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Culture Shock


December 25,2010

Culture shock is all but inevitable when traveling between two vastly different worlds. I wrote on the subject in the airport in Dallas. I was stunned, confused and had processing time waiting for my flight to Denver. Here are my reflections of my first few moments back in the States after 7 months away:

Sensory overload is putting it lightly. Everywhere I look, I see pieces of Americana. Sports memorabilia is pervasive: a Chicago Bears duffel bag here, a Minnesota Twins jersey there. I instinctively want to greet them and say, “Hey, I’m from Minnesota / the Midwest / the States, too!” But then I realize they don’t care. Most everyone here is from the States. We’re IN the States.


I’d thought I’d been through this enough times to understand how it works. Step 1: Go to developing country. Step 2: Think about how much you have. Step 3: Come home. Step 4: Actually realize how much you have. That feeling inevitably begins to fade as you get back into old routines. I was prepared for that cycle. I wasn’t prepared for how deeply it would affect me after 7 months away.

Iwas hungry when I got off the plane. After customs (which amounted to a cursory 30-second scan of my claim form. “Oh, you’re going to Minnesota. How nice.” Obviously, no one would willingly go to Minnesota in the wintertime, anyways. And, of course, blonde people are all trustworthy, right? I must be alright, even if I was coming from a country that declared a state of siege because of the drug cartels on that very same day.) I made my way through the terminal stumbling, slack-jawed and buggy-eyed the whole way. There are like 47 of the same restaurants! Can’t I just have a salad? Why does it have to be fire-roasted this and herb-infused that? I just want some vegetables! Can’t it be simple? It literally took me a half hour of taking a few steps, stopping, backing up, turning around, changing my mind, turning around again, etc, etc (and causing a few minor accidents with the less bewildered travelers) to somewhat gain my wits about me, or at least enough to walk a fairly straight line toward lunch with some green in it.

Walking around the airport, I kept recognizing people. It happened about 15 times in 3 hours. “Hey, I know that guy!” I thought to myself. It wasn’t until well into hour number two that I realized that it wasn’t that I knew them personally. I knew them. They were all of the American archetypes I hadn’t seen in months parading before my eyes. It was like seeing an old friend. Actually, it was more like seeing an old acquaintance and awkwardly staring at them until you placed where you knew them.

Life is a trip. I can honestly say there was never a day in my mind when I considered going to Guatemala. I studied Latin America. I even studied Guatemala fairly in-depth. Learning about the Civil War made me pretty sure I’d never set foot there. I’d hear one unsavory thing about some far-flung location and automatically conclude that I couldn’t go there because it wasn’t safe. If I ventured too far, I’d invariably be caught next to a bomber or abducted by pirates. This last is particularly absurd, seeing as how I’ve never actually been on a sea-faring vessel. I’ve always been a globetrotter; I just let the external fear get the best of me. On those few occasions when I did venture out in the world, it was drilled into my head to not let people know you were American. That’s what we, or at least I, learned – everyone was out to get America.

As it turns out, that’s not true. I’m continually shocked and amazed by the amount of pro-American sentiment. That’s right. I said it. Pro-American sentiment. But, the rest of the world doesn’t like us! I’m supposed to lie and say I’m from Canada! In my travels, I’ve learned that that’s not actually necessary. People love us. This is particularly powerful, given the U.S.’s less-than-stellar record in Latin American politics. Nevertheless, people proudly show off their English phrases and knowledge of American geography. It’s a bit disconcerting at first, and totally heartwarming once you learn to get over yourself.

So, I guess that’s what these past 7 months have been for me: learning how to get over myself. Learning how to move beyond the messages I received as a kid that don’t resonate with who I am as an adult. Learning how to appreciate the world for how it is, not how I expect it to be.

This week, I saw peace in a little bit of shock.

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