#124 Reverse Culture Shock
by Danielopus who blogs at sobrelasdunas
The common person believes that the worst culture shock an EAW suffers is in the field. Wrong. True EAWs only fully grasp the meaning of their EAW status when they go home.
For days, weeks, months or years, the EAW dreams about that trip home: cheese and chocolate, comforts, cold weather, a good coffee, a nice shower, family and friends. Unfortunately, once the plane hits the tarmac, the humble EAW will face a myriad of challenges and frustrations.
Those immigration agents who were so nice to you and your “mission order” in the Third World? Now they are now skeptical of your dirty, paranoid, just-came-back-from-a-warzone look. Your passport is filled with visas from countries that have 1) just been created, 2) disappeared while you were away, or 3) your (un)friendly agent didn’t know existed. His hunch that you are an international drug dealer in disguise means that you spend your first 2 hours “home” trying to prove your innocence, your patriotism, and your nationality.
You finally get through immigration. But there is no friendly driver holding a sign with your name. No organization vehicle with white flags. The local guys wanting to help you with your luggage are nowhere in sight. Not to mention that it’s damn cold. Your “Hawaianas”, shorts, t-shirt and sunglasses are not the best outfit anymore. You’ve dodged terrorist threats, tropical diseases, food poisoning, and marriage proposals, yet you now fear death by freezing.
You find a cab and lapse into a friendly banter with the taxi driver about his family and kids, health, work, life, weather, soccer. You realize he thinks you are a weirdo for talking so much. He drives like crazy, zig-zagging the streets to drop you off ASAP.
Arriving home to your parents’ house, they have prepared your old room by filling it up with all your toys from the 80s – that’s if you are lucky. You might just get the old living room couch. Worse, you might arrive back to the apartment you left 6 months ago and there is more dust than the one you just left in the Sahara desert, more garbage than in any Third World country street and less public services than in Haiti. You have forgotten to pay for water, gas, Internet, TV, and telephone. You have to clean your own clothes, prepare your own food, and worst of all, make your own bed. Oh no, it’s like slavery, capitalist style.
You rush to recover your personal cell phone and compulsively call all of your friends, but their tight personal agendas mean you won’t be seeing anyone until next summer. In the meantime, you learn via Facebook about all the parties, weddings, and birthdays, you were not invited to because you were supposed to be in the middle of nowhere. Well, at least your family hasn’t let you down. You are excited about the big dinner your mother or grandmother is organizing for your great return, with real, home cooked home town food. Unfortunately they’ve chosen an exotic [country you just returned from]n restaurant to celebrate. Argh! Well it doesn’t matter anyway, considering that 2 weeks after arriving home you are still feeling terrible from whatever you picked up ‘back there’. All those Western doctors with their laboratory tests and fancy high tech can’t seem to figure out what is wrong with you. You keep telling them that it’s malaria plus [common parasite ‘over there’ that is unknown to Western doctors] but they refuse to give you medication until they are sure.
You’ve spent the last year locked inside a huge summer house/bunker, with guards outside and big fences protecting you from the hostile external environment. You are used to asking permission to buy a telephone card and always going everywhere accompanied. Now you have to face terrifying daily chores like taking out the garbage, getting groceries, walking to the subway, buying the newspaper almost 2 blocks away without any security! No Motorola handset, no Thuraya satellite phone, no white flags. You are totally alone!
Ah, but at least there is work to fall back on. As always, for security reasons you wait till the sun rises to go out, but strangely you are the first one at work (so weird, there is nobody at the office at 7 am). You turn on the fan and the air conditioning even when it’s 0°C both in and outside. You put a couple of water bottles in the freezer for later. Then you realize you are on the 10th floor of NY, London, Paris or Geneva.
Prices are something else you do not understand. Why does a beer cost 8 dollars? Or a ticket for a movie 15 Euros? You keep calculating how many houses you could rent back there for the same ridiculous price you are now paying for 200 square feet, or how many kids you could feed with the money spent on your welcome back party. You hear everyone complain about the cost of living, but you seem to be the only one concerned about all the uneaten food going straight to the garbage because it was rather… meh.
“Enlightened” by your “experience,” you saw “reality,” you saw “people dying,” you are familiar with such abstract stuff as “war,” “refugees,” “jet lag,” and “NATIVES”… Everybody expects you to share all that, but they don’t want details. They want the funny stereotypes about other cultures and countries. So the more cynic and superficial your approach, the bigger the applause.
On the other hand, you are truly frightened about your friends’ REAL problems — like their new smart phone that cannot download a specific application for playing X game online, or the time it took them last Wednesday to get to work because of the street demonstration led by the association of retired people, or that the gas price is going up and up so much they have already considered the option of using a bike (haha, joking! they would never actually ride a bike), or that they just fired their last housemaid because she was lazy, or worst of all, that their hairdresser just canceled their absolutely urgent appointment.
It strikes you. This is why a real EAW will go back to the field. As soon as possible. Because something has changed. The place they used to call home is no longer the cozy, comfortable, easy-going, friendly and cheap place it was.