Look at that poor orangutan that can’t get along well with its orangutan friends anymore! This post is going to be about reverse culture shock and what has been stressing me out lately, “lately” being since July 9th, when I arrived in the US from Indoland.
It has been nearly three weeks since I left Indonesia; I had been in-country for 10 months, with no trips back to the US and but one brief trip out of country. I’ll be home in the US for the next two months or so–visiting friends and family, enjoying the Midwestern summer, partaking of various gourmet cheeses (alcoholic beverages, oven-baked breads, spinach salads, pasta dinners…) while waiting for my sister’s wedding in September. Two days after that, it’s back to Java for me!
The first time I “came back” after a significant amount of time out of the States was when I returned from Peace Corps service in mid-2012. I had been out of country for twenty-seven months by that time, and I figured that the “reverse culture shock”–the culture shock and eventual (re)adaptation process one experiences when returning to one’s own culture from time in another–would be substantial. Butt wasn’t! I had heard of people returning to the USA from Peace Corps service standing in places like Wal-Mart and bursting into tears because of the wealth of options and the opulence of American consumer capitalism, and I had heard too of people being traumatized by leaving behind their friends and families in their host countries and not being able to fit in with their old friend groups at all because nobody could relate to one anothers’ experiences. I didn’t go through much of this type of thing, and it’s probably because I made the (questionable) choice to sit on my mom’s couch drinking beer all summer after getting back from Java after service ended.
For me, the reverse culture shock at that time came in a form I didn’t really expect–just seeing how much everyone had changed, especially my younger sister and my two closest friends. My sister had gone from 19 to 21 and had experienced a lot of big challenges in her life that I hadn’t been there to help her through, and my two dear friends had had a first and second child each. Of course, I went with the flow, but it was hard to realize that what I had dreamed of coming back to–the life that I left behind–wasn’t something I’d be able to actually find. Of course, I had changed, too, and I knew that the USA wasn’t just waiting for me to get back. But that knowledge didn’t change the fact that I had to face the emotional realities of not being able to come home to lots of what I had been homesick for. So, I had to work on my relationships and focus on what I could do to move forward together with my friends and family in light of everyone’s big changes and developments. And that’s what I did, and by and large it was fine–I lost a few friends by becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer because sometimes you just can’t keep your bonds as strong and moving great distances apart changes things, but the people who stuck by me during my tough times in Peace Corps were easy for me to stick by with in the States, and putting the “work” in was an easy thing.
[Astonished aside: Sometimes I’m amazed by just how radically Peace Corps service has affected my life. I’m still processing everything that I experienced, not only in terms of in-country adventures but also in terms of what moving abroad in your early 20’s for a relatively long period of time does for your social and personal life, both at the time and in the wake of it.]
So, what has me thinking about all of this again now is my present experience coming home from Indonesia after ten months as a Fulbright student. Having been through re-entry once before, I knew a little more about what to expect. The second time ’round was bound to be easier; I knew that people would have changed, I knew what my feelings would be, and I knew I wouldn’t be “coming home” to what I left behind me last summer.
Because I felt ready to deal with the challenges re-entry would inevitably pose to my family life and other relationships, what ended up striking me during my first couple of days and weeks in the States this time seems to be more on the cultural rather than interpersonal level. I had big-time culture shock when I came back from my first trip overseas to Europe at age sixteen, and my current reaction to coming back home feels more similar to that than when I returned from Peace Corps service.
The first things I noticed are connected, I think, because of what they illustrate to me about some basic elements of the everyday American cultural reality, whatever ‘everyday American’ may mean. I’m referring to the general sociocultural feeling of being in America–not necessarily even being an American–if a “sociocultural feeling” can be considered a thing. I really don’t want to use this language, feeling, but I think what I’m tuning in to is indeed the energy of being here, which presents itself to me as a feeling. And it’s worth noting that much of what I’m feeling is coming from people rather than the land itself.
