Learning to swim in a vast ocean: experiencing culture shock in my own country

Having lived abroad twice now, culture shock is a dear old friend of mine, one with whom I’ve been acquainted with and with whom I’ve spent a decent amount of time. I’ve seen both sides of this friend: the shock of living in a new country and the shock of having that country change you, leaving you not understanding your own country. I understand what to expect: the emotions, the fears, the excitement, the confusion. I know when to expect it. Both times that I lived in France, culture shock started creeping up on me about 2 weeks to a month into my experience. I am familiar with how culture shock affects me: never wanting to leave my room, crying myself to sleep, feeling alone, feeling like my head is going to explode with all the new information, feeling lost, and wanting to go back and forget it immediately, but I also know how to combat culture shock: forcing myself to look at the positives of my situation, writing about my experiences, forcing myself to go out and meet people and to try new things. I feel as though I am well versed in how my dear friend culture shock likes to operate.

However, what I did not expect was to be experiencing it in my own country and own culture.

It is true that Milwaukee is a part of the United States. It is true that they speak English here. It is true that much of the culture is still very much the same as back home because it’s still the American culture.

I did not expect to be experiencing feelings of loneliness and of being lost. I did not expect to feel as frustrated as I do. I knew that I would experience some frustration but not to the degree that I am feeling it right now. I did not think that I would ever say the phrase ”forget it. I’m going back” from living here. I said that both times while living in France, and it was more of an expression of extreme discomfort than it was of actual truth. The same thing goes for here. I do not intend to drop out of graduate school and move back to Indiana. I’m just simply overwhelmed by all the differences here.

So, how is it exactly that I’m facing culture shock in my own country?

1. Frustration at parking regulations: 

The parking regulations in the city of Milwaukee are astoundingly absurd and confusing. Indianapolis is a big city, but Indianapolis is also very spread out and, apparently what seems to be surprisingly, lax in parking regulations.

I was shocked when I moved here and was told that I would need a night parking permit to park on the streets outside of and near my apartment building. I couldn’t help but to be confused. In downtown areas and in business areas, I totally understand limited time parking and having to have a permit to park there, but I live in a residential area. Even though the area where I live is only about a ten minute walk from downtown, it’s residential several blocks around my apartment. You would never have to buy a permit to park in a residential area in Indianapolis. That just isn’t heard of, but I did the responsible thing and purchased a night parking permit. Fortunately, it’s only $55 for the entire year, which is decently reasonable for an entire year.

However, my frustration continued when I received a parking violation for being in a parking area with limited time parking over the limit. Okay, that seems normal, right? To get a parking violation for being in a limited time parking area for too long, right? Yes, it totally does. However, the sign said: ”2-hour parking except Sunday and permit.” In my mind, I had a permit, so I shouldn’t have to worry about it. I was only told that I need a night parking permit, so I thought that was the only parking permit that existed. I didn’t realize that day parking permits are also a thing here. I only learned this new information when I called to refute my violation and found out that I couldn’t because the night permit didn’t exempt me from daytime parking. The lady on the phone, though quite lovely and helpful, let me know quite firmly that I could not park in any limited time parking for more than the allotted time without a daytime permit, despite the fact that the block was right next to my apartment and despite the fact that all of the streets around my apartment building have parking restrictions on them: 2-hour parking limits, no parking, no parking here from 7am to 4pm on school days, no parking here with more than 4 inches of snow on the ground, etc. etc. Where on earth was I supposed to park? How does parking even work here? How do people survive?

So, with a long sigh, I paid the violation, because I understand that I was in the wrong, and then I sought out to buy a day time parking permit. The frustration continued. I had to physically go down to the police station to buy a $15 day time parking permit, which isn’t necessarily frustrating in and of itself. The frustrating part is that I was able to buy the night time permit online. Why couldn’t I buy the day time permit online? Je ne comprends rien. 

Alright, okay, I thought to myself: ”This is the way it’s done here. I’ll just deal with it.” So, I went down to the police station. I paid for the permit. I got the permit, and then the lovely lady at the police station was so kind as to let me know that for my night time permit to be 100% valid with no parking violations, I have to park on opposite sides of the streets every other night. What? I have to park on the side of the street with odd-numbered houses on odd-numbered days and vice versa. What? What kind of a rule is that? What is the point of that? I find this to be extremely absurd, especially because I see people parked on either side of the street every single night, and I doubt every single one of them has gotten a ticket. So, what do I do? Do I follow the rules and move my car every single day, which is made more difficult by the fact that it’s extremely difficult to find a parking space, or do I break the rules so that I don’t have to move my car every day and risk getting another parking violation despite the fact that it appears to me that everyone is breaking the rules? Again, je ne comprends rien.

I don’t understand this city, and I’ve been warned that it just gets worse during the winter. It makes me want to cry and to pull my hair out. At this stage it makes me either want to pack up and leave or sell my car just for the sake of stress relief. *Sigh* I just pray that I will get used to it all soon.

