Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Monster-Truck Cure For Reverse Culture Shock

Reverse culture shock—i.e., the feeling one gets upon returning to the home culture after growing accustomed to a foreign one—is a real phenomenon.  I know this to be true, because back in early 2008, I had a bad case of it.

At that time, I had just come off the Africa leg of a one-year journey.  I returned in mid-December, just in time to catch the crass commercialism and frivolity of the Christmas holidays.  Blow-up Santas on front lawns; special $3.99 containers meant to present that perfect Bed, Bath & Beyond gift card; overpriced Hickory Farms sausage-and-cheese gift packs; Kleenex with holiday designs; Snuggies and ShamWows; that kind of thing.  It was hard to take after all I’d seen and experienced. 

Long story short:  I tried, without success, to fight my culture.  It was a losing battle, and it wasn’t winning me any friends, either.  No one likes to be told that their expensive shoes cost more than an average Bolivian makes in a year.  I’d become a drag, and it wasn’t helpful to anyone:  not to me; not to the friends I’d endlessly irritate with my soapbox lectures; not to the people living in the slums of Nairobi. 

It took me forever to beat back the reverse culture shock as a result.  This time, I was determined to nip it in the bud—ASAP—preferably by the end of this Memorial Day weekend.  My strategy:  don’t try to beat ‘em; rather, join ‘em.  Embrace what makes my country, my country.  Firmly take my place back.  Be proud to be an American. 

Serendipity, it seems, conspired to help me overcome.  My first day back in America—in Clearwater, Florida, to be more precise—was also the first day of my brother’s family’s vacation out of town.  I now had the run of his large home, and custody of his Ford F-150 monster truck.  “Don’t scratch the rims,” he said, before I was turned loose.

I spent the next few days drowning in excess.  Here I am:  flipping through the 1,952 channels on a ginormous flat-screen TV; taking the longest and hottest showers as humanly possible; cranking up the AC; running the dryer endlessly; leaving the lights on in all the rooms; watching Seinfeld reruns (of course); nibbling Wheat Thins Stix straight from the box.  (When did they start making those?)  For days I’ve done nothing but luxuriate in every excess I could think of and get away with.  I’m not in Albania anymore.

First Starbucks in Florida.  The logo changed!
It had been six months since I’d driven a car, and now I was perched twelve feet off the ground in a bad-ass truck, owning the Florida roads.  Last week, I was walking everywhere.  Here, I’m driving unreasonably short distances to buy expensive cups of coffee.  Because I’m an American, and that’s what people in America do.  What do you mean we should walk to the Starbucks just around the corner?  What are you, crazy?

My brother said only “don’t scratch the rims;” he didn’t mention anything about flying down the highway at top speed, singing Bon Jovi’s It’s My Life at the top of my lungs; or taking my hands off the wheel while I banged air drums to Def Leppard's Pour Some Sugar On Me.  So I figured those things would be okay.  I’m addicted to this truck now; it’s so American—the way it guzzles gas and barely fits into a parking space at Target.  I love it, unapologetically, and I don't care if all those people back in Europe think it's not sensible.  It’s just like Jon says:  I just wanna live while I’m alive.

There are other things I’ve been doing to conquer the reverse culture shock quickly.  First, I’ve stopped telling strangers that I just got back from traveling abroad for six months.  Nobody cares, and anyway, Americans think it’s weird, all that traveling to foreign places when we have a perfectly good country right here.  I can tell by the looks on their faces.  I must tuck those “when I was in Macedonia” stories away for someone who's not just pretending to care.  The sooner I get back to the insular and provincial, the better;  I know.

I’ve also stopped living out of my backpack.  I unpacked it and transferred the stuff into a regular roller-suitcase.  I’m still homeless, but I’m no longer a backpacker wearing the same two pairs of pants.  Yesterday I went to the mall and bought new clothes.  I used plastic.  It’s the American way.  In fact, I'm thinking of going back today to get that expensive facial cream I had my eye on.  I'll figure a way to pay for it sometime down the road.

And perhaps the most important thing to make the transition complete:  it’s time for me to stop posting to my travel blog.  I know—it’s going to be hard—but it’s time.  I’ve got one more post left, and then it’s over for Travelarity.  Of course, in the weeks to come, I’ll still check the page-visit count obsessively to see how many hits the blog continues to get.  (Yes, I just did it again.  It’s at 8,396.  By no means viral, but still totally decent.)

Meanwhile, throwing myself headlong into American culture has been nothing short of euphoric.  Yesterday I stopped at the Circle K, where strange things are, indeed, afoot.  On Sunday I visited my eldest brother's family in the next town over.  We ate pulled pork smothered in Sweet Baby Ray's barbeque sauce and watched the first two Twilight movies back-to-back.  (I prefer Edward, but my gosh does that Jacob look good without a shirt.)   On the way there, I spotted an oversized Scarface towel and thought about buying one.  I could take it to the Courtney Campbell Causeway, where maybe I'll rent a jet ski.  Who knows, I might even take in the Gun Show scheduled for next week.  The possibilities are just endless.

Here's something you don't see in Luxembourg.
Soon, I'm sure I'll begin to pull back a bit.  I’m actually thinking of walking to Starbucks one day, and I may even let myself feel bad about spending $3.00 on a cup of coffee every single day, and sometimes twice.  But in the meantime, I’m back, baby, and loving this culture of mine.   I've come to realize over time that, here, nothing is really shocking.  I think that's why I so adore the good ol' U.S. of A.