Stepping foot again in the United States, my home country, I knew that my time traveling had changed me, but I wasn’t exactly sure how. I had been immersed in other cultures for so long that I did not know how I would act in my original environment. I want to talk about some of the changes that I noticed upon returning home. These changes will continue and grow as I start part two of my never-ending journey.
The last time I was away from home for a long time I experienced reverse-culture shock when I returned. This is essentially when you revisit your own culture through a different perspective and have to re-adapt. Last time, I had spent over six months in Italy; this time I had spent nine months in South America. I remember struggling to re-adapt to the United States that first time – attempting to weave together my life in Italy with my life in America. I assumed it would only be worse this time. Perhaps because I was expecting it – or perhaps because this time I was actually ready to come home – I surprisingly had very little reverse-culture shock. However, I did still see my own culture through a fresh set of eyes.
As I have mentioned, I grew up in a diverse and privileged suburb of Washington, D.C. The older I get, the more I realize how unique this area is. For example, no one asked if you were going to college – they asked which college did you want to go to. It was a well-educated area with high expectations.
In South America, I saw poverty. It didn’t shock me though. I was surprised by that. Returning home, though, I was shocked by the opposite. I grew up in a cookie-cutter, comfy, cul-de-sac neighborhood where everyone knows everyone. Typical American suburbia. The houses all look the same. The lawns are all trimmed. Halloween and Christmas decorations are expected. It wasn’t until I came home that I realized how truly safe and cushy it is. Such an easy life! Definitely a great place to grow up.
In my first few weeks home, I had some conversations that reminded me of the excess in America. It was a real shock to be thrown back into these forgotten conversations – conversations about upgrading technology, truffles, and other expensive, luxury items. I felt uncomfortable hearing others talk about such literal first world problems. And, perhaps the worst part, knowing that I was like that. Perhaps I still am like that to some degree, although this trip has certainly taught me to be less materialistic. It first started so I could save money for this trip, but then became natural once I realized the opportunity cost of each item. That truffle is a week in a hostel. That old technology still works and the new one is a plane ticket.
On the other hand, I was also shocked at the diversity. It is so diverse here! How refreshing! Brazil was by far the most diverse country I went to, but here in the United States it’s a true melting pot. Waiting for the metro and seeing people of all colors, religions, and backgrounds waiting for the same train was a nice welcome home. I missed it.
It was strange to ride the metro and visit my old favorite places again. It felt like the last time was a lifetime ago. It was familiar and yet unreal. It was an out of body experience – like I was watching myself go through the oddly familiar motions of another life.
Also, I had forgotten about the all-important role of the cell phone in the United States. People don’t usually have their phones out in South America. Here everyone is always on their phone – walking down the street, on public transportation, at restaurants, always! It was refreshing to interact with people without having to talk over a cell phone. Perhaps it is a mix of culture and safety, but I prefer it. At the same time, I have found myself more aware of my items. I find myself asking others if it is safe to have my cell phone out or to leave my luggage in the car. Although it may seem foreign to others to ask these questions, I think this is a good thing.
- I constantly struggle to remember to put toilet paper in the toilet and not the trash can
- Our malls are so shiny and nice smelling
- Everyone speaks English
- Everyone understands what I say when I speak in English – it was sad to realize that I no longer have a “secret language”
- There are so many Spanish and Portuguese speakers here!
- While traveling, I adamantly followed the United States news, even though it was mostly terrible; now that I am back I no longer want to follow it – I don’t need to feel connected to home when I am home
- It is strange having a cell phone that works all the time – not only when I have Wi-Fi
- My cell phone battery dies so quickly now!
- Water is extremely precious and yet we waste it constantly – we use potable water to do laundry, clean cars, everything! And if we have a glass of water or a water bottle and don’t want to finish it at that moment, we pour it out. What a waste of drinking water! What a waste of this precious resource!
It has been a lovely eight weeks at home and I’m so glad that I ended up staying home longer than originally expected. There is a dramatic difference between me leaving for my first trip and me leaving now. The first was rushed – I left scared and stressed. This time, everything was done in advance and I leave only sad. I know what to expect and I am so happy to be able to pursue this – especially with everyone’s support. But I am sad to say goodbye – again – to those I love.
Something I realized while being home is that I view the future differently. Before, the future was an exciting, blank page that I used to daydream about. Now it’s an unknown and the negative possibilities scare me. The unknown could be good, but it also could be bad. And if it is bad, I’ll be a million miles away. I feel brave facing this unknown. I think the change occurred because before I had a path that I planned to follow – the future was expected; I had things to daydream about because I was following a known path. Like many people my age, I had planned out my life. Grad school, marriage, promotions, careers – I had deadlines for each of these things. Now I have an outline – a flexible, vague outline and that terrifies me. I am proud of this change though because you can’t plan life. Instead of setting deadlines, I am working towards goals. I have certain goals and I want to achieve them in life – I may not follow the traditional path towards reaching them, but hopefully I will still reach them. However, this makes it hard to daydream; how can you daydream when you don’t know what to daydream about? The realization that the future doesn’t work out as planned – and therefore cannot be planned – in addition to my extreme distance from everyone I love have led me to view the future as unknown. And I’m terrified but hopeful.
I recognize how fortunate I am to be able to do this – and I mean that in multiple ways. First of all, I have my parents to thank for ensuring I graduated from university debt-free. If I had had loans to pay off, I would not have been able to do this as I would not have been financially independent yet. Secondly, I have my family and friends to thank for the support and love. Not everyone has understood it, but everyone has supported me. Not everyone is this fortunate and this support has given me the push that I needed. Lastly, I was lucky that I joined the firm I did. There are a number of other firms that do what I do, but I unknowingly picked the firm with a company policy granting its employees an unpaid sabbatical. This was the other push I needed to get started – and the fact that I was one of many employees who took advantage of this opportunity helped. Now I just have to hope that it was the right decision. The only way to find out is by going forward.