On Reverse Culture Shock
Departing for work in the morning takes sheer agility and stealth. Wielding a bamboo stick, I engage in some bicycle balancing kung fu to swat away foam mouthed dogs. They nip at my heels as I aimlessly throw biscuits or crumpled paper. They chase me until I am out of their territory. That is the first twenty minutes of my day
I’m not romanticizing the challenge of my commute nor am I saying it was fun. But it was unique, lively, different. I biked in sunshine, each trip forcing me to feel, even if that feeling was sheer terror.
Coming back to the U.S after a long stint abroad can be difficult for the savviest traveller. After living in Thailand and India, where I combated with cultural difference, tonal language, and unexpected elements every day, the U.S, can be both an amazing wonderland, and utterly overwhelming.
New Jersey is blindingly, blisteringly cold. To go outside is to inhale jagged shards of ice that will cut my lungs into
taco meat. I stay warm, by staying in. When I absolutely have to go out, I pop out the keys turn on the ignition and the heat and drive past exit after exit. The East Coast suburbs in Winter is fresh at its best, and a grey barren at its worst. My first week in America is dull and depressing, compared to the vibrancy and energy I would breeze past on my bike in Thailand.
Driving down the highway, I pass the same shopping complexes every few miles. Giant Home Appliance store, ubiquitous inexpensive clothing store (most likely manufactured in the country I just came from). Giant bulk retailer, and a slight variation on a store with knick knacks and home items.
Rather than going out to eat at my favorite Issan market stall, which is affordable, tasty
and delicious,I pass a long line of chain restaurants, then go to the grocery store. There is food in boxes and cans processed with mystery chemicals and re-introduced with vitamins I didn’t know exist. There are no tasty treats, no “best food stall”, som-tum, sticky rice, or dancing shrimp that my Thai friends force me to try. The mango’s look giant and mutant, too perfect to be real. I can’t even find sweet roti or fresh kaffir lime. After a year of eating tear inducing chili, everything except my mom’s cooking seems bland. Restaurant fare is the same slab of biproduct, dressed differently. It looks tasteless, lifeless and frozen. I used to eat stuff that would flop on the table, or swim in my soup.
The cashier at the grocery store does not smile, there is no “Sawasadee kha”. The American girl goes out of her way so she will not have to speak with me. In Asia, there is still a sense of community. One still must talk and engage with people to survive, from the mangosteen seller to the old lady sweeping the street. This constant formal camaraderie with strangers makes one friendly and happy. I don’t expect to “wai” in America, but being completely ignored feels awkward.
Still, the benefits to being home are immense and new. There is a wonder in spending time with my family, everyone has grown up. And there is an ease of access to things once coveted and inaccessible in Thailand like inexpensive cheese and sour patch kids. The joy of appliances that turn on and off at the flick of a switch is miraculous. We do not have to think about a generator.
The joy will probably last longer when I learn to indulge in moderation. After long romance with the cheese aisle at the supermarket, and an equally long affair in the candy aisle, I overdosed on sugar and lactose and got sick. (Not going to divulge how much I consumed in a sitting). And as quickly as I celebrate all the things I missed, I realize my eating habits have changed and adapted to the Thai way where fish sauce seems more palatable than ketchup, and extra chili is needed to start my day.
Normal activities are a sensory explosion for me, for example, visiting New York, which is the same old boring trek for friends, leaves me completely dazzled. It is the same awe my friends experience when they first see the glitter of the handicrafts at the Chiang Mai Walking Street, or the intense forest green of the Emerald Buddah. Everything radiates within the glow of the unknown.
Penn Station is complete and utter shock. The fragrance of pretzels, Starbucks coffee and sizzling beef waft to form a carbohydrate musk in the air. People of every color, shape and background jostle their way to the next destination, screaming jovially, talking airily. There are billions of people in Asia, but the quest for homogenity make the contrast less stark. In the US, everyone is so drastically unique in appearance and manner. Thousands of shapes, angles, coats and bags that whirr by. No one is just in a Salwar Kameez or just in hot pants, everyone has clothing and style that varies. I am thrilled to watch what disaster or diva comes out of the subway next.
