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The Culture Shock of Coming Home

I believe it was the evening I found myself standing in the middle of the street, yelling obscenities at passing cars, that I realized a fundamental change had taken place. See in France, the country where I’ve taken up residence for the past few years, the drivers have to stop. If they don’t, that’s a four-point demotion from their licences. Licences are only made up of twelve points, and while I’m no mathematician, I’m pretty sure that’s more points than most care to lose.

Yet, my Seattle friends watched me, almost sympathetically, from the corner as I stood there, pointing to cars and wondering just why the hell these people were zooming past. Didn’t they see us waiting there? “Asshole, asshole, dickface, fuckhead,” I crowed the drivers as they didn’t even so much as glance in my direction. Where on Earth was I? Where was the order? Why did nobody care about pedestrians?

Coming home to the U.S. has an unnerving experience in almost every way. It is reverse culture shock. You know these truths to be self evident, but for some reason, they still feel foreign and strange. One evening at 2 a.m. I was lamenting the lack of tacos in my life when a friend of mine casually suggested we go get some. “This is America. We can get anything anytime.” The realization that I could function 24 hours a day here floored me. Used to living in a land where groceries close before 8 p.m., it was a revelation. “Except” she sighed, “liquor. They stop selling that at 2 a.m.”

“Funny, in Paris, that’s pretty much the only thing you can get after 2 a.m.”

Other stark differences between the culture I grew up in and the culture I had become accustomed to began popping up. A man at a party went on a very serious rant about his right to own a gun, and while others debated his claims on gun safety or prerequisites to ownership, I found myself snort-laughing in the corner. The argument had just become so preposterous for me. Gun ownership. Hilarious! Same went for healthcare. I can’t even debate it anymore, because for me it isn’t even questionable which system is preferable.

Other American institutions snuck up on me. As a firework whizzed by, a mere a foot from my head, on the 4th of July, I was left wondering why average citizens are sold explosives without some kind of learner’s permit. I had gone camping with some friends at a lake, and it was one of the larger multi-shot fireworks that tipped over and shot so close to me that when it exploded the air around my head compressed and the blanket I was sitting on caught fire. When the man walked up to apologize with a “My bad,” I responded with, “Jesus, what the fuck. God fucking damnit.” The man and his party then shot me dirty looks because I was in God’s country, and despite my near brush with serious injury caused by an irresponsible idiot, I was out of line. After all, kids were around.

In France, language is very rarely censored for children, who are expected to fit into their parents lives rather than be the dominant force in driving them. My American circle of friends mostly have infants and tend towards more liberal views without going into Lentils! levels of child protection, yet I learned to never underestimate the Mommy Police. At the zoo, I made a joke while carrying my friend’s 4-month-old adorable daughter. I joked that since she peed on me I was going to feed her to the hippo. “I’m done with this baby,” I laughed. “Where’s the hippo pond? She can pee in there.” My friend played along, checking her map for the African Savanna, but the other parents around me balked. How could I even joke about such a thing? Didn’t I realize every moment was precious?

Later, when I changed the baby’s diaper on a bench, the childless patrons balked. Didn’t I know I was in public? That’s a naked baby! I mean, I could understand the level of disdain if there was baby poop everywhere. But there wasn’t. There were three barriers between the child’s behind and the wooden bench, and the diaper, which was simply peed in, had been disposed of within seconds. No, they just took umbrage at a naked baby in public. It was “indecent.” Maybe living in a land where the First Lady has posed full frontal has changed my views on nudity, but last I checked, naked babies were adorable, not something to censor.

Still, there are certain things about being here that have brought me sweet relief. For one, I feel confident when giving directions, making orders, talking on the phone, and making chitchat with strangers. In the United States, I clearly have an education, whereas in France my level of intellect is subject to debate. Also as long as there are gyms down the street from me (and there are four), there is absolutely nothing wrong with my ability to go shopping for chocolate chip cookies at 3:42 a.m.

