Reverse Culture Shock, Recalibration of an Expat Mind
Forgive me Internet for I have been busy; it’s been more than a month since my last confession post.
What can I say? After 14 months abroad, being at home as been an endless distraction. I revel in the mundane of the every-day, middle-class life of Midwestern America; it has been a lot of reverse culture shock, but in largely good ways. My gods, the water pressure in the shower nearly knocks you down. And the water … it is so hot! Hot, hot HOT!
What’s more you can drink the water straight out of the faucet. And sometimes it falls from the sky, but not in drops, but in these strange and beautiful ice crystals, which sometimes accumulate enough to blanket everything in a whisper-sigh of white and silence.
What kind of crazy land is this?
Why, I can walk down the street, and no one pays me the slightest bit of attention; here I’m just another face in the crowd. I’m not the center of attention wherever I go; random passersby aren’t so astonished by my mere presence that their inattention knocks elderly women to ground. I’m just another nondescript citizen.
I like it; I can be the wallflower that I was meant to be.
But even after a month I still catch myself wandering out into the middle of the street in the middle of the block to cross, much to the aggravation of drivers who have little tolerance for my foreign ways. But do you know what happens when they come to an intersection here? Oh my various gods, they … they stop! If you’re turning left, do you know what the drivers behind you do? They either pass your on the right, or they actually just wait.
They wait for you to turn left! They don’t pass you on the left! And if you are the one turning left, you have to wait until no oncoming traffic is present! And get this – drivers generally don’t cut you off! No, really! It’s generally not done!
I know, huh? Crazy, whacky place this America is.
And the cheese! They have cheese here! It’s everywhere! In grocery stores, in restaurants, cheese! And cheese in burritos! ZOMG! Burritos! And pizza! And Guinness! My goodness my Guinness. I can actually walk. Walk down the street. Walk two blocks. Two blocks from here there is a bar. It is a bar that servers Guinness.
See what this means? I can have Guinness. I can drink Guinness whenever I want. It is only 1:20 am.; I could stop typing right now, put on my coat, walk those two blocks and have a Guinness. Because many of the bars here have Guinness. And they’re open – open until 2 a.m.
Astonishing. Simply astonishing. Think your Midwestern American city is sleepy? Try living in Southeast Asia for a year outside the tourist ghettos – your hometown will seem ridiculously cosmopolitan.
The Truth About Living Abroad: Is There One?
So what have we learned? We being the royal “we,” as in “I” – just because I feel in a third-person plural kind of mood. Giddy, even.
Well, I have learned many things during and from my time abroad. I’m still processing it all, which is somewhat confounded by the fact that I have to recalibrate my psyche to life in my home country and culture. As I’ve remarked before, I think I learned more about myself than anything else. There are certainly truths to be gained by living abroad for a year, but are they universal? I’m not sure.
In fact, the older I get and the more I travel and experience the world, I tend to think they are not; We may not go through life with blinders on, but we certainly do go through life with filters on, whether we realize it or not and whether we want to, or not. Your Viet Nam isn’t my Viet Nam; my Thailand isn’t your Thailand.
Show me someone who claims that they do see the unvarnished truth of a matter – be it the truth of what their neighbors are like or the truth of what their nation’s culture is like – much less someone else’s culture – and I’ll show you someone that is deluded and biased. That is not to say though that these other truths of other people are not of value or that we can’t glean something from them. As such over the forthcoming days and weeks – I have more time on my hands these days – I hope to elucidate my experiences and what they meant to me – my truths, if you will.
I’ll start with one big one: traveling abroad and living abroad are two very different things. Before I left I suspected it would be; now I know it to be true. Of course living abroad is also an incredible, amazing and fun adventure. But at times, however, being a stranger in a strange land is a mental bitch-kitty, as my father might have described it.
But that’s all the truth and lessons learned for now; there will be more later.
In the meantime, let it suffice to say that I’m generally happy to be back. One can’t go home again, it’s true, but then half the fun of coming home is seeing what has changed and who has changed – and who and what hasn’t. And one doesn’t truly appreciate one’s own culture and country until you’ve been away a long time – there’s one of those subjective truths, to be sure. But I didn’t realize just how much I had missed some of the more mundane aspects of life here — logical, orderly traffic, pizza whenever the mood strikes, Guinness, fiber optics – the list goes on.
What Do I Miss? Cheating Death Daily
But it’s a two-way street (you’ll see how clever this bon mot is in just a moment). Every few days I catch myself thinking I’d love to get a bowl of phở and aCà phê sữa đá afterward; alas, I can’t do that.
And I actually miss riding in traffic in Viet Nam on my bicycle, in much the same way that the seasoned veteran misses the adrenaline-fueled, danger-laden battlefield – happy to be home, perhaps, but the intoxicating lure of danger and violence beckons still. When I would get home from the grocery store or the bank in Bien Hoa, I would feel vibrant and exultant. I would look back on a thousand near-misses as I bobbed and weaved through the chaotic, exhaust-choked ballet of motorbike and taxi-cab death that was traffic that day (and every day) and think “Alive! gods, I’m alive! I live to ride another day! Victory! Hell yes!”
Traffic here at home is not nearly so crazy, and I grew up with it here, so I know how it works and what to expect. I don’t wonder if I’m going to buy the proverbial farm every time I leave the house. That’s good, yes, but it’s also not terribly exciting. When I get home, I’m just “getting home” – there is no laughing at having cheated Death once again.
Now see what I mean? How many people who have lived in Viet Nam – or , let’s broaden our scope and say, Southeast Asia – and now that they are back home in the West, would say that one of the things they miss most is riding a bike? Truth and experience – it’s subjective. But if I had to pick one thing I miss most about everyday life in Viet Nam, it would be that.
But then, that probably says more about me than it does about Viet Nam.
P.S. One of the aforementioned distractions is pictured here below; this post was composed on my new desktop rig. One of the common myths about Asia is that you can buy cheap-ass electronics. And you can – but there is a caveat. If you want leading edge technology – and I’m a nerd and I do – you’re going to pay more, at least in Southeast Asia. This same system you see being built here – Intel i7 950, Nvidia GeForce GTX 560 Ti, 6 gigs of DDR3 RAM, coupled with a 24-inch monitor with 2ms response time – would have cost me several hundred dollars more in either Thailand or Viet Nam. I know, because I priced a number of systems and components a number of times, because after about six months I was jonesing for video games – not to mention Photoshop and 3D rendering. And this is actually a generation behind the leading edge.
This is also true for camera equipment – I know that because I’m a dumbass.