I can hear my grad advisor groaning as he reads, but I think that “vibration” might be the best term to describe what I’m getting at. Cultural, political, and religious differences influence one’s experiences in various places, that much is clear, and I think the cultural, political, religious, social (etc etc) realities of a place/people/culture are what people are getting at when they talk about a “vibration”; Java and Midwestern American have different vibes, and Americans and Javanese have different vibes. It’s all sociocultural–all related to worldview and language, religion and spirituality, ways of knowing and ways of relating to others, concepts of self and friend and family in individualistic and collectivistic cultures, etc. etc.–and taken together these form the sensory atmosphere in which we experience the “feeling” of a culture as well as the “feeling” of culture or of culture shock / reverse culture shock.*
I can’t even consider myself to be an independent variable in this whole situation. I’m different when I’m in the US and when I’m in Indonesia; what’s interesting to me is the way that my perceptions and senses have apparently changed after spending time overseas, outside of my ‘native’ culture. So, a few generalized but from my perspective fair statements, with the usual caveat that these statements reflect my own specific experiences in certain physical locations and within specific sub-cultures of the US and Indonesia: Javanese culture is outwardly more sensitive and empathetic than American culture, emotional sensitivity and emotional intelligence (especially the ability to empathize and sympathize with others) tend to be more highly valued as positive and dare I say essential character attributes, and inability to empathize leads to social problems. It seems that in some ways in the US, empathy is the worst trait one can have! I’m thinking specifically in terms of money-lust, capitalism, business/office/boardroom culture, etc etc. I think I’ve always been a sensitive person and perhaps by American standards slightly above-average on the sensitivity/empathy scale, and it’s been something that for some time has made me feel bad about myself: it’s weakness. That’s not very fair, is it? But our culture prefers and rewards the alpha male type personality, and empathy is not part of his mental framework or at least isn’t what he displays openly to those around him. So, living in Indonesia allowed me to feel valued for the characteristics due to which I’ve often been made to feel inferior in the States, and this means I’ve been able not only to reconsider my feelings towards these characteristics but also to cultivate them even more deeply as positive behavioral traits that reap social (and economic) rewards. And when I’m in the States, I mentally displace myself even further because I feel less “in place.” When I’m in the Javanese cultural environment, I feel a little more socially at ease. I’m not the first person to ever experience a better “fit” in a different culture than that in which they were raised, but still I like to tease out why precisely for me I am so attracted to the deeper elements of the culture (i.e. not “just” well, I like the food, I like the dress, I like the music…). And of course I wonder what my Javanese friends would say about whether I “fit” or not, but the number of times I’ve been called an American Javanese is an indicator that by and large they are surprised by how well I jive with what’s going on over there–how well I respond to or reflect the vibe. Of course, I’ll always be an American and certain things about my cultural personality (especially social values) will never change–if I can say “cultural personality” is a thing–and I’m actually an American, but the point remains: cultural code switching is a thing, and aspects of each persona can be affected as the other develops or withers in various ways. Plus, there are things about being an American that I like and things about “being” Javanese that I don’t like so much. Basically, the point of this paragraph is to say that I’m not a neutral instrument which can measure the “vibe” of a certain place, and I don’t even want to start to talk about something as wishy-washy-woo-woo as a “vibe” without pondering the instrument that’s receiving or reading the environment, i.e me.
Maybe it’s just the essence of culture shock: we start at point A, experience something new and move to point B, and then point A isn’t a thing anymore but it’s rather something new–point C–and this is because our worldview has changed, our personality has changed, and much of what we’ve come to realize is that nothing is ever as it seems (or at least we can never get full understanding of the world) and that what we gained and lost while at point B will influence what we see, experience, and reflect about regarding both points A and C. Sometimes I think I spend a lot of the time stating the obvious for myself in these blogs, but I gotta say I like working through stuff on my own, even if all of this isn’t news to anyone else. Blog = therapy these days.
What has been shocking me lately, anyways? Eighteen hundred words into this post and I haven’t even started discussing it yet. The two things that hit me–I think I mentioned two things being the focus earlier in the post–were the TSA people in the Detroit airport and every single runner I saw in Charlotte during the week I was at my folks’ place.
Perhaps the Detroit airport TSA staff thing doesn’t need much explaining, but I gotta work through it: these people were stressed. Everyone was stressed–irritated, frowny, rushed. They were talking to one another in that weird American way that people do: I’m telling you something nicely and I’m using nice words, but what I’m really saying is “you’re an idiot, and I’m right.” Have you felt what I’m getting at? Condescension! Americans are the best at it. That’s because they don’t know how to empathize and they generally think they’re right! Not listening to others and having be and/or make yourself right all the time? It’s no wonder people are stressed. In individualistic cultures like “ours,” people are held personally accountable for their mistakes and rewarded on the individual level for setting themselves apart from the pack–everything is basically do or die, life or death! That sends the individual into a frenzy of nervousness, and I’m pretty sure that’s because life’s not meant to be like that. It’s nice that individuals are generally responsible because of this–I feel safer with TSA employees than I do with Indonesian security personnel, although that may not be because of strictly cultural reasons but probably has a lot to do with training and preparedness (even though TSA employees apparently are terrible at their jobs)–but it means that each individual “unit” of the culture is more stressed and strained, and collectively what we get is the general feeling or “vibe” of heightened stress. Detroit was my first transit point in the US and my first moment of “re-entry” into Americaland, and boy I felt my blood pressure rise immediately upon exposure to these poor TSA people. I could see others from my flight–especially the crown of Japanese people getting to Detroit from Tokyo, from whence we had departed–stressing out, too. And what’s the use, man?? We’ll all get through our lines. Why can’t you throw me a smile? … because you’re stressed out of your mind, that’s why.