Yes, even something as little as parking regulations can make you question moving to a new city, apparently.

2. The shock of a State University’s campus:

I went to a small private Christian university for my undergraduate degree, which was a personal choice that I don’t regret. However, it made me realize that there is so much about university life that I don’t know or understand. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is a state school, which I was aware of when I applied to the graduate school. I was expecting it to be different, but I didn’t realize how different it would be until just this past week.

Firstly, it’s massive compared to the little university where I did my undergrad degree. So, I constantly feel as though I’m going to get lost. It also makes me feel extremely minuscule, that I’m this one tiny person in a very large student body population (26,000 students). When I did my undergrad, everyone knew each other, knew of each other even if you didn’t interact, or at the very least recognized faces. Here, I definitely don’t get that feel, which makes sense since there are 26,000 students, but it’s definitely different. To my own fault, I expected to come into graduate school expecting that same feeling. Boy was I wrong.

Culture shock doesn’t necessarily have to be a negative thing. Sometimes, it just comes in the form of shock and coming into contact with something unfamiliar, that you don’t understand.

This university’s campus isn’t only different because of its size. It’s different also because of how immensely diverse it is. Though I welcome this diversity, for I think it’s an amazing thing and that it will give me an opportunity to learn more about diversity, that which shocks me is that I came into this new adventure thinking I understood diversity only to find out that I actually know very little about what diversity is.

One of the main things that stood out to me is the proper terminology when referring to gender. My ignorant self thought that there was also he/he’s/his and her/she/her’s. Wrong again. There are many other ways in which people can refer to themselves as when it comes to gender, including but not limited to: per/pers/perself, xe/xem/xyr/xyrs/xemself, and ve/ver/vis/verself. I had never heard of these before until the LGBT resource center came to speak at the new TA orientation. To my shock, it turns out that I actually don’t know that much about diversity. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. The more that I learn about the world and other people, the more that I realize that I don’t know anything at all. I don’t actually understand gender differences, and I have so much to learn. Though this new realization makes me feel even more lost and confused, it does allow for an amazing opportunity to learn more.

Another positive culture shock about a large university campus is the amount of opportunity to get involved and the numerous resources to receive help, no matter what it is that you need help in. My brain feels overloaded with opportunity. It’s saturated, and even though I find immense comfort in knowing that no matter what I need, there will be a place on campus that can help me, I find myself immensely overwhelmed by the opportunity. Again, it makes me feel very tiny and overwhelmed.

3. Graduate school itself

Yes, I have been told that graduate school would be completely different than undergraduate, and yes, I know that. However, I found out that I knew that only based on principle. Experiencing it myself is a completely different story.

Firstly, living alone a 15-minute bus ride from campus is definitely way different than living on or near campus. It makes it a lot more difficult to meet people and to make friends. At the end of the day, unless someone specifically wants to hang out or unless I have a specific reason for my studies or my work to remain on campus, I have absolutely no reason to stay on campus. In undergraduate, you stayed on campus because it’s where you lived, where you ate, where you slept, where you studied, etc. You had immense opportunity to meet new people because you rarely left campus.

In graduate school, we are truly adults, living our own separate lives, most of us having jobs in addition to our studies. Though I’ve met some friends through fellow TAs, I can still foresee how difficult it’s going to be to make friendships and maintain them as opposed to undergrad because of how busy I’ll be teaching as a TA, having my own classes, and working a possible second job.

Another thing is how intense the work is going to be. Though I’m really excited for the challenge, it definitely will be immensely different than undergrad, leaving me feeling, again, overwhelmed and slightly lost. I’m already terrified of the work load, and I’ve only had one week of orientation.


Culture shock doesn’t necessarily come when you live in another country. Something that I’ve been made aware of is the fact that even in your own country, you can experience culture shock. States differ from other states, and even cities differ from other cities. Culture shock comes in different forms, and people react to it in different ways. This experience has given me the opportunity to learn the importance of sub-culture and what it can mean for any given person. It gives me a whole new perspective on what culture is and by which culture I define myself by. Culture is a vast ocean, with many different fish, rocks, and plants and giant waves that plow into you. I can only hope that I’ll learn how to swim in this part of the ocean soon.


Have you ever experienced culture shock in your own culture? What have been some of your experiences?



2 thoughts on “Learning to swim in a vast ocean: experiencing culture shock in my own country

  1. Omg this parking rules in Milwaukee and Wisconsin are SOO ****ed up. Reading about your experience brought me back- I totally forgot about the street parking rule of changing which side of the street you’re on depending on the day (number!) Milwaukee is notorious, though, ugh. And yes, the winter will be brutal once the snow comes!

    I knew about third gender pronouns (for those who don’t identify on the spectrum but the ones you mentioned were news to me…. Interesting.

    You’re right that UWM is really diverse but there is so much to do! That’s great you can walk to bars, Etc. 🙂

    I promise things will get better- at least we have good beer! Xx

    Liked by 1 person

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