscious effort to speak Urdu, especially when meeting new people or discussing topics related to my academic or professional life. I could easily describe family events in Urdu, but explaining an interaction that quite literally “happened in English” would require time to translate.
The first stare I received for my accent was while ordering at Papa John’s on my very first day in Pakistan. My friends immediately interrupted and repeated my order in Urdu to ease the situation. Over my month-long trip, I received many gazes of shock because of saying “thank you” to everyone a million times as well.
While strangers were usually impressed and would listen a little more closely when I spoke English, I received the most negative reactions from some close family members. They deliberately asked me, “You have lived here all your life. Why would you act like you are an American?” One of them even interrupted me when I responded “no” to something and said, “You could’ve just said nahi.”
I was shocked at the reaction as it purely stemmed from the lack of understanding of my experience and background, causing their discomfort and frustration. This reaction reminded me of the meme with Jalebi in a Ferrero Rocher box describing overseas Pakistanis coming back to Pakistan with a “fake” accent.
Lahore’s chaotic traffic
As someone who learned to drive in Birmingham, Alabama, the chaotic traffic in Lahore, Pakistan was a major shock. While I adjusted myself to a lot of differences and made peace with them over the month, traffic was not one of them.
People drove recklessly, disregarding marked lanes; it was disappointing to see people driving “on” the marked lanes instead of “within” them. People honked their horns incessantly; it was almost their mode of communication. A honk could be to say hello to people, ask them to move out of the way, or show their road rage, depending on the context. As a person who had been driving in Birmingham for about four years and had only honked my horn about four times, it was definitely startling.
Everyone just seemed rushed to get nowhere and would not stop for anyone or at anything. The haste and disregard for traffic rules was apparent in the way people would speed through red lights and even stand beyond the zebra crossing meant for pedestrians, while stopping at a signal.
The traffic was also a manifestation of the deeply ingrained social class hierarchy in the culture. The importance placed on the size and fanciness of one’s vehicle was evident in the way a Vigo, for instance, was given priority to pass over a smaller, less luxurious Mehran.
Overall, the traffic situation highlighted the need for addressing not just the lack of discipline but also the larger issues of classism and disregard for rules and safety.
Disregard for personal space
American culture is extremely individualistic with a high regard for personal opinions, preferences, and especially personal space. However, in a local market in Lahore, Pakistan, during the crowded wedding season in January, personal space was not a priority.
My heart raced at 200 MPH to see the sea of people; I was nervous and overwhelmed because it was after six years that I saw that many people at the same time. I jokingly commented to my friend, “There are more people in this market than in the whole state of Alabama.”
My friend took me to a fairly crowded shop and I stood there contemplating the hustle and bustle around me. Meanwhile, a woman in her fifties grabbed me by both my shoulders and moved me out of her way without any expression of discomfort on her face. While she did not do it disrespectfully, I was flabbergasted. Someone had just violated my personal space without any contempt or consideration. I was more amazed by the woman’s sense of rightfulness and lack of consideration for personal space than by the violation itself. This experience alienated me from my own culture as I felt a major change in my expectations of public behavior.
The pedestrian quandary
In the United States, especially in southern states like Alabama, politeness in public is a common theme, and pedestrians are always given priority – both legally and ethically. However, in Lahore, the opposite was true. Neither the pedestrians nor the drivers had any regard for each other.
On MM Alam Road, I was walking to a cafe with my friends when I passed by a parking lot and saw a car coming towards me. My brain was programmed to just keep walking because “the car should stop.” However, when the car came within a few inches of me, the driver suddenly slammed on the brakes and looked at me as if I was an alien. At that moment, I could not contain my anger and loudly exclaimed, “He was about to hit me. What is wrong with people here?”
Throughout my time there, I also noticed that it was not just the drivers who were at fault; pedestrians in Lahore also often crossed the road in front of moving cars with little regard for their safety.
The shopping queue conundrum
One of the most enjoyable experiences in Pakistan is shopping, with its colorful stores and endless options. However, even while shopping at a mall like the Emporium where one would expect a certain level of civilized behavior, there were disciplinary problems. I realized that people may have acquired the money and education to have learned the latest fashion trends, but not the art of standing in line.
First, at a Khaadi store, I patiently waited in line for my turn. The customer in front of me was grabbing her stuff after paying, and of course, I waited until she was done. Yet, the cashier called me forward– something that would be odd in the United States. Then, as I was proceeding to the checkout, another lady came, put her stuff on the counter, and went over my head to hand money to the cashier. She wanted to check out before me while I was clearly in the process. This was a clear representation of failing to abide by the rules of common decency.
Second, I stood in line at an Ethnic store waiting for my turn. A lady cut me in line and placed all her stuff on the counter and showed little to no shame in doing so. The cashier was kind enough to tell her that he will cater to me first since I was there first. Instead of being apologetic, she rolled her eyes and moved to the side, showing a severe lack of etiquette.
Finally, at a Sapphire store, there was no clear queue but I stood in an imaginary line waiting for my turn. After COVID-19, everyone in the U.S. has become accustomed to standing a few feet away from each other in lines and I practiced the same in Pakistan. People kept breaking the line and I waited for someone to be polite enough to acknowledge me.
Before I ran out of patience, the cashier called me forward and said to me, “Madam, if you keep standing in a line like this, you will never be able to check out.” I gasped and moved forward thinking where Pakistan would be if we learned more discipline— one of the three pillars of Quaid’s motto.
The most disturbing part of this experience was that even the so-called educated and higher-income classes lacked discipline and did not seem to realize that it was an issue. Witnessing the disregard for common decency and basic etiquette was disappointing, to say the least.
A moment of reflection
At times, I refrained from expressing my opinions and views to avoid being labeled as “burger” or “Americanized,” but sometimes, my patience wore thin. It is crucial to understand that experiencing reverse culture shock is inevitable. Human brain is designed to adjust to new environments, but it takes time. Just like it takes time for a Pakistani to adjust into a new culture, it takes nearly the same, if not equal amount of time to readjust to the same culture that you are born and raised in when you are out of touch for a prolonged period.
Toward the conclusion of my trip, however, I gained perspective through reflection.
It is crucial to acknowledge that neither party is entirely at fault here. Overseas individuals experience intense reverse culture shock, and Pakistanis may devalue it due to their lack of exposure to the problem. When I was in Pakistan, I was guilty of the same, disregarding people’s experiences abroad and expecting them to know and embrace the culture they grew up in with comfort and ease.
Only after experiencing it myself, I understood the discomfort that comes with revisiting the things and concepts that were once familiar. Unfortunately, the majority of these shocks I experienced are issues. These problems are not merely outside the comfort zone of overseas Pakistanis; they are prevalent issues that need to be addressed and corrected if we want to become a civilized society.
In essence, the world can benefit from open discussions to increase mutual understanding and recognition of the issues. Showing empathy to visitors from other countries and showing respect and appreciation for differing perspectives instead of unfairly labeling them will create a better experience for both parties.
The author is a Media Specialist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.