Friday, January 05, 2007

Reverse Culture Shock

I thought some of the Indian readers of The Curious Stall might enjoy reading about our observations when we returned to the U.S. after six months in India. The following is taken almost word-for-word from my entry in the India Zavelogue on May 29, 2006 (follow the link in the title of this entry to see the original).

We landed back on U.S. soil on Saturday at about 12:30 p.m. Eastern Daylight time. Even though there were mostly Americans on the flight, it was strange walking through the terminal and being in the presence of so many Americans again. Americans, on average, tend to be somewhat larger than Europeans, and orders of magnitude larger than Indians.

I've heard some debates recently about whether there really is an "obesity epidemic" in the U.S. Just spend some time away from the U.S. and then, upon returning, plop yourself right down in middle America. I think this would resolve any disagreements.

I'm sorry the first observation back in the U.S. has to be such a negative one. But it was hard not to notice.

On a more positive note, our return went smoothly and despite our initial observations we are quite pleased to be back. In a matter of 24 hours, we managed to acquaint ourselves with two quintessentially American activities...driving a minivan and shopping at Wal-Mart [Note: for readers in India who might not know about Wal-Mart stores, just wait and soon enough you'll have them in India]. We had to rent a minivan at the airport to accommodate all of our luggage.

Then, once in Easton, on Maryland's rural Eastern Shore where my in-laws/Marion's parents live, we needed some basic supplies. Easton is probably like many towns in the U.S. It has a Wal-Mart and very few other options for basic shopping (this is just one of the many reasons more and more Americans are learning to dislike Wal-Mart). So we went to Wal-Mart for diapers, deodorant, razor blades, and a new sippy cup for Luc who has been off the bottle for about ten days now. Unlike typical Americans, we actually made it out of Wal-Mart with little more than we actually needed.

After that we went to a supermarket to get some basic provisions. I think Claire (my 3-year old daughter) was a little overwhelmed at all of the options. She kept grabbing things off of shelves and throwing minor fits when we told her she could not have them.

All in all, Claire and Luc (2-year old son) seem quite happy to be back. A big box with gifts from my mother was waiting for them. Then there were more gifts from Marion's mother. But mostly I think they just enjoy, for the first time in six months, having a lot of space to explore without us having to worry about their safety. We've been in hotel rooms for over a month, and there's just no room to get space from one another. In the huge house we're in they can escape not only from us, but also from each other. Last night, after baths, when I tried to sit down with Luc next to Claire and her Grandear (what she calls Marion's mom), Claire said, "No, don't sit down, I just want some peaceful time with Grandear."

Other signs of cultural adjustment ... Luc is calling the horses at Uncle John's "cows." Maybe he saw too many cows in India and now thinks all large, four-legged, hoofed animals are cows. He also had an odd reaction to Splash, the black lab of the house. He kind of screamed, not really in a scared way, but in a startled way. We saw plenty of dogs in India, but mostly insisted that the children stay clear of them. Then this morning when Splash went on a walk with us, Luc seemed to be fine, and even excited to have Splash along.

Neither Marion nor I have felt very reflective, so at this point we don't have any great revelations to share about how our experience has changed us, or what we think about India (or the U.S., for that matter), now that we're back. Mostly we just feel a sense of relief and exhaustion. Marion also feels like she has a drill pressed to her head. She's had another migraine more or less since we left Geneva.

Just the other day, a little more than six months after writing the above, I completed the final report that I owed the Fulbright Program, which had sponsored my research in India. Given the additional time that elapsed, I was able to reflect a little more meaningfully on the experience. In it, I wrote "It's actually quite difficult to explain to people here in the U.S. what India is like. Most descriptions make it sound like a place you wouldn't want to travel to, much less live in. What I have tried to communicate is the beauty of the people and the spirit and energy of the place, both of which are all the more palpable precisely because India can be such a loud, dirty, and in-your-face kind of place."

Next I'll post one more entry from the India Zavelogue. It will be the last entry that appeared. Shortly thereafter I began The Curious Stall. Stay tuned...

Technorati tags: , ,


shampa said...

was wondering about the name of your blog until I came across the ernakulam railway station pic. Hilarious!!!
Great blog overall.

Steve Zavestoski said...

I spent a fair amount of time at the Ernakulam Junction station and always got a chuckle out of the curious stall. In using the picture I mean no disrespect to the gentleman operating the stall. Even in their loose use of the English language, Indians are far superior to me and my monolinguistic self. Instead, I use the picture because I think it captures so well the idea that, to an outsider, India is a curious place.

That's the long way of saying "Thanks for the comment!"

Prasanth said...


I was in the Ernakulam railway station last week and made it a point to check out the "curious stall" board - it was a bit difficult to locate though i managed to find it !!

Steve Zavestoski said...

Near my home there's a storefront that has housed at least four different restaurants in the last three years. I'm glad to hear the Curious Stall is still operating. It's nice to know that the there are some things in this world that endure.

Desi Italiana said...

"Culture shock"- another thing I can relate to.

"I've heard some debates recently about whether there really is an "obesity epidemic" in the U.S. Just spend some time away from the U.S. and then, upon returning, plop yourself right down in middle America. I think this would resolve any disagreements."

The first thing I noticed when I came back from Italy was:

1. Lots of US flags EVERYWHERE: on buildings, cars, in offices, etc. We are a flag worshipping country, and it is our totem.

2. Lots of overweight peoploe. And it took me about 2 months to get used to shopping at American supermarkets- in terms of food, and coming to terms with watching people throw in the most unprocessable and unhealthy foods you can imagine. And then get in the car and drive away. Eat junk, lead a sedentary lifestyle= obesity and health problems.

Jennifer said...

Enjoyed this post. I am an American who lived in Chennai for two years, and now married to a Keralite travel back and forth often. Maybe you can read my article on reverse culture shock at
I'll look out for that curious stall next time we're in Kochi...