Friday, August 19, 2011

Reverse Culture Shock

Thank goodness for Google. When I came home from rural Kenya in 1988 I had no idea that the panic attack caused by the cereal isle in Safeway came from a phenomenon called “reverse culture shock.” I think it’s safe to say that’s what we have going on in the Gordon/Lerdau family. We did mitigate it a bit by staying at my parents house for two days on the way back, which worked a little like one of those bubbles that astronauts hang out it when returning to Earth. Even with that, there is something bizarrely decentering about having the familiar feel unfamiliar. Seven minutes of internet research revealed that reverse culture shock often expresses itself in a radical reevaluating of priorities and a re-setting of life goals. My symptoms are more material than spiritual.

Electric lighting feels blinding, and I can’t finish any of the meals I crave. No one looks at me when I walk down the street, and no one touches my kids. Everyone looks very large; this was especially so in the barbecue place we stopped in on the way back to C’ville. But I’m not tall anymore. The transformation of language from a largely inaccessible background noise to a mode of communication is not seemless. Not only do other people’s conversations distract, but when everyone around you understands you a little self censorship is in order. Time to turn the brain/mouth filter back on. This, by the way, is a concept neither the kids nor Manuel have grokked; I am sure all four will be sent home from their respective schools at least once in the first week.

My yoga class on Wednesday night kind of captured the whole thing. For starters my regular teacher wasn’t there, and it was all new people, so no comfy yoga return. But also coming from a part of China that is extremely Buddhist, where greetings regularly involve a kind of yogic head bow, and where squatting is a way of life, not a pose, made the whole thing seem hilarious to me. The sight of white chycs in athletic tank tops with “exotic” patterns as fashion accent toting large mats and chanting Sanskrit just seemed incongruous.

Charlottesville is very invested in local food these days. I’m kind of over local food. One of my friends came over to try to take me to the farmers market the day we returned. (she also left ice cream and waffles in my freezer and took care of my ant problem for me when I was gone so she rocks) However, at the market request I pretty much laughed in her face. “A market are you crazy? All I want is groceries delivered, and I want the food I want without worrying about whether or not it’s possible in this climate.” I went to a farmers market every other day and bought all kinds of delicious locally grown produce. However, had I had the option of anything not locally grown, we would all have had an easier summer.

There’s even an oddness to the giant brick that has been lifted off my head by US safety standards. Rural China comes with multiple ways in which your children can meet their demise. In the last two days we were in China we read Chinese news stories about child kidnapping, death from tampered food at KFC, renegade escalators running people over, kids dying when roller coasters collapsed, death by plane crash, and statistics on motor vehicle death. And that was the Party news, which means it was heavily censored and hid most of the bad stuff. Even without the help of the news, it’s not hard to conjure up demise in the form of venomous snakes, poisonous spiders, motor accidents, crumbling buildings, earthquakes, mudslides, fire, flood, vicious tropical viruses, bullet trains, airplanes with no safety rules, etc… To exist there with small children and not collapse with anxiety involves simply putting every idea about the safety of your children in a little box. But to maintain that box takes a lot of mental energy. And now that we are back I have let myself think about all the things that didn’t happen; that’s scary.

While Manuel and I are walking around in a kind of haze and have yet to interact with anyone but our very closest friends, the kids seem fairly immune to the whole business. As creatures of the moment China was the new normal in May and now it’s Virginia’s turn. They have said some comical things like “do you think Ian and Caroline will remember us” (Ian and Caroline live across the street and Ian apparently wondered if they’d still understand English.) For the first day they looked for places to stash their shoes outside buildings and asked repeatedly if water was safe to drink. We also need to aggressively Chinese government style impose some new normal; we wear seatbelts, bike helmets, sit in booster seats, do not leave the house and go visiting without telling an adult, take off on our bikes at will etc… But for them home is simply where we are. When asked about the best parts of their trip they immediately talk about the vacations, which I initially thought revealed the excitement of the trips. But now my sense is that the living in the Garden part of our experience barely registers as a trip. It was simply where we stashed ourselves for a while.

Ok, I have to admit I have no clue how they have been the last couple of days because my fabulous parents have them. This is the first time in three months that I’ve been without them for more than about two hours, and I don’t miss them one bit. In fact given that the Charlottesville schools deactivated them and then failed to promote them to third grade it might not be a bad idea for my parents to just register them in Alexandria and send them to the school Pam and I went to…

There are of course countless ways in which it feels like home. Our friends filled our fridge with prosecco, beer, orange juice and milk and left chips, salsa, and coffee around the house. They also left a brilliant note, which should go in an essay on gender in the jungle, but it began “Welcome home, Family of Dr. Manuel Lerdau and servant-wife Bonnie. They set some rules for us “No air conditioning in day-time. No playing in mud. No Privacy. No bad language. No No. 2 in toilet. Outside please.” Sitting on the downtown mall eating Tacos we ran into quite a few people we know and then I had my first ever Dave Mathews citing. He was headed to the Gillian Welch concert and I saw the back of his head. In the morning I went for a run with my running lady friends and though the run practically killed me I realized how much I’d missed the collective. My neighbor came over to say Hi yesterday and it was sooooo good to see her—really made it feel like home. Although I have not so much as made a cup of coffee it feels really good to have our kitchen back. And I’ve worn nothing but shorts and tank tops since I got home—neither of which really flew in China.

Today’s my goal is to find my new office. It was moved while I was gone and I don’t even know where it is. Classes start on Tuesday. This somehow seems symbolic of the whole return. Manuel has to go in today to start freshman advising; I’m afraid he’ll focus on telling them how to get bottled water and avoid the cobra who lives two-thirds of the way up the trail. I have a few more blog posts up my sleeve processing the whole experience and then my hunch is it will all get a lot less interesting.


  1. "I am sure all four will be sent home from their respective schools at least once in the first week." Love it! Keep us posted on what transpires....

  2. I wonder how many episodes of reverse culture shock occur in grocery stores. After a year in Egypt, mine was in the toothpaste aisle. Might be the egregious abundance?

  3. Returning from India to Philly it was a hot shower that sent me into bewildered bliss fits. But coming back from Spain to Brooklyn, it was the bizarreness of seeing so many people sipping coffee from to-go cups. Good luck!