“And you are from Aleppo”

“Problems that arise with adjusting to a different culture have frequently been referred to as ‘culture shock.’  This phenomenon is usually precipitated by the anxiety which results from the sudden loss of familiar surroundings.  One experiences frustration and irritation as one constantly finds one’s ‘natural’ way of behaving to be in conflict with that of the host country.”

– Excerpt from my “Volunteer Abroad Program Handbook” from Cross Cultural Solutions

I spent this past weekend in Boston with people I love, both of whom had also recently moved back to the United States from abroad.  They drowned me in love, pumpkin spice tea, fondue, laughter, and crunchy leaves.  But there is still a slow-burning ember of resentment inside me that I am ashamed to admit exists.  I don’t really want to be here.

We went out to brunch on Saturday morning to a diner owned by a Syrian family.  Naturally, we ordered mountains of french toast, eggs, coffee, and bacon, ready to enjoy the heart-attack-on-a-plate breakfasts we’d missed overseas.

When I ordered my omelette, the waiter did a double-take.  “Wow!  You look just like my cousin!  Same eyes, same face, same shape.  Everything… Wow!”

We all laughed and chatted about his home country, which he was visibly happy to do.  He told us his cousin lived in Aleppo.

“Aleppo?  Beautiful city.  But not now.  Now?  There is no Aleppo.”  He swiped his hand through the air in front of him, as if leveling off a surface.  “Nothing.  Destroyed.”

He asked us where we were from.  Cincinnati.  Thessaloniki.  My turn came and before I could answer “New Jersey,” he said, “And you are from Aleppo!”

I googled Aleppo later that day to see where my more exotic doppelganger was from, and the first page of images were all of death and destruction.  Rubble, broken bodies of children, and automatic weapons.  I gulped down my vanity and felt guilty for relishing my potential Syrian-ness.

Clearly I am American.  I was born here.  I can name all our presidents backwards and forwards sans Google (at least I could in fourth grade).  I attended public school and saluted the flag every morning.  I am grateful for my freedom, my education, and my passport.

So why do I feel so un-American now that I’ve returned?

Regular old “culture shock” seems like a much more legitimate condition than “reverse culture shock.”   The latter smacks of self-pity, #firstworldproblems, etc.  It’s to be expected that an American might struggle to adapt to life in a less developed country (“what do you mean I can’t flush my toilet paper??”).  But the reverse problem?  Suck it up, vacation is over.

I felt so chic whenever someone told me I didn’t seem/look/act American during my travels, like I’d suddenly transformed into a more exotic, interesting version of myself.  But as the grandchild of immigrants, I have to appreciate my citizenship.  I know how many people struggle just to get here to give their children and grandchildren the chance to be Americans.

So is it alright to not want to live in the most privileged nation on earth?  To not want fourteen side-dishes with my brunch?  To shudder at the sight of strip-malls?  Maybe this is just temporary “reverse culture shock” talking, and I’ll get over it in a few weeks.  It might just be the naïve notion that the exotic and foreign is always more glamorous.  An extreme case of “the grass is always greener”.

In Aleppo, at least, I know it’s not.  There, the grass is scorched.  And somewhere, a woman who looks like me is probably wishing she were in my seat, eating a big omelette on an outdoor patio and laughing with her cousin.  I hope she is safe.

22 comments

  1. I don’t think it’s wrong to not want to be there, hun. I mean, that’s kind of why I left the UK. Yes, the UK is a white, western nation that has it’s problems but I couldn’t take the materialism, the vanity, the absolute inability to really connect with each other, the horrible money-driven/consumerist/capitalist society.

    I didn’t feel like those things were really important and when I came here where family and relationships are an incredible priority, it felt right.

    Chin up, sweetie. There’ll be other places very soon.

  2. Wow!!! Exactly! You know how we get told that thing about how u have to know the bitter to taste the sweet? Thats how we stay really alive? Well…you are VERY alive!!!! And i know u wouldnt have it any other way! Have a great day! Go cruise a strip mall and eat taco bell to celebrate!!

  3. Wow! Great! You know how you hear all the time that u have to taste the bitter to know the sweet? Its what keeps us feeling alive. Well…you are VERY alive. Ill bet if u had a chance you wouldnt change a thing!!!! Im glad i read this today!! Kimi.

  4. I hear you loud and clear. I moved between the UK and the US multiple times over a period of six years, and there was always a period of ‘I don’t want to be here’ every time I went back to the states. That doesn’t mean I didn’t love seeing my friends & family and certain places and appreciated the comforts and convenience of my middle-class existence, but I felt less and less connected to mainstream American culture. Yet I’m very much defined by my American-ness in the UK. It’s a divide I’ll be straddling for a long time.

    Thank you for sharing your story about the waiter and his cousin. I hope she’s safe too. I actually just saw some pictures of Aleppo on the news last night, which ,are as heartbreaking as you’d expect.

