Ever looked at your own country through a foreigner’s eyes? How long do you think it would take to adjust your perspective so that home was no longer the same place it had been? How long to see the food, the people, and the language as new? How long to see your home as a unique cultural experience?
After five months of traveling on a different planet known as Asia, we were lucky enough to come home for Thanksgiving. Reverse culture shock: I’d heard the term before, but the visceral feeling hits harder. Everything from driving on the right to the rich food to the beer felt new. The world was more orderly by far. There’s no threat of a motorbike on the sidewalk nearly running you over, as they do in Vietnam, or a cow sitting in the middle of the road, as there are everywhere in India. The streets are clean. (Yes, even the ones downtown. Trust me on this.) People speak intelligible English, which is both useful and infuriating as I’d enjoyed not having to understand the vapid, loud phone conversations people have in public places. The Chinese may be loud, but at least I didn’t have to understand the content of their yelling. It’s just white noise.
The biggest treat through my newly Asian eyes was the Thanksgiving meal itself. There is no more American event. Since before Norman Rockwell immortalized it, we’ve been getting together in November to eat awkward amounts of turkey, bread stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry, gravy, green beans, pumpkin pie, and whatever else mom throws on the table. In a country chock full of commercialization from head to toe, Thanksgiving is resistant. Sure, we buy lots of food. It is a harvest feast. And yes, Black Friday impinges every year, that horrible abomination, although it’s technically related to Christmas commercialization. At its heart, though, the holiday is still that Rockwell painting: the whole family at the table, ready to eat, thankful for the bounty. Commercialization not needed. Any visitor lucky enough to participate in Thanksgiving should relish the experience. It is to America as a week-long wedding is to Indians; it’s a fundamental piece of our national soul.
Football was another revelation. Nobody in Asia cares about football, or indeed sport in general, like we do. We worship it in the form of jerseys and sponsorships and 24/7 coverage on sports channels. It’s a constant drip feed of a drug, coming at us from every angle during the entire year. Not so in Asia. Sport doesn’t dominate airtime and professional athletes are not worshipped or paid exorbitantly. Our time in Asia was detox: although I watched two Broncos games from Japan – one with a Swedish guy who played a year of high school football as an exchange student in Oregon – I hadn’t fed the addiction in any meaningful way since the beginning of the season. The forced detox made me realize that Sundays in the fall are some of my favorite days. Sitting down with my dad to shoot a little football in my veins felt good, I’ll admit it. I miss my Broncos season tickets like a crack head misses the pipe.
One piece of our national soul – at least in the western states – is controversial to some. Guns are found nowhere in Asia besides India. While a private citizen can own a firearm in India, the red tape to legally own it is astonishing; our host in Jaipur, Abhishek, had a .22-caliber rifle handed down from his grandfather that was nearly impossible to register despite the history of family ownership. He finally had to call in a favor with the mayor to get the permit issued! Blame it on Manifest Destiny, blame it on the 2nd Amendment, blame it on John Wayne, blame it on hicks clinging to their guns: their presence is as uniquely American as football and Thanksgiving. I had the chance to shoot with my dad and my sister’s husband at our ranch. Nowhere in Asia can a private citizen go target shooting as freely as we can off the back deck of my parents’ ranch house. (Although I did hear a rumor that, for the right price, you can shoot a cow with an RPG in Cambodia. Probably urban legend.)
Although it was good to get a dose of American culture, I had some nostalgia for uniquely Asian experiences. We traveled almost exclusively on public transportation in Asia; the trains in Japan were particularly heavenly. They’re frequent, squeaky clean, and meticulously punctual. While home, I had the unfortunate experience of taking the light rail from Lakewood to downtown Denver’s Union Station to meet a friend. The return trip, including a bus transfer, took almost two hours. The drive would have been 20 minutes. Our cities are simply designed around cars. Then there’s the food culture in Vietnam; nothing is quite so satisfying as a delicious, $1 plate of bun cha made by a tiny old lady eaten on a tiny chair with a tiny table on the street corner. Much as I love a Chipotle burrito, it simply doesn’t have the same je ne sais quoi.
The visible differences obscure the true feeling of reverse culture shock, though. It’s much deeper, felt not in the conscious mind but in the gut. Over five months, we had adjusted our basic expectations about the world. Asia, for the most part, is not controlled like home. Just walking down the street requires perfect situational awareness to avoid cars, motorbikes, people, carts, feces, mud, more people, and busses. Getting on the train or bus is dog-eat-dog. Queueing is non-existent for tickets; Chinese people, in particular, take no prisoners in queues. Negotiating is constant and high-intensity. People eat, socialize, work, and play right on the street. The mass of activity is ruled by one word: chaos. It’s organic, fluid, and stressful, but it feels natural. The world of rules in the US is incredibly boring and polite by comparison. There’s no bartering; cars stop at red lights; people don’t skip the line at grocery stores. The lack of chaos left a vacuum in my brain. The spot that had adapted to instinctively navigate Asian cities was bored. Like my addiction to football, I was addicted to the chaos of Asia.
Like any good addiction, becoming addicted to a foreign pace of life takes time. Five months was more than enough. Most Americans don’t have that kind of time to dedicate, but luckily they don’t need to. Each country stopover on our Asian leg was approximately one month. At the end of that time, it felt a bit like tearing off a bandage. We were accustomed to the smells, the sounds, the food, the people, and the language. The intuitive understanding of life’s rhythm had settled in. My challenge to you is this: take one solid month a year, or every other year, and go somewhere totally different than home. Stay in that one place. Whether it’s Tibet, Toledo, Tanzania, or Toulouse, that month will shape your basic expectations about how the world works. Then, as we did, you can return home to see your city in a new light. After all, isn’t that why we travel? Not to see the world, per se; it’s much too big to do that anyway. No, we travel to understand our own home, and by extension ourselves, better. One month is the magical time to intuitively understand a new rhythm of life. One month is how long it takes to adjust your perspective so that home is no longer the same place it had been. One month. Who’s up for the challenge?