Wednesday, May 6, 2015

That Time I Cried for 1,004 Miles - a Tale of Reverse Culture Shock

When I was twenty years-old, I went to India for the summer. The day I came back was a day that still serves as a shining example of my international traveling prowess, a testament to the fact that I have spent my whole life roaming around the world. And by that I mean, it was a catastrophe, but a catastrophe that can be used as a funny story, as well as a good illustration.

It had been three months since I left bright eyed and bushy tailed. You would not think three months would be long enough to enact reverse culture shock, but it was.

"What's reverse culture shock?" Glad you asked! (Caveat: this answer is just my opinion).

We all know what culture shock is. You are in a new country, you feel bad about being unintentionally insulting with your shoes, you are pretty certain you just ate dog, and are positive you are about to die in a fiery traffic accident. It's equal parts exciting and overwhelming. And, oh, that magical feeling when you have your first moment of getting it right or feeling competent. The taxi took you to the right place! The food delivered is what you ordered! Glorious.

But, then you go "home." The place you have never had to work hard at interacting with and doing life is natural. It does not cross your mind that reentry will be hard. You are just excited to eat Taco Bell and stand in the shampoo aisle at Target. But... it's hard. Really hard. You feel uncomfortable and you miss your new "home." You feel overwhelmed with how life is done. Why are there so many shampoo options? Why does community operate so differently? Why is this hard?

It sucks. Home isn't suppose to be hard. What the crap.

Side note, I am not talking about super long term work here. I was raised in Eastern Asia and was told my whole life that the United States was my home. I went home for the first time when I was four, and didn't quite get it. But I am also not Japanese, so I never quite fit there either. My favorite illustration is (which I can't take credit for) that my "home" country (my parents' country of origin) is red, the country I was raised in is blue, so I'm purple. Purple does not completely match blue or red, so there is no one place that I feel totally comfortable. Reverse culture shock is EXTREMELY relevant to my story and other third culture kids (and adults), but it is more expected. Many people can relate to crying in the cereal aisle of Walmart because there's too many options and staring at a cashier because you have no idea how to count out 72 cents of change. It is NOT as expected if you are gone for 3 months, 6 months, 1 year, which is where this story comes in.

SO! To set the scene. My flight leaving India left at midnight and was 15 hours long. I do not sleep on planes, so when I land in Chicago, I am TIRED. When I started my trip I was excited to go home. When I get off the plane I feel drained and confused.

I start tearing up pretty much right away. SO MUCH SKIN. India is very conservative, especially the part I was in, and I felt brazen just showing my hair. I can see butt cheeks! Why is everyone so nekkid?? ACK.

Mental pep talk. It's fine. I know shorts are fine. It's all goooooood. You got this. Skin is just skin. 

I then get in line to go through customs. While I was in India, I learned to stash toilet paper in my purse whenever we found it, because that is not a given. My purse had four large side pockets, and all four were searched by the customs official. All four were full of pink toilet paper. I stood there while he slowly pulled out approximately seventeen roles of toilet paper.

Ziiippppp. Pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull.

Ziiippppp. Pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull.

Ziiippppp. Pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull.

Ziiippppp. Pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull pull.

About twenty minutes later I look at him over the mountain of toilet paper, still on the verge of tears, and start stuffing it back into my purse. There's really nothing I can say to explain why I have so much TP.

I wander off to the food court, with a trail of pink toilet paper, and go straight to McDonalds. I have been dreaming of a cheeseburger for three months. Burger, burger, burger, burger. All I want is a burger. If I eat a burger, it will be okay. BURGER BURGER BURGER.

"Sorry miss, it's 6:30 in the morning. We aren't serving cheeseburgers."

I. Lose. It. I start crying. No. I start weeping and wailing and gnashing my teeth. I'm snorting and shaking and dripping everywhere. Everyone is staring. I start pulling my pink toilet paper out of my purse to try and sop up all the fluids. I sit on the floor. I don't think the Chicago airport food court has ever known silence like that which surrounded me.

I take my armful of TP and go to my gate, sobbing the whole way. I get on the plane, swollen eyes, still crying. I weep the WHOLE plane ride. I'm sitting by two very uncomfortable preteens, poor kids.
I still have tears streaming down my face when my parents pick me up, go home, and cry myself to sleep.

Reverse culture shock. It's a bitch.

The plus side is it alleviates. You tell your story, until people are ready to put you back on a plane. You get to Taco Bell. Or get a McDonald's cheeseburger. You feel more like the old you. But, the beautiful thing is, the new you and the old you becoming one. You are still who you were, but you are changed for the better. Traveling is so enriching, especially when you can go for more than a few weeks. But, oh, beware of how deeply you'll be impacted. For the good, for the bad, for all the toilet paper.

Have you experienced reverse culture shock? What was it like for you?