So This Is Culture Shock

Our family has definitely experienced some new and bizarre living situations over the last year and a half. On our first walk to the store in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia the girls and I walked passed goats, cows, horses and dogs…both alive and dead. On the bumpy, pothole-filled roads of Cambodia our family’s sole method of motor transportation was an open-air tuk tuk with no shocks, much less seat belts. During my many walks through the bustling markets of Peru I bumped into a pig carcass, ducked to avoid a flying fish and watched a mouse run by my foot (while wearing flip flops, no less). Yes, we’ve definitely had some shocks to the system while visiting other cultures.

Yet, despite repeatedly learning how to navigate very different ways of life, we never truly experienced “culture shock”. Over the course of our trip we were surprised at how quickly these seemingly crazy experiences became completely normal. Our family learned to deal with cramped living quarters, extreme temperatures, dirty streets, strange foods, language barriers, power outages and the many other nuances of life in other parts of the world.

That is, we learned to deal with these things for a month at at time. Admittedly, our easy acceptance of the abnormal was due to the fact that we knew each place was a short-term situation. We were excited to be walking through chaotic markets and zipping along in exotic vehicles because that’s why we’d taken this journey. We found ourselves more grateful for the bizarre experiences than shocked by them. “Hey, look at us, we’re riding in a tuk tuk! Isn’t this cool?! Don’t fall out, honey.” Culture shock wasn’t an issue because we were very much in tourist mode. Had we been moving to Cambodia, Bolivia or Ethiopia for, oh I don’t know, let’s say… the rest of our lives, then the adjustment certainly would have been a little more difficult for us.

That’s why coming back to the United States has been the biggest adjustment yet. This time it’s a longterm commitment, so hello culture shock! In the first days after our return home we noticed the positive differences. We could understand people when they talked to us. Man, that sure does make life a bit easier! Other drivers seem to be adhering to standard traffic laws! Wheeeee! Driving is fun again! Walking into the grocery store for the first time after our return was nothing short of surreal. It was so bright and shiny and white. AND HUGE! I’d forgotten we have entire aisles of breakfast cereal and 20 different kinds of peanut butter to choose from. Life in this country is so convenient, clean and filled with choices.

Our weeks visiting family and friends felt like another part of our nomadic journey – a very sanitary and comfortable part. I was grateful for all the conveniences of American life I’d never thought much about. Drinkable tap water, easy shopping trips, safe roads, central heat and air. Man, this country has a lot of great stuff in it! We had a fun month touring around the Midwest and getting the girls caught up on time with their grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.

Before long, Brian was making the long drive out to Colorado with the dogs while the girls and I spent a few more days with my parents. While Brian began exploring hikes in the mountains, the girls and I experienced Midwestern life a little more before flying out to our new town in Summit County, Colorado.
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These past couple weeks we’ve been settling into our new life in a new part of the country. I almost forgot how beautiful the Rocky Mountains are. Every day as I drive the girls to school or run to our clean, pristine grocery store I can’t believe we’re living here. Even in the off-season the scenery surrounding us is gorgeous. It feeds my soul and serves as a visual reminder of all the beauty in the world, whether it’s right here in front of my eyes or on the other side of the planet.20150829-DSC0075520150930-DSC0054620150927-DSC0044120150925-DSC00069HDR20150924-DSC0010020150925-20150925-DSC00224_stitch20150927-DSC00411

Yet, despite all the modern conveniences and the lovely views surrounding our new town, the culture shock crept in. It wasn’t the dirty markets or chaotic streets of other countries that left me disoriented and bewildered. It’s the pace of life in the U.S. that’s taken some getting used to.

We’ve already been to school events and we’re in the midst of our first fundraiser for the 6th grade choir. We’ve had our first couple sessions of homework drama, although luckily they were mild and short-lived. The kids are starting to ask about activities – piano lessons, ice skating, maybe intramural basketball. As we meet people in our new community we’re finding out about things we’d like to be involved in and events we want to attend. The calendar is filling up with meetings and appointments much faster than I thought it would.
However, the schedule of modern American life isn’t what’s been throwing me off. Having some busy days, establishing the morning routine and running kids to a few activities are just part of family life. The return to a busy schedule I can handle. It’s the psychology of it that’s giving me those classic culture shock symptoms of disorientation and confusion.

