A Few Thoughts on Reverse Culture Shock

I’d just like you to know that I’m not an idiot.

I just never (never ever ever except this one time) check a bag. So, at 5:00pm, when faced with a line of kiosks beckoning my friend and me to check into our American Airlines flight from MIA to PHL which would conclude our impossibly long travel day (which began at 3:30am in a hostel in Quito), I think to myself “This computer can’t weigh my bag!”

Apparently lingering too long at the kiosks arouses the suspicions of the an employee whose job it is to monitor them. “What are you doing?” Kiosk Lady asked. “Just trying to check into our flight a bit early – we were hoping to maybe get on standb–” my friend starts to explain. Kiosk Lady interrupts: “Just get in line.”

Permission granted, we shift our weary bodies to the line which would lead us to, you know, an actual person. Only there is yet another employee there to guard the line! “Why aren’t you using the kiosk?” Line Lady asks. “We were told to get in line…?” we reply, almost defensively. “Okay, go,” she says. (Insert “How many airline employees does it take to prevent you from talking to another airline employee” joke.)

Finally we reach the heavily barricaded Check-In Lady who issues this statement without ever making eye contact with us: “There is no standby. There is only one flight from Miami to Philadelphia and you are on it.” Okay, good to know. Then this: “See that sign over there marked E3?” She points across the terminal. “You gotta bring your bags to the guys over there.”

No “Buenos tardes.” No “Gracias.” No smiles. Just a $25 bag fee to carry and load our own bags onto the plane? Roughly translated: “Welcome to America. Fuck you.”

Reverse culture shock strikes me differently every time. Four years ago, when I had arrived home to suburban Pennsylvania from Southeast Asia, where I witnessed people labor in the most insufferable heat imaginable, the sight of SUVs driving around in the summer with their windows up (presumably with the A/C blasting) caused me to experience a very profound rage. To this day, I don’t feel comfortable turning on the air conditioner unless The News tells me that it’s so hot outside all old people, babies, and defenseless animals seeking refuge in my apartment will die.

This week, coming from Ecuador, home to some of the nicest people I’ve ever encountered in all my years of travel (seriously – we met a bilingual man who spent his entire Sunday showing us Quito and answering our endless questions about Ecuadorian life – from politics to marriage, who THEN took us grocery shopping, who THEN bagged our groceries) made the aggression and hostility of American culture seem especially trying. In the beginning of our trip I felt so uncomfortable with all the “niceness” around me (the greetings! the smiles! the attempts to speak English! the “let me show you all the pictures of my family members!” the flowers given to us by the children in the villages! the invitations to graduation parties -ok that one might have been a joke) that I actually remarked out loud “The people here are so nice it almost makes me sad,” meaning I felt that by accepting so much kindness I was somehow taking advantage of their culture. Toward the end I was lapping up every “Buenas Dias” like a big dog to an ice cream cone.

I’ve obviously been an American my whole life, and have spent many more days upon my own shores than those of foreign lands. So, why, then, is it so (for lack of a better word) shocking to come home to what I’ve always known?

The only explanation I can offer is this: When traveling, it is as easy to accept the goodness in another culture as easily as it is to forget the badness in your own. You remember the big stuff, sure. Three days of traipsing in Amazon Rainforest and I’m like “The United States has Starbucks, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but shucks it sure is wonderful to be greeted with a cheerful ‘Buenas Dias’ every morning here in Ecuador.”

At the same time, you will invariably start to see yourself through the eyes of the people whose country you’re visiting, and if you happen to be traveling through a developing nation the exchange goes something like this: “As an American you must have money, and I see that you are traveling, therefore your life must be full of rainbows.” You become affirmed this over and over again, implicitly and explicitly. This isn’t a comfortable feeling, in fact, it’s terrible, but it does mess with your psyche.

Then you come home and after standing behind a woman who insists on finishing her cell phone conversation in line at the airport Food Court instead of paying attention to actually paying for her heavily-processed to-go meal, while listening to the ubiquitous talking heads on CNN blabbering on about the debt crisis and how it’s bound to bring another recession, then realizing that you have to go to work (gasp!) this week and it actually doesn’t pay a million dollar salary, and no, you don’t live in huge NYC apartment with all your friends like in Friends, you begin to realize it kind of sucks here, for everyone really except Kim Kardashian and her recession-proof ass. By the time you board that one last plane and the ticket-taker wishes you a happy flight you’re already mumbling a sarcastic “yeah right” under your breath.

How quickly we get sucked back in!

How To Survive Reverse Culture Shock (America Edition)

1. I have no fucking clue.
2. Usually I cry for a few days.
3. I look at my pictures a lot.
4. The period of acceptance will come.
5. In the meantime, you have Starbucks.
6. You could start planning a new trip.
7. Also – in all seriousness – you could reflect on the parts of yourself that have changed as a result of the trip you’ve just taken. I, for one, vow that I will finally learn Spanish. Thank you, Ecuador, for finally instilling in me that desire to truly become fluent in another language. Gracias. Gracias, gracias, gracias.

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3 responses to “A Few Thoughts on Reverse Culture Shock

  1. Amanda, it’s been like four years since I first left the States, and I found I’ve never gotten over #4, but you’re so right on #5! Could have slit my wrist for a proper Starbucks in some places. Anyhow, loved reading your take on it. If you’re interested I just finished a little “travelette” book on Reverse Culture Shock, called ‘Sheep Under The Sea’. Your readers may want to Google it…. A lot of people have told me, it’s now required reading on the air plane trip home.

  2. Pingback: LandLopers Picks of the Week | LandLopers·

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