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Back in the USA...

USA | Saturday, 22 March 2008 | Views [1477] | Comments [3]

As TS Eliot put it, “And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.” Now that I'm back, I find myself in that place of culture shock where the world feels like it's upside down and I'm on the wrong side of it. These are just a few random thoughts from this place, where everything that is supposed to be normal to me feels odd and unfamiliar.

I am more alone now than I ever was when I was traveling alone. The American suburbs in wintertime are incredibly isolating. I wake up to silence every morning. No birds, no traffic, no roosters, no music, no conversations, no people. It’s cold out, so everyone stays inside. You can drive around and see no people anywhere. It makes me wonder if there has been a nerve gas attack and everyone is dead and only the squirrels are left alive.

The city is not much better. There are people on the street, but they’re rushing along. In cold climates, the street is a place to pass through quickly on your way from one place to another. In warm climates and developing countries, there is a whole ecosystem to the street. It’s a place to eat, sell things, look for business, hang out, get your hair cut, make religious offerings, and much more. I miss this. I miss the life, the chaos, the noise, the activity, the motorbikes, the energy.

I even miss the never-ending chorus of transport guys offering their services all over Southeast Asia. Even in places where there are no cars or motorbikes, like Gili Trawanagan, there are transport guys, constantly offering the local equivalent of the tuk-tuk: a horse and cart. Maybe the truth is that I miss the quotidian attention that being a foreigner garners. Here, I am anonymous, just one of the crowd in a place where sidewalk interactions are infrequent.

I feel thin here. This has absolutely nothing to do with my body, which is pretty much the same size and shape as always, more curvy than slender. Instead, I’m back in the land of fast food, enormous portion sizes, and all sorts of processed foods designed to cause instant diabetes and obesity. This is the country that created not only the Big Mac, but the Venti Frappuccino that has even more calories than the Big Mac (and nearly as much fat: 23 vs. 29 grams).

By contrast, in Asia I was huge. Enormous. Storekeepers all over Hanoi laughed their heads off at me when I asked for my size in pants. I finally found a pair that fit at a shop that sells adventure wear to tourists. When I went shopping for tops in Bali, I discovered that I was not a S, nor a M, and not even a L but an XL. Maybe even an XXL, if it existed. When asked my size, I tried to hold onto my pride by telling the shopkeeper that I was a S or M in my country, but apparently (said with bitter emphasis) I am an XL in their country.

Everything is the same. Among travelers, it’s common knowledge that when you finally go home, two things will hold true: 1) Everything will be the same, including most of the lives of your friends and family; and 2) No one really understands what you've been doing. We travelers freely use these truths to justify extending our trips, or to dispel any thoughts of returning home early.

But when you finally do go home, they strike you in the head like a load of bricks. You’ve been climbing mountains, taking chicken buses, haggling over prices, seeing extraordinary sights, doing extraordinary things, meeting all kinds of people, and all of a sudden, it’s over. Your life-in-motion in places where even going to the post office can be an adventure has ended, and you find yourself sitting in someone’s tastefully decorated living room listening to people talk about the real estate market, the merits of their new plasma TV, and pre-schools. It's not that there is anything wrong with this picture (a composite, of course, I'm not referring to any one tastefully decorated living room in particular), and it's not that you're not happy to re-connect with family and friends. It just feels like a major shock to the system, and you may feel like an alien who has just landed from another planet. Which is, of course, exactly what you are in these early days of re-entry.

The American economy is all about dressing things up into pretty packages and selling them to people. This observation is based upon my two major activities in my first week back: perusing job postings and hanging out at the local Panera (free wifi). It seems like the vast majority of job postings are for positions in sales and marketing, or else in technology and design. Everyone needs to hire people to convince or dupe other people to buying their products. And they need other people to create beautiful websites and appealing graphics to convince you that your life is incomplete without these things. At Panera, like any other up-market, mass-market café, there are these tantalizing posters convincing you to treat yourself with the latest latte of the season (pumpkin?) paired with a sweet baked good that the market researchers have determined will appeal to the moneyed masses and provide a healthy profit margin – which may be the only healthy thing about the deal.

[This post was edited & re-written after the original posting.]

Tags: coming home, culture shock, observations, usa



How true! How true! We just returned from a 4 month road trip through Central America and the reaction of 'friends' was the same as when we came home from a year in Africa and the Middle East. Ho hum.

The reason we keep an online journal is so we won't have to deal with those who profess to "be like you guys" when we return. They can read it online if they want.

  John Maginness Mar 22, 2008 9:35 AM


I loved this post. As an anthropological exercise 'Coming home' is just fantastic to look in on what you once thought normal.
I wrote a brief post about it a few years back...

But reading yours made me realise all the elements of 'Coming Home' that I never quite was able to get down on paper (computer!). thank-you.

please keep writing

  crustyadventures Jul 7, 2008 4:46 PM


I just read your blog about Phang Nga...every word, and it helped relieve some of this awful disconnected feeling I've had since my husband and I arrived home from Thailand a month ago. No one really "got" that my husband and I re-discovered something authentic and vital in ourselves as well as our relationship that makes life worth living, a deeply satisfying adventure that made us feel alive in a way that hasn't been possible for a long time. And your blog shed some light on that, and now I don't feel so alone.
When we got back, a friend was quick to tell us, "The whole world went to hell while you were gone." I told him, "Glad I missed it. Wish I'd stayed longer".
Yes, PLEASE keep writing. Someone who really needs to read it will read it, and I'm grateful this time it was me.

  Kahni Nov 21, 2008 7:23 AM



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