Culture shock across the pond

Way back in 2012, before New Years, before Christmas, before the debt ceiling crisis peaked and before the snowstorms or flooding (depending on which country you’re in), I posted a holiday greeting on CulturTwined. During the holidays I checked out of social media and spent some awesome quality time with my nephew and niece and other loved ones. To do this, I travelled from London to Northern Virginia, U.S.A.

Now, I am an expat American. I don’t always like to admit my American-ness because I’ve lived outside the United States almost my entire life and so prefer to think of myself as a citizen of heaven (wink), but the fact is that my passport still has that bald eagle on the front and pictures from the 50 states on its inside pages. I was born in that country, as were my parents, and that fact will never change. And I’m ok with that – there’s a lot of wonderful stuff that comes with being American.

Somehow, though, I feel the most intense culture shock when I land on U.S. soil. There’s more culture shock awaiting me in a D.C. suburb than in Ouagadougou, El-Geneina, Pristina or Dili. I spent this entire trip doing two things: enjoying marvellous quality time with wonderful people (many of whom were under the age of 5 and cute as all get-out), and blinking my eyes repeatedly as I reminded myself that ‘this is the way things are done in this country’.

I’m convinced that this strange culture shock in the land of my birth is exactly because it is the land of my birth. When I arrive in the U.S., I’m treated like someone who belongs, starting with that surreal moment when I actually go down the “citizens/residents” queue in immigration. Oops, the “citizens/residents line”, I mean. As soon as I open my mouth, a slightly odd but still unmistakably American accent comes out. Family meets me at the airport, I have a U.S. drivers license, etc etc. All of a sudden I’m supposed to belong. But I don’t live there, and I’m not used to the way things are done there. So half of me is telling myself that I’M HOME. And the other half of me is telling myself that EVERYTHING IS WEIRD. And so I experience acute culture shock.

So, what are some of the shocks that I face upon arriving in the U.S.? I summarise my culture shock during this past trip into 4 instances:

  • Whenever I order a drink, even if it’s tap water, it comes full beyond the brim with ice. I don’t like my water icy cold, especially not in winter or in air-conditioning (one of which is always happening in most American restaurants), so I need to remind myself to explicitly order my water without ice.
  • Whenever I buy anything at a supermarket, unlike in the UK, it is the check-out clerk who bags the groceries. And their training is clear: customers do not like their bags to break! Therefore, if the bag is even slightly heavy-feeling, double-bag it! Double-bagging, for non-Americans reading this blog (yeah, as far as I know, this is an American phenomenon), is when the bag of groceries is dropped into a second bag, so it essentially has 4 handles instead of 2 (this is usually to lift it from cart to car, then from garage to kitchen). Bring-your-own-bags is starting to catch on in the U.S., but it’s a relatively new phenomenon. After living in the UK where there are signs everywhere reminding us to help conserve the environment by using as few plastic bags as possible, I have developed an adverse reaction to double-bagging. So I need to remind myself to explain my odd anti-plastic predilection, apologetically, to the clerk as I tell them that one bag is enough, thank you, and it’d be great if they can actually fill the bag.
  • Target is an amazing store. I love it. No trip to the U.S. is complete without at least one trek to Target, where I stock up on toiletries, vitamins, plain t-shirts, sleepwear, socks, and other basics of everyday life. The items are affordable and practical, and best of all, I can find all my basic needs in one store. However, Target is HUGE. If I’m not careful, three hours later, I’ve barely selected my socks and nighty, and haven’t even set foot in the shampoo aisle. It’s overwhelming and when I go, I Must. Stay. On. Task.
  • Diet trends. Atkins, West Palm Beach, Weight Watchers… these comprise everyday vocabulary in the U.S.A. A lot of these diets are very good and effective, but when I travel across the pond, I have to remind myself what each of these diets is, and who is not eating what. Then I have a quick study to find out what the most recent foci of healthy living rhetoric are. Again, most of these trends are brilliant, don’t take me wrong. It’s just a lot of information to catch up on when I’ve been Somewhere Else for the last many months or years.

So, all that is to say, that now I’m back in London, and today I passed a Pret as I was walking. I saw this sign and realised that I am, indeed, back in the UK, a country where I don’t really belong but where, after living here a while, I kind of get how things work:

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  • mark and jennifer dougan

    Hi Kati,

    Thanks for stopping by my post “How a Singing Surgeon Shapes my Marriage.” Time together, physical touch, you’re right, it’s all so vital. Both for single and married people actually– it just looks differently of course.

    Hey, I see that you are a TCK! I lived overseas for years too, and recognize some of those cities. I lived in Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, and France mainly. My parents have been in Ougadougou though. Your notes on culture shock resonated with me from years ago, although I am now back in the US.

    I’m glad you stopped by,
    Jennifer Dougan
    http://www.jenniferdougan.com

    • Wow… that’s so cool that your parents have actually been to Ouaga! That’s not something I hear often. I find it very refreshing whenever I meet someone who has a clue what I’m talking about 😉 thanks for visiting!