I am home from Thailand and my world feels upended, sensations heightened and overwhelming, even the simplest errands, chores, and social interactions fraught with complexity as I muddle through my reentry into everyday life as if my feet are stuck in mud and everything is a slow-motion echo chamber.
The concept of “culture shock” is nothing new. An entire book series has been published on the premise that the Western traveler will encounter a significant dose of culture shock when travelling outside their Western bubble. This is true, though I would say everyone experiences culture shock when travelling out of the “bubble” of their known world, regardless of where they come from. What’s rarely mentioned is the culture shock you experience when returning home.
I think it’s safe to say I am in the middle of a massive dose of reverse culture shock, and I’m not talking about the weather shock of jumping from 80s Fahrenheit and humid to the deep freeze of single digits and snow (though that’s caused my skin to rebel into a dry, red, itchy mess!). I expected this after my last trip to Thailand, but that still doesn’t make it any easier.
I would argue the reverse culture shock of coming home is even harder to get through. When I’m traveling, I anticipate the differences of the culture around me, ready for it to baffle and bewilder me. I don’t expect my own culture to do this. But travel changes you, sometimes without your knowledge, until you’re hyperventilating in a grocery store you’ve always shopped at because there’s no natural light and the rows upon rows of sheer choices have left you paralyzed.
I’ve been home 5 days now and I’m easing back into a routine. Food without spicy heat suddenly tastes bland in this world of Midwestern casseroles, so I’m seeking out Asian markets and trying my hand at winter-appropriate stews with chipotle peppers and curry. Yesterday I entered my first large superstore for groceries – I stuck to a list and got myself out of there within 20 minutes, about all I could handle before the headaches started. I am still bristling at the incessant and insignificant small talk all around me, much of it complaining, which really grates when I think of all the hardship, need and tragedy I’ve learned about on my recent journeys, the simple living I’ve witnessed and lived. I am reevaluating my own conversation and daily outlook – do I complain when I really shouldn’t?
Even the very streets of my neighborhood have me spooked. I have become used to the swirling humanity of Thailand, the constant noise and smells and motion of people living out their lives in the streets – street carts of food setting up temporary restaurants on the sidewalks, stores that open onto the streets, people I know calling out “Bai nai?” (Where are you going?) as I walk by their house. I walk out into my Wisconsin neighborhood and realize life is missing from our streets. It’s not just the winter cold; it’s like this in the summer as well. We live gated away in our huge houses and behind fences, rarely saying hello to our neighbors. We drive everywhere – when I walk a couple of miles to the store or coffeeshop, I’m seen as odd. Our lives here are like little bubbles that we carry on us like armor.
It takes going away and coming home to open my eyes. I’m off-kilter right now. Maybe that’s a good thing.