Culture shock!?!? Everyone keeps asking us and wondering about the level of culture shock we are having. Two years of being in some very foreign countries the expectation is that we would be having issues about being back. Lots of people seem to like using our return as an excuse to rag on the US reminding us of the things we dislike – the commercialism, consumerism, materialism, shallowness of TV and news programming, racism, etc (lots of -isms). While at some level these things are a part of the American culture but despite that our culture shock has been surprisingly small.
We have been living in some rough conditions for so long that at this point we are mostly just enjoying the ease of being back and living in the United States. We have nice houses that we are staying at (visiting family) with comfortable beds. The electricity is always on and our plugs work without needing an adapter or series of adapters. When we take a shower we don't have to first check that there is hot water (or that the water is running at all).
We like that we don't have to think about food or water. Ice water at a restaurant or out of the tap can be guzzled without fear. Grocery stores are like giant playgrounds. In Malawi we would have to go to three different stores and the local farmers vegetable market to get all of our food supplies for the week. In SE Asia there were mostly only 7-11 type mini-marts and most people would go out to eat since it was so cheap. Even in Europe the grocery stores tended to be smaller with not as much of a selection. We are finding going into an American supermarket is a dangerous proposition. Things we had forgotten about or haven't had access to are rapidly piled into the cart. The quantity and variety of foods are amazing after you haven't seen it for a couple of years. It does seem ridiculous at times – does there really need to be 3 or 4 different varieties of Fruit Loops? At the same time we are not complaining about all the new flavor of chocolate that exist now that we have never seen. On top of the incredible selection we are also blown away by the prices. Everything is so cheap compared to where we have been with the exception of alcohol. Africa was surprisingly expensive which is why in Malawi most people only eat Nsima (corn porridge) and local vegetables that they can grow. Even with the favorable exchange rate Europe was still pricey. Only in SE Asia was food cheaper.
When we go to restaurants we are still getting used to the size of the portions here again. In Thailand we would order 3 entrees each (for a total of $3 to $6) in order to get enough to eat. Here one serving could last for 3 meals. In restaurants, like the grocery store, the variety and selection is at times overwhelming. In most of the world you get what you get. In Vietnam there were some times when we had no idea of what we were ordering and just hoped that there would not be a beak or foot involved when it showed up on the table. Here they ask you if you want corn, flour, or gluten free tortillas. You can have chicken, beef, pork, sirloin, barbacoa, or tofu. Do you want Coke, Diet Coke, Coke Zero, or Cherry Coke? It's crazy at times!
Another big difference about being back is traffic. In the US for the most part everyone drives in an orderly manner and tends to follow the rules. In Germany you didn't go in the left lane of the Autobahn if there was a car within ½ mile of you because they were going well over 100mph and would be on top of you within seconds. In other parts of the world traffic lights are more like recommendations and a two lane road easily becomes 3 or 4 lanes if people want to pass. We are still getting used to driving on the right side of the road. Most of the countries we drove in (except Germany) drive on the left side. We still find ourselves trying to get into the wrong side of the car. A pleasant bonus of being back is that gas is dirt cheap. The price of gas in the USA is 50% to 75% cheaper then the other places we were. Most of the world pays between $6 and $10 a gallon. As pedestrians we have noticed that you can walk out into a crosswalk and expect the cars to stop. No guarantees but that is the expectation. Anywhere else in the world and you would be run down. Many people ride bikes around the world. In many countries that is the only transportation they can afford but even in Europe everyone rides their bike around town. In the US almost everyone wears a helmet. In Europe almost nobody wears one.
A few nights ago at dinner we were talking about schools. In Malawi when we visited a classroom there would be 150 kids in the room with no electricity or desks. They sit on the floor crammed side to side. When we would enter the class they would all stand up and in unison say “Hello Viz-E-Tor! Welcome Viz-E-Tor! How are you Viz-E-Tor?” My brother Tom laughed at this and said that in the US we teach our kids in school STRANGER DANGER!!!! In the US we definitely don't see 5 year old girls taking care of the newborn baby with no adults in sight like we would in Africa, Nepal, and SE Asia.
Being back in America the biggest difference we are seeing boils down to convenience. Life here is easier then the other parts of the world we have seen. Things are available, abundant, and cheap. It is a reminder of how lucky we scored on the birth lottery ticket to have been born where we were which has given us the life opportunities we have had. At this point I would say that I am having less of a culture shock and more of a Give Thanks reminder. We have a lot to be Thankful for. By going away it has really given me a better perspective on how good a life we have here.