“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.