I also notice Americans are loud. Deafeningly so. After coming from a place where cell phone conversations can be conducted in a barely audible whisper, or are drowned out by car horns and local cow herds, I am stunned by a bombardment of voices, all wanting everyone else to hear their business. My brain processes the language with ease, and I am drowned by words, fragmented conversations, people demanding action. No one is quiet or shy enough to “save face.” This is America, everyone demands and attempts to be heard. Everyone works to gets what they want.
For as much difference as there is, many of the young women look the same to me. Plastic. Peppering “like” and “um” and “whatever” idiosyncratically destructing English language. The words are the same slang I hear in broken Thai. Students who cant even speak English will still inject “like and um” into their Thai or bad English after watching shows like “Gossip Girl.” The subway and its words swirled around me, this is the pillar of globalization at its best.
All the young girls are in uniform, without variation. Bleached striped hair, fake and bake tan, dark eyeliner, tights and boots. How can a culture acquire such sameness and such unique diversity at the same time? I remember how my students in Thailand tried to mimic American culture. Every Jay-Z cap would glimmer, ever extra large shirt would be the right size. Students would flip from hip-hop to Emo in one week, perfectly emulating counterparts in the US. Here, the dtec-dtec’s would be considered posers, but in Thailand, they are fashion innovators, having the material wealth to embrace global styles. My old New York self, was once a fashion innovator too, I maintained a strong professional look and fashionable image. Now, I’m just happy to wear warm boots and a nice skirt. Standing in the subway, I fear my My “Hello Panda” tote and Hill tribe embroidered bag scream out that I am a displaced expat. Suddenly, I remember ‘I am in New York, and there is nothing one can’t do.’
I missed a year. Nothing has changed, everything has changed. Friends are married, bought houses and had kids. The headlines scream of a worsening economy, joblessness and despair that I never thought was possible. The fashion trends have become seemingly colder and the train has gone up to 26 USD for a round trip. Yet, it is home, and the same comforts I imagined and always remembered during my worst moments abroad remain. One has to deal with the comfort, familiarity, and isolation of being in the land of dreams.
The initial weeks of return are a complete shock to my system. At 3 AM, the house is silent and cold. I can not run to the karaoke, or visit the market that starts so late, its early. Instead, hovering in a fuzzy blanket, I work out to my Bollywood Burn DVD’s, watch infomercials, and call my boyfriend three times a day.
“Did you have a dosa? Was it spicy? Was it delicious?!” I ask in my best Thai greeting.
It is daylight in India, he is busy in medical school. My calls grasp for the cultural nuances surrounding food and daily life I miss so much. He is patient. Understanding. Kind. Later, I will call back, and ask questions one can only fathom in the dead of night, “Hi!…do you think they will invent teleporting machine in our lifetime?”
Reverse culture shock is still omnipresent. A million people will ask me “How was your trip?” and there is no way to sum up a year of eating shrimp brains, fish cheek and pizza sushi, meeting global policymakers on the Asian continent, and learning about human trafficking from some of the most inspiring people in the world– in four measly sentences. If, and when I try, there are only a few friends who will be curious enough to listen.
I’m getting used to it, this American life. Seeing old friends, finding happiness in just hanging out, soft beds, and the incredible glamour of New York. I’m thrilled to rest for this extended period of time. My attitude is changing too. Instead of getting discouraged, I offer my best Thai smile to grumpy cashiers.
I think of all the work that has to be done back in Thailand and India, and all the projects to be created. I will soon go back, swatting at dogs, and eating strange parts of fish, riding on highways that are giant potholes, learning constantly about myself and the world around me. Perhaps this time, the transition will be easier. Perhaps this time, it will feel like home too. I will begin to accept the duality of my global lifestyle. For now, I’ll read books and indulge in hot cocoa, Sour patch kids, and movie marathons. I will celebrate my time, and be present on the soil where my feet are.