The second thing that’s been stressing me out, as I said, are the damn runners. Fuck those runners! I’ve been getting into a really great exercise routine in Java, and I am gonna go ahead and call bullshit on all the people who say they love running so much and it feels so good and they get high from it! Maybe there are some people that do, but there are surely lots more who do the running and talk about loving it because they really hate it and hate themselves and want to keep up appearances. I used to run, and it was victorious, but it wasn’t anywhere near what I’d call a “fun” activity. I know we all have different goals and values and exercise routines are really personal, but hip hop and belly dance are objectively more fun as exercise than running. Okay, I have to call bullshit on myself because there’s probably not any such thing as objectively anything, but there you have it. My thoughts on the matter. I rarely see Indonesians running for exercise. Much more common are group activities–again, individualistic vs. collectivistic!–such as badminton (which I also happen to play weekly with my Indonesian pals and some other expats/foreigners we know), soccer/futsal, and group fitness/aerobics things kind of along the Jazzercise lines. Exercise is way more fun and relaxed in Indonesia, and people generally seem to do it more for health than for physical appearance, even though it’s my own hater-prejudice towards Americans pushing me to say that we’re primarily doing it for the good looks rather than any other bullshit thing we say we want to achieve (by and large, of course). I got irritated at the runners because they looked so pissed at life. They looked irritated, they looked stressed, and they didn’t look like they were having any fun. (And people don’t generally look like they’re having a blast at the gym when they’re working out by themselves either, but that’s a side note.) People running around angrily make me feel stressed and sad for them as individuals. Seeing them makes me feel stressed about being back in my own culture and facing it’s beauty standards–in Indonesia, I can usually ignore beauty standards because I pretty much fit the model of being light-skinned, pointy-nosed, tall, and basically well-proportioned. (There are issues of power and privilege at play here, of course, but for better or for worse it’s nice to live in a place where I’m not constantly made to feel horrible about myself thanks to the media and other insane people.) I just want people to engage in activities that bring them more joy, and I know that joyful exercise is possible! I just get the vibe that Americans torture themselves so much, and it doesn’t have to be this way! There is another way! To each his own, but damn, ya’ll make me stressed. I worry about your knees, too, and your grumpy faces.
I assume those two examples are enough and that you can probably get what I’m getting at. I could do a comparative analysis of road culture and road rage in these two countries to illustrate further, but I bet you can gather what the gist of that would be.
So I feel like I have this trend going lately of burning myself out on these blogs and not being able to fully explain my thoughts and feelings and wanting to come back to it in the future but not really actually intending to. That’s okay. I think I said what I needed to say, and I think you get what the basic feeling here is. Overall, America stresses people out. If you’re American and you don’t realize that America is one of the major sources of your stress, then let this be enlightening for you! Leaving America didn’t by any stretch alleviate my stress in life, but I feel worse when I’m stressed in the States than when I’m stressed in Java, and most of the stress is from society/culture in the States and just me dealing with my personal stuff and/or homesickness when I’m in Java–not really related to society/culture. I’m sure there’s also a part of this connected to not taking so much so personally because at the end of the day it’s not my culture, and that needs to be acknowledged, too; it’s easier to let things slide and not get stressed when it’s not “yours.” But stress is a fact of life, and for me I feel spiritually-mentally-emotionally better dealing with it when it’s mine rather than mine-by-proxy because I get stressed from my culture or because of its vibes.
What do you think?
That’s all I got for now.
*Shock is an interesting term in and of itself because there are two manifestations, physical and mental/emotional, and my body reacts strongly to the shift in environment: atmosphere, barometric pressure, humidity, allergens, smells, sounds, AC systems…