May 08 2008
Shiny. Shiny and new and big. That’s America.
Driving home from the airport, I was amazed at how wide the roads are. How you actually have room to drive on them. How clean and new everything seems. How open and spacious it all is.
There are things I appreciated immediately after landing in the great big U.S. of A. I can read that entire sign! I know how to work a pay phone! I can eat uncooked food and not get typhoid! And there is so much diversity here! Any given crowd is full of so many colors of people. You don’t really appreciate how great that is until you experience being an outsider in an ethnically homogeneous country.
Other things were harder to adjust. For one, our conversational skills. After eight months of conversing only with each other or non-native English speakers, we basically know how to communicate using three phrases: “can do” vs. “can no do,” “have” vs. “no have,” and “same same” vs. “same same, but different.” That plus wild gesticulation. Ben tried to order a bagel in New York by making a circle with his forefingers and thumbs, showing the formation to the cashier and asking loudly, “Have bagel? BAGEL?” In San Francisco, I accidentally thanked a woman in Thai (“khap khun kaa”). A woman who happened to be Asian. She looked at me like she couldn’t decide if she should be offended or if I was just a crazy person.
For eight months, we’ve had to approach any given conversation like a puzzle: how can I communicate with this person? How can I determine if and how much English they speak? How should I pantomime what I need? It’s been difficult to abandon that mindset. Not only do ALL the people I talk to understand me perfectly, they share my same accent and vernacular. It is mind-bogglingly easy to get anything I need here. I almost miss the challenge!
Although it was nice to go away for eight months and pretend like real life doesn’t exist, my happy little bubble popped when I walked in my mom’s house and saw the massive pile of mail waiting for me, mostly foreboding little white window envelopes with my name printed in scary, black ink. With every envelope I opened, I became more depressed. It was all, your-car-insurance-is-due-you-should-pay-your-student-loan-get-this-credit- card-what’s-your-credit-score?- your-mutual-fund-lost-money-are-you-saving- for-retirement-don’t-forget-to-get-your-oil-changed-your-health-insurance-is-
So I turned on the TV to escape for a while and everything is all Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.
I suddenly felt stifled and claustrophobic, so decided to walk with my dad around our neighborhood. This didn’t help either.
The houses are so HUGE. I was amazed that this had never struck me before. I always thought my parents lived in your typical, no-big-deal, suburban neighborhood—which they do. But, oh my GOD, no one needs a house this size! Seriously, I’ve seen how many hammocks can fit into a small, bamboo hut. I’ve seen entire extended families living in these huts. They don’t have studies. They don’t have formal dining rooms. And, yet, somehow, they survive.
Then I see three-person families driving massive SUVs. Why? Why do they drive such big cars? And if they are going to, can’t they at least offer rides to people? I mean, you could fit at least 25 more people on those things—inside, on the roof, hanging out the window… Otherwise, get a motorbike. A family of five can fit comfortably on a motorbike. Really!
I’ve appreciated the opportunity to view my homeland objectively for the first time in 26 years. But my first impression was not a good one: everything—everything—in this country is about MONEY. During my first few days back, this was a constant source of hopelessness for me.
My depression reached a climax when I accompanied my mom on an innocent visit to the local grocery store. Everything was so big and well-lit and organized and excessive and expensive, and instead of making me grateful, it sent me into a fit of tears. Because, you know, people in Laos don’t even HAVE grocery stores; they slave every day in the heat, growing rice to feed their families. And here I am trying to decide between varieties of imported feta.
On the way home, I called my friend Allison, who I knew would give me the virtual slap in the face I needed. She did, by telling me that I better get my shit together before her wedding reception on Saturday, in a threatening but jovial bridezilla voice. And it’s true. ’Cause if an aisle full of sugar cereals will make me break down, crystal stemware and floral centerpieces will really put me over the edge.
I’ve tried to keep in mind that so many of the people we met were happy—happier than most people I’ve ever met here at home. I mean, how can you survive something as terrible as the Khmer Rouge as a child and still welcome someone into your home with a huge smile and a delicious meal?
I’ve also been listening to “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems” a lot.
No matter how many financial troubles you think you have, no matter if you consider yourself average or “middle-class,” keep in mind that you are UNFATHOMABLY rich to the large percentage of the world’s population.
In an effort to make me feel better about having so much STUFF, the day after I returned I went on a purging rampage. I attacked my closet and the many packed boxes littering my room and starting throwing things away. Ben came over to find several giant bags full of clothes outside my door, and me running frantically around my room tossing things into them. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“Giving away my stuff because I HATE ALL OF IT,” I growled. He ran away and probably had a serious discussion about my sanity with my family.
I’m better now. A bit more readjusted. I promise.
I also wanted to purge my wardrobe because I am seriously incapable of deciding what to wear on any given day. Having spent months with only one pair of shorts and three shirts to choose from, I can’t handle so many options.
I’m also incapable of making ANY decision without Ben by my side. For eight months, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, I’ve had Ben beside me, giving his input on every decision. I don’t know what to do with myself when I turn around and he’s not there.
When I reactivated my cell phone, I promptly called Ben, not realizing that I hadn’t talked to him on the phone in nearly a year. Our first phone conversation went a little something like this:
“This is weird.”
“You should probably just come over.”
Needless to say, returning home has taken more getting used to than I anticipated. After a little handy internet research (what did people DO before Google?), I’ve been able to take solace in the fact that we’re not the only long-term travelers experiencing reverse culture shock.
But I don’t want to make it seem like this readjustment period has been all bad. There are certain things that I will forever be grateful to my home for providing. Things like toilet paper. And drawers. Drinkable tap water. Reliable electricity. The comfortable feeling that no one is trying to pickpocket me.
Our friends decided that the best way to re-acclimate Ben and me to Virginia culture was to tailgate at the NASCAR race last Saturday. In hindsight, our acceptance of the invitation might have been a little hasty. I saw enough ass-cracks and distended beer bellies (how do they get so big? Why do they wear them with such pride?) to last me a lifetime. But that story, along with a couple other surprises our family and friends had in store for us, is for next time on EAMD.