On Culture Shock

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September 12th 2008
Published: September 12th 2008
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Chilling in the countryChilling in the countryChilling in the country

It's rough. Really high stress.
Spending seven months on the road has had some effects on my perception of reality and expectations of situational outcomes. This helped me adjust to and enjoy the various cultures I encountered, which I find to be the biggest reward to traveling. However, returning to the U.S. threw me through a loop in the most unexpected of ways. I thought I would share some of my thoughts and experiences of the culture shock I've experienced over the last month with a few random (old) photos of home.

Using dollars is weird. I don't have to do on the spot conversions in my head when I'm buying things anymore. I'm used to doing long division each time I buy something to know the effect on my budget. Not doing so anymore really took some time to get used to. Also, the shape of a dollar bill is a bit off. They are long and narrow compared to other currency; they look as awkward as a six-foot, fourteen year old, red head with pimples. And, they are incredibly drab compared to other currencies. The U.S. started recently printing in multi-color, making the money look slightly better, but, I still have qualms with it (of course). The base color is still pine green and now we've thrown pink and purple on top. Really? Pine green and purple? Not even Prince could pull that off. U.S. Mint: Please fire the colorblind account that designed these things.

People have change! I was getting into a cab with my friend Jon the second night I was in Chicago and asked if he had exact change, cause I didn't. He laughed, having gone through he same cultural transition a few years ago, and replied, "Don't worry. The cab driver will have change." This is completely bizarre. Getting change has been like pulling teeth for the last four months. Every ATM gives large bills and when you pay using them, shop owners loath you. Seriously. They look at you as though you are the spawn of satan. They demand smaller bills, or say they can't make change for you. It can be middle of the day, customers left and right are giving them handfuls of small bills, and they will claim not to have change. Many times they're just trying to rip you off, other times they simply don't have it, but either way it makes you feel like your head is going to spin off the planet.

No one yells at me on the streets. Everywhere I went while abroad people would yell, "Hello, friend!" in attempts to attract my business. Taxis, food vendors, hotel touts, shopkeepers, street people, anyone would hunt me down from the street to get my attention. Even random people would just come up to say hello, ask me where I was from, maybe ask me to get them a visa to the U.S. Ben once got asked randomly "How many women have you romanced?" That was a bit weird. You don't get those shouts from randoms here. Although, I did walk into a McD's on return, they messed up my order, and, upon leaving, a homeless man yelled something about the apocalypse at me. I smiled. It felt normal.

Food service industry. I don't even know where to begin, and I don't mean that in the trite, coy way. I seriously could write seven pages on this. About 90%!o(MISSING)f my humorous anecdotes from traveling involve being at a restaurant. Get Ben, Darren and I into a room together and we can start rambling off experiences left and right. Food taking 2 to 3 hours and going to a convenience store and bringing snacks to each meal; ordering and waiting for tea for thirty minutes, being asked to order again, saying we'll just leave instead, then being told they already know our order and it showed up a few minutes later (why are we asked to order again?!?); only being able to get hot milk as if room temperature (forget cold, I would have settled for room temp) milk didn't exist; and, who could forget, waiters lighting our bill on fire and bringing us ashes. The three of us could go on, and have gone on, for hours about things that just make your brain hurt. At home things happen as you expect them to; it is no longer an adventure getting food. I kind of miss it, but not too much.

Cell Phones. What the heck happened while I was away? Did everyone lose their bloody minds here? I mean, did everyone get completely addicted to their iPhones and Blackberrys? What the heck is BBMing? Who thought that was a good idea? I thought it was weird being in the most remote spots and seeing people I never thought I would see using cells. Masaii warriors in the middle of the Serengeti on cells, monks in remote Laos jungles on their phones, even porters on the top of Kili calling up their friends from 15,000 feet. It was bizarre. But you know what is more bizarre? Getting home and seeing people spending more time texting than they do talking to other people. You can be at dinner with people and all of a sudden they start having a texting conversation with others and completely ignore you. Did face-to-face interactions and common courtesy completely fall out of fashion? Have I gone crazy? I know I'm old school when it comes to cells (mine still doesn't have a camera on it), but people, really ?

