We all know the concept behind culture shock. It is very much expected when traveling, moving, living in or interacting with places and people different from what we are used to. But what many of us don’t think about is reverse culture shock. It is very strange to be fully immersed in a place that is entirely different from home, putting so much effort into adapting to that place and becoming part of it, while not realizing that the details of home are slipping away. They aren’t being lost, just pushed to the back of the enormous storage room or filing cabinet inside your mind. It’s difficult to completely lose these details, as they are inevitably engrained in you. So for the time being, they are simply stored for later in order to make room for the details of this new place. The details from home aren’t important to your daily life or who you are, and you don’t even realize some things are gone from your life or thoughts. But then you return home, to what is upsettingly called “the familiar”, and your life is somehow full of these old details, dusted off and shoved in your face. The memories are not stored or filed, they are now your reality. Confused yet? Following all of this? Overwhelmed with what the hell I am trying to explain? Yeah, well so am I.
So, what are these details, you ask? First, let’s start with reflections. In the states, we see images of ourselves everywhere. There are mirrors at home (in multiple rooms), in public bathrooms, restaurants, bars, in our cars…everywhere. Simple reflections are constantly popping up in our faces, showing us our hair as we open the door to a store, or how we walk when we pass a building with shiny windows, or if there’s something in our teeth when we look at the reflection in our phone. In Rwanda, I got used to not seeing myself everywhere I turned. It didn’t matter if my hair was too frizzy or my clothes didn’t really match…mostly because my neighbors already thought I was strange, but also because I didn’t ever see myself. Except for the small handheld mirror I brought from home, there was nothing else that showed me my reflection on a regular basis. Returning to the states, I am often shocked to see myself staring back at me. Are my eyes really that blue? How long has that freckle been there? What happens when I make THIS facial expression?
Beyond seducing myself with my own reflection, the visual images and videos that surround our daily life here in the states is overwhelming to me. I feel like a baby, seeing things for the first time. The other day I was explaining to my dad how I have no visuals to go along with the past nine months of news. In Rwanda, I listened to BBC World and BBC Africa everyday on the radio (and actually felt more informed on what’s going on in the world than I ever did in the states). I told my dad that I have no visual companion to all of the big news stories…the riots in London, tsunami in Japan, protests in Libya and Syria, Colonel Kadaffi, al-Shabab. Nothing. Therefore, since my return to electricity, cable news, and WiFi, I have become somewhat of a news junkie and dangerously obsessed with the infinite RSS 24/7 internet news feed, social sites, political shows…it’s bad.
While there is an abundance of media, technology, and images, there is an extreme lack of real people. Granted it’s winter in Iowa, but I still can’t get over how few people there are around here. The sidewalks and streets aren’t packed. Stores are never crowded. I haven’t had to wait in a line for more than 10 minutes for anything. One time in Rwanda I waited over two hours to see a doctor, only to have him leave before it was my turn and make me come back the next day to wait another hour. It is nice, though, that even at a semi-crowded event like a basketball game, I’m not being stared at, yelled at, followed, or asked for money. That is a huge relief.
There are a lot of tiny details that jump out at me randomly. They seem peculiar at first, and usually turn into gratitude for such luxury or convenience. For example, the concept of ice and free refills on pop (no, not soda) is genius. Carpet, hot showers, and ceiling fans are amazing. Coffee machines that you can program…brilliant. Chairs, couches, benches, pews, or whatever with cushions/pillows…freaking awesome. Pushing a button to do my laundry and returning an hour later when it’s done, without lifting a finger…priceless. Okay, now I sound like a commercial.
Walking into stores is still overwhelming. Walgreens, CVS, Target, Younkers…do we really need 40 different kinds of juice? Ten brands of gum? It took me 20 minutes to find the right socks because there were so many different ones. The fact that you can buy any fruit (other than pineapple and bananas?!) year round is incredible to me. Self-service check out lines confuse me. I have totally forgotten the PIN to my debit card, so that’s been fun. The other day I stood in awe at the numerous shelves stacked high with a huge variety of canned beans. I had forgotten that beans could actually taste different (still, I’m in no rush to eat them). Food in general has been an adjustment, a very enjoyable one. It took about a week for my stomach to adjust back to the richness of our foods, but I’m not holding back…cheese, chocolate milk, sushi, mushrooms, asparagus, orange juice, yogurt, pancakes, red wine, chai tea. I could talk for hours about my happiness found in food now that I’m home.
One of the best things about returning to the states is getting to drive again. Thankfully my parents didn’t end up selling my car like I originally asked them to, so it was waiting for me when I got home. The freedom to hop in my car and just go wherever I want, when I want, is something I will never take for granted again. However, getting used to driving in snow is another story and it only took one time for me to slide on the ice and land my car in the shop. At least the rental has heated seats…
Overall, I am adjusting to life back in the states pretty well. I am happy with the decision to come home early and absolutely love being surrounded by friends and family again. It is still a transition and will be a slow process as I work through everything that happened in Rwanda. My guitar and my sister’s dog have been the best therapy ever for me. I don’t know what my next step will be, but a road trip is in the works so stay tuned for more travel blogging from yours truly!