Sunday, April 28, 2013

Reverse Culture Shock is a Real Thing, People

Reverse culture shock is not only a real thing, it's a fascinating phenomenon.

Many people experience varying forms of culture shock and notice different things about their own country after traveling to others. But, not many people (or, at least, Americans) can relate to the type of reverse culture shock that comes from 18 months in completely opposite cultures - we are talking West vs East.

In a bizarre sort of way, I've even been enjoying the experience and trying to take note while I readjust into my home culture. 
My loving aunt welcomed me to Los Angeles with American flags
Allow me to share some of my initial observations (many of these were literally initial, as I jotted down notes in the airport, while others came in the first few days).

1. Everything is SO big. People, portion sizes, chairs, toilets, houses, roads - everything. Especially out here in the wild west, where our space is really bountiful, it's quite shocking comparing our luxury (if, excess) to the basic lives people live in other countries. One dinner portion in America could feed a family of 10 in some countries, and on that note, the whole gang would comfortably call my family's food pantry a spacious home.

2. So many white people. And Hispanic and blacks - now those are skin colors you do not see often in Asia. Ahh, diversity!

3. Everything is so organized! People actually adhere to queues (as opposed to the "every man for himself" attitude in India) and follow traffic rules. Cities, businesses and society in general are actually organized in a sequential, logical way. On that note....EFFICIENCY - what a beautiful (and very missed!) concept.

4. Wow, that's a big ass. (Of course I'd heard on "Supersize Me" type documentaries the statistics before, but I actually observed firsthand that the largest people in the world are right here in America.) And everyone's eating McDonald's.....that explains it.

5. Never again will I take for granted a hot, steamy shower with strong water pressure. Many people don't realize how lucky we are and how much of a privilege this is.

6. So many Americans! My flight from China to Los Angeles had the largest number of Americans I'd been around in a year and a half. My accent no longer stands out like a sore thumb!

7. So much female skin! I am not used to seeing shoulders and legs exposed, let alone all this cleavage. It took me two weeks back in America to feel like it was acceptable again for me to wear shorts. It isn't until you see more conservatively dressed places that you realize how highly sexualized our culture is.

8. Hooray for the middle class! It's refreshing to be able to see common people traveling and participating in everyday life. (I really understand the value of having a middle class over extreme disparity.)

9. American grocery stores are insane. Our local store has a wine bar, sushi counter, bank, jewelry store, coffee shop, game center, book store and more all inside - in addition to the endless quantaties of everything. Mental note: Walmart and grocery stores are extremely overwhelming places to re-enter American culture.

10. Everyone is so nice! I never before associated my own country as having an overall nice population. I experienced kindness in so many places I visited, so I was happy to feel welcomed by strangers back in the US. Maybe it's due to our emphasis on customer service, but it really does make everyday life more pleasant to deal with friendly people.

In addition to my initial reactions, other feelings and adjustments have developed over the weeks (and are still developing!) 

In anticipation of my homecoming, I considered obstacles that might arise in an effort to prepare myself for re-entry. While I did consider a vast array of accurate challenges I've faced, I couldn't yet know how they'd feel. My biggest adjustments have been twofold...

First of all, as happens to anyone on such a journey, I came back a different person than I was two years ago. Throughout my time away, I became aware of changes in myself and my perspective. Though I knew coming home with a different outlook would be interesting, I couldn't yet predict the way in which I'd view the world around me - my home - with my new knowledge and perspective. 

Back in America, I've found myself with opinions about social, cultural and political topics that I did not previously have. Just as it is human nature to compare a foreign culture to your own when you travel, I can't help doing the same thing here in my home country, for better or for worse. Even the smallest things catch my eye and make me think of things I never considered before.

The second major challenge was one that I did not and could not have predicted - my adjustment to fast-paced Western culture. 

I've been lucky to ease my way into America with a few weeks in my parents' home in Arizona decompressing - sorting through my photos, spending time with my people, lots and lots of cooking - but no real responsibilities.  As compared to the east coast, the west is a lot slower paced and thus a good landing point.
Reunited with my family in Arizona
That being said, nothing trumps the carefree, laid-back, happy-go-lucky attitude in both South and Southeast Asia. Nobody is ever in a rush over there and people take time to truly enjoy the little everyday moments of their life. Until I adjusted to the culture in Thailand, I constantly wondered if half the population worked, as people were always sitting around doing a whole lot of nothing. I found the same thing in India, but by that point, I had learned to appreciate this aspect of their culture as one of my favorite things about the East - the chai breaks, the constant "hanging out," the easy-going environment.

It took under 48 hours in America for me to recognize in myself an old familiar and uncomfortable feeling - something yucky that I hadn't experienced since college. Once I recognized the feeling, it took a couple hours to put a word to the anxious emotion: stress. 

But why was I stressed out? I wasn't doing anything and wasn't supposed to be doing anything other than "readjusting."

Reflecting on my first two days, I became connected to my new iPhone 5 (forget the beautiful days of being disconnected in India) and spent a lot of time catching up with old friends. My mom kept asking what I wanted for dinner, and everybody needed to know what time I was doing what and how I was going to feel when and what time I was going to take a shower and so on. I saw my working family buzzing about their active, busy schedules. 

And so my mysterious feeling came from getting sucked back into the fast-paced American culture, which was not only inevitable, but impossible to fight.

While I really grew to appreciate the slow life in Asia, let's face it, I'm here, and I'm in it. My iPhone is suddenly my third arm (yuck) and I'm joining my mother in planning the minute details of next week's dinner plans. All I can say is, I am grateful to have started in Arizona, because I'm sure as hell going to have another thing coming with the hustle and bustle of New York.

It hasn't been all rough though. I swear, I'm not being critical of everything around me. In fact, I certainly have a new-found appreciation for all the many wonderful privileges and the easy life we have here in America. I feel extraordinarily lucky to have been born in this country.
I hope to do a lot more exploring while I'm in America. This was from a
hiking trip to Sedona, Arizona known for its beautiful red rocks.
- -
Everyday I've thought about writing, but there were a million other things I could be doing. While I'm totally back in the fast-paced society for the time being, I'm going to make a major effort to hold on to my writing. 

'cause really, my stories from the East have only just begun...
Keeping India close by practicing Indian cooking in America
Home Sweet Arizona
Screenshots from the video surprising my family

1 comment:

Sally said...

I've loved reading your blogs about Thailand (we actually have a few RL friends in common from Thailand), I hope you find life back in the US an easy transition, it sure is weird leaving Asia even after a few months!