Crowded in Corridors of Cornfields: Reverse Culture Shock

Cornfields buried under snow on a record-breaking cold day: the low was -14, and at the time I took this picture, it was hovering around 0.

The first Facebook post I wrote when I returned home was this:

Thursday, I was up for 24 hours straight, only able to sleep for half an hour on the trans-Atlantic flight from Dublin to Dulles. Landing in Indy didn’t seem real. Yesterday, I opened (or tossed) 51 pieces of mail, used a hair dryer for the first time in nearly 16 months, and went to the final High School home football game. I’ve got a list going of things I haven’t seen in over a year, and there are American words that I’ve forgotten. I don’t think I have an accent, but I did say “Sweet as!” this morning in reply to something about breakfast. I went to the grocery store with Dad and found candy corn, marshmallows, Twizzlers and peach rings. We also found a sign that said “Kiwi’s,” but sadly there were none around. There was only kiwifruit. Now I’m eating a Bridge Fest buried beef sandwich. The leaves are changing, the colt is bigger than I remember him to be, and man is it good to be home.

I didn’t know it then, but those experiences when I first arrived home were some of my first incidents of reverse culture shock.

Reverse culture shock occurs when a traveler has returned home and has to readjust to the culture in which he or she grew up. I had lived in a place where peach rings and candy corn did not exist, so it was wonderful seeing them in the American grocery store. It was also confusing, because it meant foods I had enjoyed in New Zealand, like muesli, Whittaker’s chocolate, and R.J.’s licorice, were not on the shelves.

I started making a list of all the times I was startled in my own country, instances of reverse culture shock (the first two actually occurred before I arrived back home). Some are surface level and didn’t bother me much. Others struck deep…and still do.

Reverse Culture Shock Occurrences

  1. Reserving a hostel room via an American site, which showed nearly two dollars in taxes tacked on at the end so that the price I saw when choosing the room was not what I paid in the end. (In NZ and several other countries I visited, general sales tax is included in the price.)
  2. Finding health insurance costs significantly higher with worse deductibles.
  3. Riding as a passenger on the right side of the truck and sincerely believing for split seconds at a time that we were going to crash into another vehicle because we were driving on the wrong side of the road.
  4. Going to Walmart. One store is bigger than an entire mall in Christchurch.
  5. The price on the tag in a store or on the menu in a restaurant is not what is paid. Tax is added at the end, so extra change is always needed to account for this.
  6. Adjusting recipes back to American measurements. My banana bread doesn’t taste the same here as it did in New Zealand.
  7. Sticks of butter. This was something I was looking forward to, yet when I opened the box for butter, I was still startled to find four sticks instead of one block.
  8. Adjusting back to food. I hadn’t eaten American Midwestern meals for so long and I’d had to acclimate to so much other food so that I could survive (I’m especially thinking of the Philippines, where I had trouble with the food) that I’ve needed to rediscover my food balance. Something like that….
  9. My hometown of 100 people feels crowded.
  10. Lights of nearby towns eclipse the stars.
  11. I was standing in the kitchen of my new house, trying to decide where to put my decorative Clydesdale plates. I thought, I could put them on top of my cabinets. But immediately after that, I thought, No, I shouldn’t do that because when there’s an earthquake, they’ll fall off. (Indiana is not known for earthquakes, although small tremors occur every few years.) I still feel like there are earthquakes whenever somebody is moving around and shakes the floor or table, or I’m in the kitchen and feel the floor shake from movement from the clothes dryer in the next room. Sometimes, I tense up and get ready to dive under a table (even though I never had to do that in New Zealand).
  12. 2018 will be the first time in three years I’ll experience all four seasons in one year. (In 2016, my seasons were winter, spring, one day of summer, winter, spring, summer. In 2017, my seasons were summer, autumn, winter, Equator hot, summer, autumn, winter.)
  13. I stuck my hand in four or five inches of snow and said, “Argh, that’s cold!” I had forgotten snow is cold.

Crowded in My Own Hometown

#9 and 10 are related, and they have been the worst reverse culture shocks, the ones that strike the deepest. The lights intrude on a sense of being out in the country because I can see lights from town and can’t see the vast expanses of stars of which I stood in awe in the rural areas of New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, and Scotland. In those places, there was a sense of peace and truly being away from it all. There was space to breathe.

Here, the lights make it feel crowded, even though town is still several miles away. I shield my eyes from bright security lights while trying to star gaze. I can see my neighbors, half a mile away. In other country’s rural areas, I couldn’t see others because of hills, gentle porch lights, or even just the isolation.

I also feel closed in by the trees. Woodlands surround the town and the farm, cutting off the line of sight. Many of my travels took me to places where I could see for miles.

And looking at the math, New Zealand has a population of 4.7 million across approximately 104,000 square miles. Indiana’s population is 6.6 million across 36,420 square miles. The United States has a population of 323.1 million over 3.8 million square miles.

This feeling of being crowded in my own hometown has never happened before, and it’s a stark contrast to how I felt my first couple of weeks home, when I could breathe. I’ve always felt like I was getting away from it all when I came home. I liked being back in the woods. I could see myriads of stars…I thought.

This new sense of claustrophobia has been discouraging.

And yet.

On New Year’s Eve, the full moon gave a bright blue glow to the four or five inches of crunchy snow covering the ground. In the deepest hours of the night, light shone as mid-day.

That’s something I didn’t see in New Zealand.

And truly, my sense of home and place in my corner of this beautiful planet is much stronger than it was before I left.

All I need to do is navigate this new world of reverse culture shock.

But that’s a conversation for next time….


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