Monday, July 26, 2010

La Vida Expatica #5: Reverse Culture Shock

My greatest fear upon relocating to California after nearly five years in Mozambique was that I would suffer from some wicked culture shock. I was afraid I'd have such a hard time adapting to life here that I'd become somewhat of a social outcast. In some ways, what I worried about came to pass - I do feel very, very different from most of my 'peers' here - but it's not depressing or anxiety-inducing or something I'm out to change. It just is.

My life's path has shaped me in a way that, while I've become the consummate chameleon and am able to adapt and fit in anywhere, it also means that I never really fit in anywhere at all. The best way to describe it, perhaps, is that I now feel slightly foreign in the US. And surprisingly, it doesn't really bother me at all (which was, in truth, what I really feared - being unhappy with the culture shock I might experience, not the culture shock itself).

Here are a few of the "differences" I've most noted about life in California - the positive and the negative:

- The postal system works reliably and for a reasonable price. Being able to send and receive mail with confidence is something very much appreciated.

- Everything is cheap. Food, clothing, shoes, electronics, entertainment, jewelry supplies, books - you name it. Prices are even better now that the wonderful world of online shopping is at my fingertips and immediately available.

- It's a bit of a 'returning from the developing world' cliché, but the variety and subsequent choices one is faced with as a consumer can be crippling. What brand of toothpaste to buy, what breakfast cereal to eat, what shade of lipstick to wear - I was so accustomed to not having much choice at all, I get overwhelmed quite easily when faced with all the lovely options here. Ironically, this is one of the reasons I love COSTCO so much - yes, it's a crowded warehouse where you buy a year's supply of toilet paper or whatever, but usually there are only one or two options per type of good. Want a 12-pack of canned tomatoes? Great, there is one kind available. Need shampoo? Choose a giant vat from generic Kirkland brand or a name-brand competitor.

- People frequently comment that I have an accent. Even now, nearly a year after we moved from Mozambique, I still get the questions. "But where are you from originally?"

- I love being able to be anonymous. Walk down the street, enter shops, drive the car, go work out, go to the movies...whatever. This place is so diverse you really have to try to get some attention.

- California knows how to embrace diversity, but judging from the young 'uns I've met at school, much is left to be desired in terms of embracing basic education. I do not mean to play into an 'uneducated Americans' stereotype, but it seems that much is lacking as far as math, reading, spelling and general culture go. I am increasingly appreciative of the education I had growing up, and of the education that is so appreciated in other places because it truly is the key to getting ahead.

- So much concrete. So many highways. So much urban development.

- The Bay Area is definitely a hot spot for liberal thinking, but I find myself amazed at how radical and uniformed much of said liberalism can be. Every time I see a 'Free Tibet' or 'Not on Our Watch' sticker it makes me want to let out a cynical laugh. I really want to ask the person who's plastered that on their car or house window if they truly know what's going on in those places, or if they've decided to support the cause because it seems the 'right' thing to do in the face of all the injustice happening in those oppressed, far-away countries.

- Even in this mecca of recycling and reuse, I am struck by how much is wasted. Ziploc baggies are used once and thrown away. Food is bought and left to waste in the refrigerator. Paper or plastic plates are used at parties, then tossed. I am not immune to the convenience of the trash can. It's a daily battle to wash the used Ziploc or wash the real plates instead of caving and using plastic. It's so easy to slip back into old habits. I'm not preachy about any of this, and I try not to judge. It sadly seems inevitable that there is a trade-off between conservation and convenience.

- People love their dogs like nowhere I've ever seen before. I feel like I'm missing an arm sometimes because we don't have a dog.

- Eggs are refrigerated here. Always. In store and at home. I wonder what peoples' reaction would be if they knew I've been eating room-temperature eggs for the last several years and never once got sick...

