Back in America/Reverse Culture Shock

I write this shortly after my golf bag dove out of my sister's closet of its own volition.  I can see only the letters "lege Eagles;" "Northwestern Col" is obscured by the dresses that have made the cut after yet another purging of material possessions.   It's been nearly a month since my last post.  In that time I've been in Minnesota, Iowa, and St. Lucia.  My wanderings have been driven by friends and family, but mostly by weddings.

Returning to the States has been remarkably fluid and there have been various emotions running throughout: relief, self-confidence, sullenness, impatience, gratitude, displacement, speechlessness, boredom, listlessness, joy, comfort.  The list goes on and on.  My foresight into the possible difficult situations upon return has eased the transition back into the States, but it hasn't tempered surprise at rediscovering certain things of an "American" nature.

The biggest shock/difficulty has been food.  Shortly after returning, I met a good friend for coffee.  I was still recovering from jetlag and considered getting a medium but decided a small was sufficient.  Soon the barista called out some mumbo-jumbo code name for my simple drink.  Moreover, the cup seemed too massive to really be a small.  My "small" coffee with espresso was 12 oz. (.35 l).  It took me nearly an hour-and-a-half to drink it.  At another coffeehouse, I was horrified to see a board advertising coffee drinks with all sorts of added sugar and syrups.  At a third coffeehouse, I saw cinnamon rolls that were the breadth of my hand--with my fingers outstretched!  I have probably been to more coffeehouses than restaurants upon my return, for which I am thankful.  It's pretty easy to order coffee as I want it; I can get it without any added sugars and syrups--although once I ordered an iced coffee and my first sip revealed that they'd snuck sugar in.  Everything about restaurants seems over-the-top: too many selections, giant drinks, too much ice, too quick, too high of tips.

While walking through the Dallas and Miami airports, I was a bit repulsed by the constant repeat of restaurants and stands full of empty calories, starchy appetizers, and people sucking down refined sugars.  After spending the night in the Miami airport (this was en route to St. Lucia), I wanted a protein-filled breakfast.  I paced around the terminal, reading menus and maps.  I finally was able to get some bacon and eggs after passing place after place with breakfast that was all starch, bread, and sugar.  (It didn't help that I'd recently finished Gary Taubes' Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About it--an excellent read.)

Another shock came when I looked into a friend's clothing closet.  It was chock-full of clothes with her on the market for more.  It seemed so excessive after months of living out of a suitcase.  Other such material excess seems common place.  I see people buying knick-knacks because they're cheap and they might have a use for them.  The use of cars also seems excess; yet I see how our cities have been built in ways that don't encourage biking or walking.

These shocks may seem inherently negative, but these are areas in which I prefer my Czech lifestyle: walking, using public transit, eating fresh foods, and buying things as they're needed rather than on impulse.  I'm struggling to think of whether I had to throw out a single piece of produce during my 10 months in the Czech.  Perhaps it's over-sensitive of me to feel my heart twist when I see someone throwing out spoiled produce because too much was purchased or to see recyclable items go straight to the trash.  In regards to food and waste, I prefer my Czech existence; however, there is one big area in which I am thankful to be back in the USA: identity.

Despite the advantages to living in Europe, I will always be a foreigner there.  Granted, physically, I am often able to blend in--unlike my experience in St. Lucia--but I will never be Czech.  Being constantly a foreigner and constantly "other" was sometimes overbearing, causing me to withdraw and lose a bit of my personality.  While celebrating at the two weddings I went to this summer, I felt so much more at ease than I have felt in the Czech.  I didn't have to articulate my speech, consider what language to speak, wonder about cultural appropriateness.  I could go up to the dance floor and cut loose, knowing that I was no stranger than anyone else out there.  Someone called me "high-energy" at my sister's wedding, and I laughed at how different that must be from how so many people perceive me in the Czech, who see me mellow and constantly observing.

My American-ness has never been as evident as it is now, and I've never been so grateful for my broken culture before.  When I went to a Twins game with my brother-in-law, I began to tear up during the national anthem, and I nearly cried when the female American gymnastics team won gold.   I'm thrilled to see so many Americans in the Olympics with Polish, Chinese, Spanish, German, English (and so on) surnames.  Similarly, I was so pleased to see the welcome video at customs in Chicago featuring the USA's diversity.

So, friends, as I enjoy my remaining (almost) 3 weeks in this country, I implore of you to allow me to enjoy being present.  Please, don't let your first question be "When do you go back?"


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