As usual, we get off the plane after a long international flight, clear immigration and customs, and hail a ride to our hotel. Once again we're in a new country where everything feels different, the food isn't what we usually eat, and the people are speaking a different language.
Visiting well over 30 countries on four continents has made us take all of that in stride … but we aren't used to the traffic here, suddenly moving at lightning speed on eight-lane highways. Where's the bumper-to-bumper snail's pace that we've grown accustomed to? Where are the car horns? And why are all the cars staying in their own lanes?
As much as I expected things to be new when I went to another country, I also expected things to be the same when I came home. But it isn't. Everything seems different.
Except … It's not. I'm the one who's changed.
All the symptoms of culture shock, reversed
We've been back in the US for a while now and I still find myself remarking on things I never used to pay any attention to. I have just come to realize that actually, this is culture shock.
Wait … what … me?
Culture shock is “the personal disorientation a person may feel when experiencing an unfamiliar way of life due to immigration or a visit to a new country, a move between social environments, or simply travel to another type of life.”
I'm displaying so many of the symptoms of reverse culture shock. (Geez, it sounds like a mental disease or something.) So then I wonder—are they necessarily bad things? What's so wrong with noticing the quirks in your native culture? What's wrong with missing people and places from abroad? Is it all that terrible to change your values, goals, priorities, or attitudes?
When we visited our son in our old stomping grounds in western North Carolina for instance, we felt out of place. It wasn't that we didn't like the town anymore, or our old house, or our old friends. It's that we saw ourselves differently. We don't really fit into that world like we used to. Many of our old friends have never been out of the US, and in fact we knew some people who had never left the state. Our life experiences are so different now.
Although I love my homeland as much as ever, watching foreign news for years has altered my opinion of its place on the planet. I now see that other nations are fully capable on their own. We don't need to rush to their aid all the time.
And while I may have once believed that America was specially blessed by God, I no longer do. My journeys have taught me that other nations have special blessings of their own.
I'm now amazed at the insane amount of money people waste on crap, the same useless junk I used to buy myself. We're talking about things that I thought I needed … and later had to dust around. We're talking about things that can't even be found overseas and that we easily did without.
I marvel at the markets Madison Avenue has created for pre-measured pods of laundry soap and all-in-one tablets of dishwasher detergent with rinse aids. Seriously, people, is it really that inconvenient to measure it yourselves? And suddenly my mind returns to the mountain river that runs through the town where we lived in Ecuador. I remember watching local folks wash their clothes one by one on a rock and laying them out on the river bank to dry.
More than I remember
And oh, the prices! Have they gone up that much since I left? This self-proclaimed coffee snob can no longer bring herself to enter a Starbucks. Years of living in world-class coffee producing nations have spoiled me with their freshly roasted and ground beans at $3/pound. And don't get me started on how much food we could buy for a song!
Of all the changes, one of my biggest surprises is how turned off we have become by drive-thru fried and microwaved fast foods. Popping into family-run shops for a 2-for-$5 homemade almuerzo (lunch) will do that, I suppose. We have no desire to patronize the grocery aisles with their chemical-laden packaged foods. Never would have seen that coming.
But then, I'd never thought my native land would look so different to me, either. My, how I've changed.
What travel has taught me
Traveling and living abroad certainly challenged me, but in a good way. I have learned to adapt to new situations, to function and thrive even when uncomfortable or in the midst of big transitions. I have enjoyed many cultures, embraced many differences, enjoyed many new tastes and experiences. I've adopted a few new ways of doing things. I even learned to use a squat toilet (though my legs and I never liked it).
Returning to American culture after being away for so long, I have been noticing new things about my own culture. In contrast to some of the other places we've been, Americans are really picky about cleanliness. They wash their bodies frequently, care where they throw their trash, and always keep their produce, dairy and meats refrigerated. They ask “How are you?” without waiting for the answer, and give the same “Fine” in response, whether they are or not. Wow, who knew all those things are culture-specific?
Traveling has certainly broadened my perspective and changed many of my priorities. I used to think “They should…” all the time; now I wonder what makes them do something differently, and why. Occasionally I even found myself accepting that their way might make more sense—at least for them.
It's done the same with Dan. Reflecting back, every day overseas has been incredibly worth it. So worth it, in fact, that we can hardly wait to go back on the road again. What's next?
This is why we created this blog. We share all of our travel “as we saw it.” We want you to enjoy the thrill of discovery as well. Because, you know what? There are an awful lot of amazing places to see, foods to eat, and people to like out there.
So what do you think? Please share your thoughts and experiences.