20 June 2013

The Lesser-Known Culture Shock

Lots has been said about culture shock. Everyone gets it. It's hard learning how to deal without water, electricity or Target. But a lesser known shock also deserves a mention. It's called returning home. Or "reverse culture shock" or having a "re-entry experience." But I don't think a term exists for what we do. We live abroad indefinitely, come home for a short period of time, but never really "re-enter" permanently. And then we up and go just as we get comfortable having Target around the corner.

I think the feeling is best described by the emotions of our children who spend most of the day in tears, tantrums or clinging to our legs for dear life. If it was socially acceptable for me to act out this way, I would. It can be tough. For example, here are some signs you're having a rough "re-entry experience."

#1. Your First World Fantasy is easily crushed.

For ten months out of the year we know the option of using a public restroom is non-existent. Only in extreme emergencies will you find me in an African "restroom" if they can be called that. More realistically, you will not find me anywhere near a public hole in the ground, if I can avoid it.

Comme Ça. Except this one looks pretty fancy with those extra accessories beside it. Obviously, this one is in Paris. Check it out here.

If we're going to be out and about, there's no consumption of liquids beforehand to avoid any bathroom-ing experience. No coffee on Sunday morning because there's literally no bathroom at our church. Unless you want to go behind the building, but I've never been back there because I plan accordingly. But that's okay because we live in the Congo and we know to expect it. When we visit the States there will be amazing public restrooms. This is what I look forward to. This is my first world fantasy.

Until this year when the public restroom association decided to ban paper towels. Seriously, what's going on? Everywhere we go paper towels have been replaced by those crazy dryers that invite me to "Feel the Power" and blow (no...jet propel) air at your hands until you think your skin is going to come off. All year-long I've been looking forward to pleasant public bathroom experiences and now I just have to beg my children to put their hands under the weird machine with the electric blue light beaming out of it, and promise them their skin won't come off. I really love saving the planet, but this is not what I had in mind.

Ordinarily this is not something to freak out about. But if you are having a rough "re-entry experience," hand dryers are a first world struggle.   

"Feel the Power" and dry your hands the All-American way.

#2. Second hand sweaters make you cry.

A few days after we got back Adam stopped short in a consignment shop when he found the perfect red sweater. "Would you just feel this sweater? It's the most beautiful sweater I've ever seen. It's the perfect J.Crew sweater. It gets cold sometimes in Kinshasa, right? I should get it." Adam, we live in the tropics. You cannot get that sweater.

Then right there in the middle of the store he started into a very sad and dramatic monologue about how at no time in the near future would he be in cold weather. And almost started crying over the dearth of "snuggly" clothes in his wardrobe.

Then the next day as we were riding in the car he broke the silence with, "Hey, do you remember that sweater from yesterday? That was really bittersweet." 

J. Crew red sweater photo from here.

#3. You're just one wrong number away from a meth lab.

A few years ago after gorging ourselves on The Wire, we realized when we were back in the States we could buy disposable phones, drug dealer-style. Thankfully, the US has somewhat caught on to SIM cards and now we just get "disposable" phone numbers. But then we got this gem of a text message:

Bonus Post: Here's how we were dealing with reverse culture shock this time last year. It seems the Costco samples were a lot more fun before our children were old enough to notice the difference between Congo and the States. And thus hadn't learned to take their stress out in the form of extreme stranger fear or epic tantrums. Those were the days...


  1. How about standing in the grocery store in confusion because there were so many kinds of toothpaste, shampoo etc that you couldn't make a decision?? Been there, done that. And going from a multicultural international setting to a place where some people have never left their birth state and have no desire to ever do it?? Been there too. The re-entry culture shock is actually worse because you know things will be crazy when you first start in a new culture, but you don't anticipate being different yourself by the time you get back to your own 'home' culture after time away!

  2. You're completely right. My sister had to rescue me from the cold medicine section of the grocery store once. TOO MANY OPTIONS. I was completely paralyzed. The shock of your home culture can be very surreal.


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