Reverse Culture Shock: A Bucket of Cold Water in the Face

ny_staples.jpg Exciting, uncomfortable, inspiring, and totally discombobulating. Such is the experience of coming home from the World.


Exciting, uncomfortable, inspiring, and totally discombobulating. Such is the experience of coming home from the World.

One afternoon, while sorting through another box of pre-trip papers, I come across a guide to Reverse Culture Shock, a stapled document clumped with a bunch of handouts from one of the international organizations I’ve worked for. It graphs the “Re-Entry W-Curve” as a roller coaster ride between “euphoria, anxiety, rejection, adjustment, euphoria, rejection, and adjustment.” I’d say the re-entry experience is more of a simultaneous mish-mash of these things, a confounding condition much more difficult to describe graphically than the W-curve. Still, it’s nice to see the anonymous author’s effort if only as a reminder that this, too, shall pass.


Having done this before, I find the best cure for reverse culture shock (besides patience) is to fight fire with fire; or, sticking to the bucket analogy, water with water. That’s why I like to walk through Time Square on a weekend at midnight. The intense, throbbing bizarreness of Manhattan at its most manic is, for me, a reminder of how crazy the world is as well as cause to ask, why does it matter where on the planet you are, or where you’ve come back to, or where you’ve been?

The shock itself is old news to me, but there is no denying it, even after the 10th time you’ve come home from abroad. There are the standard reactions to excess and waste, comparisons between East and West, angry bouts of righteousness, usually featuring variations on the ever-popular, “these people have no idea how fortunate they are.” There are also supermarket shelf-shock, gas-pumping epiphanies, and the confounding sight of so many Hummers patrolling suburbia.

There is the New York Times, read on my parents’ tree-shrouded wooden deck, fresh-brewed coffee and perfect serenity as all the places I’ve just been pepper the headlines, lined up in neat black columns as evidence that the world is burning—out there: “Sri Lanka Blast Kills Bodyguard and a 3-year-old.” “Floods Devastate Areas of India and Pakistan.” On and on. The 16 countries we visited do not sound as peaceful and appealing as we found them when appearing in the front sections of the newspaper, and in the Travel Section, they are strange, flowery fictions: “Chiang Mai, a Hippie Hideaway, Goes Upscale” and “Idyllic Zanzibar Languishes Unvisited.”

So wherein lies real reality? Is it found in the experience of going to see the film, World Trade Center and, in the coming attractions, being shown advertisements for both SUVs and the US National Guard? Nope. How bout in purchasing discounted $52 running shoes in a cavernous outlet store, Asic Gels made in China, swipe the plastic, refuse the bag, sit down with dizziness? Not there either. What about in the five-year anniversary of our own world burning, the empty pits at Ground Zero where tourists stare through the fence and wonder how to react? There, at least, I find others as disconcerted as myself.


One day, I deal with the shock of our over-consuming culture by consuming as little as possible, not spending a dime, eating small, simple meals, keeping the television turned off. Another day, I indulge in everything I am offered, a different experiment. Maybe I’ll see what happens if I wear my Pakistani shulwar-kameez, ragged beard, and Muslim skull cap into the city, my quiet contribution to Fashion Week. What kind of culture shock will that be?

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