May 08 2008

The mo’ problems we see

Published by at 8:55 pm under Virginia

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.”

“Really 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.

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11 responses so far

11 Responses to “The mo’ problems we see”

  1. pamon 09 May 2008 at 10:47 am

    Delurking to say I’ve enjoyed reading your travels – you were in Vietnam not long after we were so I totally understood the “Madam you buy!” aggravation.

    Anyhoo, true story, after being away for 1.5 years, I was paralyzed in supermarkets and once, I burst into tears in the shampoo aisle. It takes time. Be nice to yourself and stay away from Walmart and/or Costco.

    Good luck.

  2. Lindsayon 09 May 2008 at 11:21 am

    i hope you’re not throwing away all those clothes before i get to take a gander in the bags. i lost half of my wardrobe when you came back home.

  3. kim tranon 09 May 2008 at 1:27 pm

    I will thoroughly miss your live, right-in-the-middle-of-all-the-action posts from all over the world! Please continue blogging, about anything and everything you can think of that you haven’t blogged about yet. I really hope this blog doesn’t drift off into cyberspace and disappear(!!!), that’d be a tremendous shame.

  4. Christine Gilberton 09 May 2008 at 9:16 pm

    Great post!

    I often wonder if you can un-flip the switch. In some ways, does long term travel ruin your ability to fit in back home? Anyway, I agree with everyone else, keep posting!

  5. Sciencemelon 10 May 2008 at 5:35 am


    Re-adjusting will take time. For some, it never happens because we’ve learned the world is big and shiny in a different way with adventures around every corner. Sadly, capitalism is king in our homeland. The new perspectives you have will most certain influence the careers you pursue.

    My top tip: Look for the wonder. It will help raise your spirits as you readjust to Home.

  6. Jodieon 10 May 2008 at 4:08 pm

    Brittany, as I was reading this, I was thinking that you guys will make great parents. What a great perspective you’ve got and can pass on to your future kids! We need to have dinner soon!

    Sciencemel, I will take capitalism over communism any day. Of course there are negatives here at home, but many positives as well.

  7. Deniceon 10 May 2008 at 9:01 pm

    Although I haven’t been in as many places as you, living in Eastern Europe and Asia has definitely mirrored many of your experiences and evoked many of the same feelings you have posted. Thank you for one of the most enjoyable RTW blogs I have ever read- it has helped make me feel a little more sane! Will you guys keep posting? Best wishes on your readjustment. It only took us three months until we put forth the plan to leave the country again! I (not-so) secretly wish you guys would do the same!

  8. Nomadic Matton 11 May 2008 at 9:39 pm

    I had the same experience. No one understands either. My family and friends just couldn’t get why I was weirded out about being home. But look at the bright side: now u can appreciate life and not things. But it does change you and you know that you are changed. I don’t know you before this but now at least u’ve shed the american materialism.

    I was never shocked by the materialism- I went through OZ before I came home but I do remember being in OZ and thinking: its so quite…its so clean..and why can’t i get street food at 3am!!!!

    It takes time but the best way to readjust and cope is to just keep going and stay busy. accept it as a new culture your exploring.

    ps- i randomly say thai a lot…force of habit…. i also realize people don’t know what a loo is or a queue…

  9. debon 26 May 2008 at 3:00 pm

    it is difficult coming back to the land of excess from places where people live simply and well. so many vacationers only see “poverty”, not the simplicity of the lives around them. they pity others and “can’t imagine living like that”. try to live as simply as possible and spread the word.

  10. Dr Bosqueon 23 Jun 2008 at 5:01 pm

    I’d say you’re ripe to start planning your next trip!

    25 years ago, traveling back to the USA after living in England, Malta, and Germany, I was amazed to see the mini-storage places sprouting like mushrooms…but mainly the thought that people were so addicted to stuff that they had nowhere to put it – until the houses started mushrooming too.

    BTW, one night in Germany I stumbled over a box in the night – all my old yearbooks. I put them in the hall and thought, ‘If I haven’t thought about them a month from now they’re going in the trash.’

    A month later, they did – and not only had I been a yearbook editor (and laid out the yearbook my junior and senior years), I’d also been a yearbook adviser, and a yearbook rep – so those yearbooks ostensibly meant something to me.

    A few years ago, I stayed with one of my prep school teachers and looked through the yearbooks he had – that was cool.

    But having been rid of that baggage for so long was even cooler.

  11. Benon 02 Nov 2011 at 5:03 am

    As one who is currently on a similar trip that you took a couple of years ago, I am grateful to have read this post. Dreading going home, and knowing that the adjustment will be difficult, you bring a new light (and some good jokes) about American Capitalism, and how the simple task of being happy can be construed by materialism. Indeed, the biggest lesson from these people, is how happy they can be with so little. Great post!

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