After spending the last year and a half in Southeast Asia, and also Europe (mostly France), our recent return to the U.S. felt… strange.
We recognized this feeling, this sense of disorientation, as mild culture shock, which, I might point out, had nothing to do with the fact that we happened to arrive when a new president was taking office in the face of overwhelming opposition and resistance. (That was just regular shock, although it did add a strange dimension to the timing of our return.)
We landed in Fort Lauderdale with the intention of staying for a couple of days to rest and adjust before heading on to San Francisco, where we used to live. Oddly enough, there had been an airport shooting in Ft. Lauderdale, just the week before. We chose not to take that personally.
As we stood in the long, snaking immigration line, listening to the foreign sounds of American English around us, and with our kids hanging off our legs as if they would die from boredom, I heard an American woman in her early 60s complain about the long wait. This bothered me. Like, really, you’re going to complain about this? There are people in Cambodia who have limited access to clean drinking water, have to travel miles on foot to attend school, and on average earn less than $3 per day. Waiting in long lines when you’re bone tired is part of the travel experience, and it is a privilege, a privilege to have the kind of passport and the means that enable you to see another part of this world. So, suck it up, Lady!
Oh, such was the state of my mind upon arrival.
Checking the Landscape
We grabbed our bags and stepped out into the bright sunshine. Watching the cars, taxis, and shuttle buses pass by, my first impression was: Wow! Everything is bigger: the roads, the cars, even the people. Everything appeared clean, shiny, and new as well.
When we climbed aboard our hotel shuttle bus, about 20 people greeted us with friendly “Hellos,” and immediately struck up conversations with us. Turns out they were a church group from Iowa making their way to Haiti to volunteer at an orphanage, and they made us feel so welcome!
After checking in, we took a walk to find something to eat. Our hotel was located in a suburban neighborhood between Ft. Lauderdale and Hollywood, and the only place nearby was a sprawling mall called Oakwood Plaza. It consisted of two humungous parking lots and big name, chain stores and restaurants, including: Marshall’s, Ross, Kmart, Big Lots!, Old Navy, Home Depot, TGIF’s, and Quiznos Sub. The sight of MacDonald’s and Taco Bell and Wendy’s, all flying large, American flags, made me think, more than anything else so far: Welcome to America!
We ended up eating at Miller’s Ale House, a modern, dark sports bar with about 20 large screen TVs and a triple-decker, fully stocked bar. We looked around, agape at the apparent wealth and abundance. We hadn’t seen a place quite like this for a long time. Afterwards, we stopped at Big Lots! to buy snacks, and again stared in disbelief at an entire wall devoted only to chips.
Back at the hotel room, we delighted in the fact that things worked! We flipped switches and lights went on! There was no problem with the Wifi, the closet door not closing, an odd sewer smell in the bathroom, or anything else. They had free coffee and ice! There was a large, flat-screen TV and HBO! Now, we could certainly get used to this! We sat in our beds and watched HBO for hours, movie after movie, until we fell asleep over our chips.
Downtown – What Could It All Mean?
The next day we hit downtown Ft. Lauderdale to take a boat ride up a canal and walk around. It was a gorgeous, sunny day, and I loved seeing all the outdoor, terraced restaurants and cafes, busy with people enjoying their day. We picked one of those places, sat down, and ordered lunch. That’s when I was hit with the strongest dose of culture shock thus far. Looking around at all the polished people with their perfectly coiffed hair and neat, tidy outfits, with their dishes overflowing with so much food, I felt overwhelmed.
It was all too much. First, people don’t need that much food on their plates! The town felt dripping with overabundance, like a giant ice cream sundae with chocolate syrup, melting over the rim. Isn’t one simple scoop of ice cream enough?
In contrast, I pictured the five Cambodian men standing outside the mini-market in Siam Reap, gently competing with each other to be the one to take us back to our hotel in their tuk-tuks for $1, which might be all they earned that day. In that moment, this is what concerned me: maybe the people here weren’t appreciating what they had.
But really, how could I tell? I had to think about this, because I am all for success and wealth. We strive for these qualities ourselves! But I also believe that if you accumulate wealth and abundance, you need to be responsible about it: Don’t waste, appreciate what you have, treat all people with respect and dignity, and give back when you can.
Pierre added, “It’s one thing to have or want a lot, but the problem is, for some, there’s no stop to it. They always want more, or bigger.” Know when to stop!
We left Florida the next morning and headed to San Francisco, where, on the drive to our friend’s house in Silicon Valley, we continued to marvel at the large size of the roads and cars.
It didn’t take long for us to adjust back to life in the U.S., especially for the things we loved: being able to eat at restaurants any time we wanted, the convenience of 24-hour services, being surrounded by stores that carried anything you could possibly need, free Wifi everywhere (including inside our rental car!), public libraries full of free books and programs; the ease in accomplishing admin tasks, and some modern amenities—such as dryers! (Oh, I know it’s not as environmentally correct, but I was getting tired of hanging our laundry out to dry, especially in humid, rainy places.) Do people realize what they have here?
Lessons that Stick
After two weeks, our culture shock had dissolved, yet what remained within us were the experiences we gained through our travels. And this was not only a greater capacity to feel empathy and gratitude, but also a clear understanding that there are many ways to live a life (not just one right way), and pure joy is accessible. This is the lens from which we now see our world.
Soon after arriving in San Francisco, we visited our tiny storage, as I remember saving a few winter clothes in there, and we needed them. I opened a large red suitcase and was surprised by what I saw. There were things I needed: a pair of boots and four pairs of pants/jeans. But there were also T-shirts, scarves, winter hats, and more. It felt excessive, almost wasteful. Why did I save all this stuff? When you’ve become used to living light, it doesn’t take much to feel the excess.
We hope to carry the lessons we’ve gained into our future: to keep living light, being grateful for what we have, and living with purpose. Nothing should be taken for granted.