Home. Everyone kept asking me how it felt to be "home" as soon as I landed in the U.S. "What's it like being home?" "When did you get home?" "How long are you home?" To be honest, I didn't really know how to answer them as I don't know what "home" is. I don't have a place of my own, I haven't in nearly eight months, I won't for another six. Even when I was at my childhood house in Neenah, Wisconsin, I didn't feel at "home." For the last seven years I had been "visiting" when I was there and I felt like I was "visiting" for the last few weeks too. I figured that "home" was the road I had grown used to, and, in part, I was right; after all, I experienced culture shock for that particular reason. I miss the randomness and unpredictability of being on the road in cultures besides my own. That is what feels normal.

Then I visited my friends in Madison, the city I had most recently lived in for a few years. Suddenly I was sitting in my friends' living rooms, eating at the same restaurants, I knew the streets, and I knew how to get around the city. Emotions came rushing back from wherever I had lost them. I felt that this was the feeling I had been missing; this was the feeling people expected me to describe when they were asking, "How does it feel to be home?" I had only been in Madison for a short while, but these were the small things I did each week that I missed while constantly on the road. Eating sushi and laughing with friends; drinking beers at the same old bars with the same people; sitting on a comfortable couch watching American football; having food delivered to your door while playing video games; simply knowing your surroundings and knowing what the next day will bring. It gets boring, and it is what pushed me onto the road in the first place, but it is also what made me feel at home. I don't know why, but it just did.

I can't help but wonder what really defines the concept of home. I always found the proverbs "Home is where you hang your hat." and "Home is where the heart is." to be completely inane. I still do. They sound like something Forrest Gump would answer with a "Mamma always said..." followed by another riddle about chocolates or shoes. It is an answer that is different for everyone, but being back in the Midwest for a few months made me realize that, for me, the answer is somewhere in the middle. I can feel at home

This is the beauty of the Midwest. Lakes and water sports galore.
on the road; I am completely comfortable jumping hotel rooms, talking with strangers, figuring out new cities, and having the most bizarre of encounters (see "Food Service Industry"). That becomes the norm and becomes comfortable. I've started to miss these things. I want that craziness in my life again. But, I know when I'm back out there, I'll get to missing the comforts, friends, and family that somehow creates my definition of "home." The food you try out in all these countries is amazing, but it isn't those few dishes my mom used to make when I was younger and constantly crave. I can get to know a city well fairly quickly, but I don't know the side street dive bars and out of the way restaurants I enjoy. The friends I make on the road are great people I'll always keep in touch with, but they aren't my family and they aren't the life-long friends I've made over the years. The road creates things I miss, which is part of the culture shock of going home; but in the end the things I miss the most are the things that make up that ambiguous, amorphous concept of "home."
Huge BuckHuge BuckHuge Buck

Random stuff on the side of the road...

That said, I already have the itch to travel. The road will always call me back. I can't stay still for that long. The world is too big with too many places I want to see and get to know. I'm ready for five months of South America.

Additional photos below
Photos: 13, Displayed: 13


Who would think that would look good.
Only in WiscoOnly in Wisco
Only in Wisco

With my friend Eric Bronstein, who will be traveling South America with me.
Cheese: It's what we doCheese: It's what we do
Cheese: It's what we do

Notice the "Fine Art" sold there? How fine do you think it really is?
Eric at the Lienie Lodge!Eric at the Lienie Lodge!
Eric at the Lienie Lodge!

Brewery of the Northwoods. Delicious.

12th September 2008

south america. i'd love to spend a couple years there. seems to me a perfect place to retire and surf. looking forward to seeing you again before you leave.

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