- It's really, really, really difficult to get on board with the health system here. I know this is a complex subject, but to someone who's just come from the "outside" and not had regular health insurance for quite a while, the system seems very messed up. I find it absurd that I can have a consultation with a dermatologist and they can't tell me up front how much it will cost, that I have to wait for weeks until the insurance company determines how much of this mystery amount they will cover, and then I am billed for the rest. We are transitioning to a different plan now, one with co-pays, so hopefully this will no longer be an issue. Still, how backwards! Also, I've yet to see a doctor who I truly believe cares about me or my affliction. It's all so impersonal, I feel very unmotivated to go get non-emergency medical attention because it seems I spend money for generic advice. I'm thankful we have doctors in Rico's family, because they are the ones I turn to when I'm feeling ill.

- Not exactly a news flash, but it's amazing how Spanish is truly the new universal language of the US. There's not a day that goes by without me hearing or speaking Spanish. It's the language of our kitchens, construction crews, shop attendants, bus drivers, social workers, teachers, house cleaners, city planners, small business owners, international executives. Shame mine is all muddled with Portuguese these days. :)

- Poor Brazil suffers from quite the heavy stereotyping here in the US. On multiple occasions, upon hearing I'm married to a Brazilian, women have asked me, "So, is he really hot?" Seriously! They all have the image of a samba-dancing, soccer-playing, dark and tan lover. I tell them, "Yes, my husband is hot, but not the way you imagine. He works in investment management and loves sailing and comes from a Portuguese family." They look at me like my answer does not compute.

- I really miss some of the little luxuries of life in Moz, namely having Dona Lídia do my ironing and go for shop runs to purchase milk and eggs, and having the building guards available to help me parallel park (the hand gestures showing which way I should turn the wheel were priceless!) and carry heavy loads up the stairs. On the other hand, I love having a Roomba. :)

These are a few of my observations. This list is incomplete and ever-evolving.

I'd love to hear the thoughts of expats who have recently relocated, be it to a third country or "home". Did you experience reverse culture shock? What were the aspects you found most challenging/entertaining/interesting?


Stacie said...

LOL..I have so many comments I don't know where to begin! On education...I completely agree. You could wrap your comments up with the lack of general awareness about the rest of the world in with your brilliant observation regarding the Free Tibet signs and such. So true!! I ate unrefrigerated eggs too in Asia and had no ill effects. There is not so much Spanish being spoken in East Tennessee, but I have trouble enough with the deep Appalachian accent!! The Health system is a joke. You are right about going to the doctor and knowing more about your affliction via the internet then you will ever learn from the medical professional you get stuck with. My experience is that all they know how to do is test for a myriad number of disease to cover their asses instead of concentrating on what thier clinical judgement offers. The waste here is just gross. I despise Wal-Mart which is the anchor of most small towns in America. Our country is so dumbed down, filled with good, but ignorant people. Times are a 'changin though. I think the Depression will change a lot of attidudes, and this will be a good thing in the long run. Americans got toooooo lazy in their thinking and their general attidude. World competition for goods, services and jobs will quickly sharpen our senses again,,,,that is my hope.

sayama said...

Ha! I like the comment about your samba dancing, soccer playing husband. The same stereotypes exist in Ireland. My male friends didn't understand that Rodrigo wasn't so much into soccer, and the girls all assumed he could introduce them to salsa??(yes, they even got that wrong).

Ali la Loca said...

~Stacie - I hope times are a changin' too. This recession has been tough for so many people, it would be great to think there is a silver lining of increased competitiveness and appreciation of education and skills.

I find Wal-Mart amazing. On the surface, it makes me feel ill, but I am interested in their business model and their humble origins. I wonder if Sam Walton ever imagined Wal-Mart would be one of the most-hated companies in America?

~Sayama - Yes, the salsa stereotype is one we get frequently as well. And Spanish. Doesn't help that I'm from New Mexico. People often are very, very confused as to why we don't speak Spanish, since I'm from MEXICO and Ricardo is clearly LATINO. Ha!