Yet for me, the main difference between my healthcare haven in Paris and my early morning sweet shopping in Seattle would have to be the level of friendliness. I spent an hour chatting with the fitting room attendant at a Ross, most random check-out attendants make casual chitchat, and I’ve had waitresses spill about ex-boyfriends. In France, there are pleasantries and formal polite questions, but there is so very rarely a casual smile and a question about your plans for the day. At first it took me aback, and I wondered why strangers pretended to care about me. But slowly it re-dawned on me that a lot of these people were just friendly. Whether it simply made their day go by faster or they honestly liked getting to know their clientele, the constant free refills and the bawdy laughter with the sales attendant began to draw me in. I’m left wondering how sterile and cold Paris might feel when I return.

I flip the channel from Celebrity Rehab and land on Nancy Grace before I settle in on Ice Loves Coco. It is 63 degrees F (17 C), and there is a family splashing around in the pool my mom’s condo overlooks. The cheese selection here is tragic, the wine is overpriced, and I have a hard time processing the visceral anger that average, seemingly-pleasant people have towards social programs. Yet, there is a laissez-faire attitude here that is hard not to be seduced by. I will leave you alone, you will leave me alone. When we meet in a checkout line, we will make friendly chat about a ridiculous tabloid with a headline I can fully comprehend without wondering if my past participle verb agrees with my passé composé subject.

I will go back to France at the end of the summer. When I return, I will be starting university and taking a full course load in French, so I have little time to slack in my language studies. Yet for now, I will sit back in the temperate climate of the Pacific Northwest and pretend that everything is this easy all the time. After all, why bother visiting America if you refuse to partake in the American Dream?

By Olivia Marudan

Cad. Boondoggler. Swindler. Ass. Plagiarist. Hutcher. A movable feast in the subtle culinary art of shit talking.

4 replies on “The Culture Shock of Coming Home”

The only time I’ve been overseas was a month in Austria and Croatia and then Ireland. The only thing that really stood out to me when I came back was that eating at a restaurant seemed so fast-paced, compared to our three-hour dinners out in Austria, Germany, Italy, and Hungary. When my parents picked me up from the airport when I got home, I wanted to eat something before going home and crashing (it was 4 in the morning where I had just come from and I couldn’t eat on the flight because I was so excited to be reading signs in English). We were done and out of there in about 45 minutes. I felt incredibly rushed. It took a long time to used to that. I went out to eat with some friends I had been travelling with, and we kind of just hung out for a long time, snacking and chugging water (none of us got used to mineral wasser, ever). The waitress was definitely confused. She probably wondered if we were ever going to leave.

However, I went horsepacking in the mountains for two weeks once, and when I got back to civilization, everything confused me. People were driving so fast! So worried about little things that weren’t important! So much stimulation! Even television was too much to handle for a while.

I spent six months studying in Denmark, and the first incident of reverse culture shock I experienced occurred before I left JFK airport. I went to get a luggage cart for my three suitcases, and having become accustomed to so much being free in Scandinavian airports, I just sort of pulled on the cart at the end of the rack, wondering vaguely why it wasn’t coming free. It took almost a minute for me to realize that I had to pay three dollars–no refund. My immediate reaction was incredulity.

Then again, it’s hard to compare to the veritable utopia of Copenhagen International Airport, where all the lounges are accessible to even coach travelers, and video games and internet are free services.

As a fellow traveler, I can relate on so many levels. I’ve spent 4 years living overseas between Korea, backpacking, and Australia, and I find I never feel like I belong anywhere anymore. The hardest transition for me was from Korea (and Asia in general) to Australia, where I found I that I felt significantly less American but not quite Asian or Australian either. I’m something in the middle, which I guess is both the traveler’s advantage and curse. Everything feels like home and nothing feels like home at the same time. It seems that there comes a point when you’ve traveled enough that you are forever changed and you start feeling like the only one of your species, and you may never find another soul to commune with. (At least I feel like that most of the time.) Right now I find myself back in Korea for the second time and wondering if I’m more American or Australian and which home I miss more. I’m returning to the US for the first time in 4 years in December and I have a strange mix of anticipation and fear. I’m expecting a good deal of reverse culture shock. I hope you enjoy the rest of your summer at ‘home’!

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