    • Thanks Rachel, I’m glad I’m not the only one! I do think it’s possible to be grateful for the privileges we’ve had here in the US and also take issue with “mainstream American culture,” as you said. As a friend recently said to me, “I just don’t feel that our country of origin or residence is what defines us in life. Often, far from it.” I think it’s freeing, actually. Because we’ve seen our own country with the eyes of outsiders, we’re better equipped to decide which elements of its culture fit with our beliefs and which ones don’t.

  5. This year, my winter holiday was on Niue, a small South Pacific island. My accommodation was self-catering, so I checked before I went about what food to take. When I learnt that eggs cost twice as much as they did in New Zealand, I decided to take eggs with me.
    When I got there, I was so pleased I did, because there weren’t eggs at any price in the local shops. Foodstuffs either come on the monthly boat, or on the weekly plane (hence the expense). Niue had run out of the imported ones, and only locals who had hens had eggs. Other people staying at the same motel were envious of my eggs, and said it never occurred to them that they wouldn’t be able to buy something so basic.
    It was a quick lesson in how fortunate I am to live in a place where there is food in ample quantity and variety, and how easy it is to take my lifestyle for granted.

    • Thanks for sharing this story, Denise. You’re right, we shouldn’t take for granted how fortunate we are to live in more developed nations, where food, (hopefully) healthcare, and education are accessible. This is the root of my confusion at the moment, trying to figure out what it is that draws me away from the States. Curiosity? Adventure? Is it something I could replicate here at home if I tried hard enough? Time will tell.

  6. Great post Meghan! I hate to say it but I get this culture shock every single time I come home from an overseas trip, even if it was only for a week. Travel opens our minds and is so much more interesting than the normal routine!

    • Thanks Nicole, I get the same feeling after short trips as well! It is much more interesting than the normal routine, which is why I don’t want to confuse “more interesting” with “better.” I’m trying to replicate the same engagement and curiosity I felt abroad here at home (if possible). We’ll see! If all else fails, I might be moving again.

  7. Yep I identify with this post. I moved back home Sept. 1st after two years living in Spain. It’s been almost 6 weeks and it still feels really weird. I am also looking into options to go abroad again and weirdly enough, I’m trying to go to Latin America, the place you just left! I’ve never been!

  8. I’ve had similar feelings after returning home from doing mission work in Caribbean many times, especially after my last trip to Haiti. Life is so different here in the States compared most of the world and we are often unaware of what it is like elsewhere.

    • It is a very different life, Stacaleigh. And I could never say that one is better than the other, though one might be more comfortable. I’m hoping to sort out what it was that I loved about Latin America so much, so I can try to replicate those elements wherever I live. Thanks for reading!

  9. You know what gives me faith? The fruit salad story. Neither you nor I are, in fact, from Aleppo. But we are from Aleppo enough to make that man tell a story about home and feel at home while sharing it with us. We are from everywhere enough to merit a fruit salad. I find lots of hope in that — and in our visits, twincations, and talk about every subject under the world.

    I will not stop typing twincation until the Macs and iPads of this world finally recognize it as a legitimate (one) word!

    • The fruit salad gives me hope too, and I can’t believe I forgot to include that detail!

      Time to start petitioning Merriam-Webster (and Apple). Let’s be real, they just added “f-bomb” to the dictionary. I think “twincation” has a chance.

    • I hadn’t either, Edna. Partially because I have been sort of removed from my normal channels of news-watching, but also because I never particularly wanted to read about Syria’s crisis. It just seemed to painful to look at the images and hear the horror stories. It only adds to this strange blend of emotions I’ve been experiencing lately about my own identity, and how nationality plays into it. If anything, I realize I can’t keep my eyes closed to atrocities for very long.

  10. Lidia

    Meghan,
    Glad to hear you are back. It sounds like you are not traveled out yet.
    Kimmie has finally reached a saturation point with her travels and she loves being home. Wonder how long that will last…

    • Thanks Lidia, I am back indeed, but still looking for next steps abroad. I am glad to hear that Kimmie is back home with you! I’m sure she had some incredible stories to share.

      I just remembered, I failed to respond to your last email to me. You’ll be getting a reply soon!

      • Lidia

        Haha, if you are interested in volunteering in Switzerland or scuba for free in Thailand or some other exotic destinations talk to Kimmie.

  11. Niki

    The “Aleppos” of the world do make us with #firstworldproblems feel guilty every day for freedom (of movement, speech, you-name-it), health-care, at-will-travel and, why not, delicious brunches with blessed friends. And yes, there is much truth to the “the grass is always greener” pitch. However, having been born in Germany and raised in Greece (not a good day to remind people of that in Greece, mind you) and travel-thirsty from an early age, I always feel a guilty pleasure when “Greek” is the last nationality attributed to me, due to my “American”-accented English, “Spanish”-accented Spanish and “German”-accented German. Don’t get me wrong, I love my country, I just don’t feel that our country of origin or residence is what defines us in life. Often, far from it.

    • This really meant a lot to me, Niki. I am glad to know that this feeling is not uncommon, that it is not necessarily selfish. Cheers to figuring out what does define us, regardless of our nationalities.

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