In our first week or so here I found myself getting flustered over little stuff, worrying about other people’s opinions way too much, and rushing through life without focusing on the present moment. I’d wake up in the night and check the alarm to make sure we didn’t oversleep because, God forbid, we bring our kids in late and the teachers think we’re horrible parents. Did we sign Alison’s reading log? Did I remember to send them with something to eat at snack time? Oh no, I’m running 5 minutes late to pick up Liv from school! She’ll be scarred with a fear of abandonment for life!

Who was this frantic, insecure lady? Where was the carefree, comfortable-in-her-skin nomadic mom I’d come to know and love? Re-entry into our busy American world had evidently sucked the inner peace right out of me.

The other day I was leaving Target (for the fourth time in two days) and I caught a glimpse of myself in the automatic glass door. The woman in the reflection had a scowl on her face. She looked unapproachable and oblivious to the people around her. To put it bluntly, she looked like a total bitch. I was taken aback seeing this angry, stalking, frantic version of myself. As I walked to the car I realized I’d been so consumed in my own thoughts I’d never even looked at the employee who had rung up my purchase. I didn’t just look mad at the world, I was acting like I was mad at the world. This, my friends, is what they mean by “living unconsciously.” I was walking around in a haze of trivial thoughts, making no effort to connect with the world around me. Yowza…now that’s culture shock.

It’s funny how such a small thing, like a glimpse of my reflection in a pane of glass, could be the trigger that put me back on track. The angry lady is gone and the authentic Tracey has returned. Yoga, which had become an important must-do element of my life during our around-the-world journey, was getting pushed to the back burner in lieu of folding the laundry and running to Target. It’s now been returned back to its rightful position on the high priority list. Those concerns about what the new teachers and other parents will think have been replaced with a much more appropriate focus on what my KIDS think. Rather than going through the motions unconsciously, I’m getting back into the habit of focusing on the people and the world around me. I’m remembering that just because we’re back to a more “normal” life that doesn’t mean it’s not worth savoring and appreciating. If I was grateful for that tuk tuk driver, then I should be grateful for the cashier at the supermarket, too.

So, while the culture shock of coming back into modern family life seems to have subsided, the experience of losing myself in the unconscious, mental rat race has definitely opened my eyes. It’s made me question things. Why do we move at such a breakneck speed? In a country boasting a plethora of modern conveniences to make our lives easier, why do we get sucked into the blurry, oblivious rush of it all? How can I live like a tourist in my daily life and turn the seemingly mundane into the surprisingly memorable?

These will be the questions our family will be working to answer in this next phase of life as we commit to slowing down, staying connected and remaining truly conscious in every moment of life. This is a pretty tall order, I know. But if I can buy avocados while dodging dead pigs and flying fish, surely I can handle anything modern-day America can throw at me. Stay tuned…

About the Author

Mom, wife, friend and change agent traveling the world with my family to learn our place in it. After spending a career in organizational change management and community initiative implementation, I put my career on hold for our family's trip around the world. In April of 2014 we sold almost everything we own, put the rest in a storage container, and departed on this journey. While my husband continued his software development work to financially support our trip, I planned and documented our adventure, homeschooled our three daughters, and found volunteer work opportunities for us to do in the communities we visit. Now that we've returned to the U.S., I'm completing book about our family's adventure and our lessons learned.

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  1. Great to hear about you! Often the shock of coming back is underestimated and not studied properly and the beginning of school is just demanding on all working mothers.Thanks for pictures from Colorado…thinking of you, Linda

  2. When I came back from a 3 month trip to Ecuador in 2000, I was pretty much pissed as hell for about 3 weeks at how stuck up people are comparatively. The culture shock coming back from Ecuador to the US was worse than the other way around.

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