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January 9, 2013 |

Reverse culture shock

Atop Stoltzekleiven in Bergen

Hello everyone! I'd like to take this post to discuss a phenomenon I've always wished to experience (and now finally have): reverse culture shock.

It's easy to find stories of culture shock; people go to new places and see new things and meet new people and start new activities and it's completely understandable given that they're not used to these new ways of doing things. While it's indeed an interesting phenomenon in and of itself, I feel it pales in comparison to the psychology behind reverse culture shock; that is, coming back to your country of birth and feeling as if it's a foreign country.

Coming back from the mountains of Norway, I experienced this. I set foot in the Orlando, Florida airport and was immediately struck by the large amount of Disney advertising everywhere. Yeah, sure, Disney and theme parks, a common thing to advertise and see in Orlando. But it went much further than that: I stepped outside, and it was hot. In actuality, it was only about 23 C (74 F), but the air was wet and heavy, something some people call "muggy", the kind of weather that makes warm weather feel hot and cool weather feel cold. I felt damp to my core, dunked underwater by some unseen force - this was a marked difference from Norway! Norway doesn't have nearly as much humidity as Florida, despite it having ample water surrounding it all the same. Norway's winter was relatively dry compared to those of Florida (if Florida can even be considered to have a true "winter" :P). As I went on through the week following that initial airport landing, I noticed more things, like a thick loaf of bread half my height that cost a mere $1.59. After being away for three months, I couldn't help but think upon my return: is this really the country I've been living in all these years? Here are some of my observations:

  • The food in the US is incredibly modified and bland: No, this isn't the case with absolutely everything, but there's a trend here. I tried getting the same foods that I've been eating in Norway for the past three months and, if I had poor eyesight, I would think I had chosen my food from a totally different aisle from the one I did. Why is there so much sodium in the bread? The pasta? There are so many foods that are vastly oversalted here, and finding a "pure" taste is rare. The peanut butter has a very synthetic taste to it and meat seems especially adulterated.
  • Things are absurdly cheap in the US: Walmart. The dollar store (all 500 different versions of it). Target. Amazon. Ebay. All of these places sell food or merchandise at unbelievably low prices, and most are only available in the US (some international versions of the online retailers exist but charge outrageous prices to get something shipped to Norway). It's not hard to find a trash can for $1, shower curtains for $6, enough pasta to last you every meal for a week for $10. These are things that are pretty much unheard of in Norway. With these prices, though, sometimes comes a noticeable difference in quality and - in the case of food - taste. The surprising thing, though, is that this is not always the case.
  • Dessert is pretty much as it always was: delicious and terrible for you: If there's one thing the US does correctly, it's dessert. For taste, at least. You just might die afterward, but for some dessert dishes, that's a good tradeoff.
  • People fake a lot here: This is found anywhere you go, but I've found that especially in the US, people don't generally say what they mean. In Norway, when someone started a conversation with you or smiled, it was usually completely unprovoked, with them approaching you and without pressure. In the US, people do these things during the most trivial and insincere of activities like buying groceries. The cashier will put on a mockery of a smile, ask you how you are, and you'll mumble an answer you probably don't even mean (or you may both be spirited about it as I am when this happens, but sadly this is not what I see most often when I look around me in the checkout line). When you're obviously having a bad day at work, it's good not to be completely stonefaced, but I don't want you to ask me how I'm doing today if you won't even bother to listen to my answer.
  • The toilets are extremely inefficient: The Netherlands and Norway both have ingenious ways of handling plumbing that the US hasn't even come close to implementing. Instead of using many gallons of water to flush toilets, they focus on creating a large amount of suction. This way, sometimes even less than a gallon of water is used per flush! And the most efficient part of their toilets is one the US has barely even touched: the ability to control the amount of water used for the flush depending on if whether you went #1 or 2! Why isn't that a widespread feature in the USA? It makes perfect sense.
  • Bugs!: This is mostly a Florida thing, not a US thing. Coming back from Norway, where the harsh cold and rugged landscape are very hostile to most bugs (and to a lot of animals in general), the humid, damp air and swamps of Florida encourage mosquito, cockroach, and ant attacks like nobody's business. If you leave food out for a solid week in Norway, likely even if it's straight sugar, it won't attract ants or cockroaches. Do the same in Florida and you'd have the largest insect infestation you've ever seen on your hands. This also extends to dangerous animals: in Florida, a place rife with heat, I'm wary of not going too far into the woods or into unknown territory because of snakes (some of which are poisonous, most not) and other creatures. In Norway, the most frightening animals you'll find are frogs and deer, with an occasional spider.
  • Wow, this country is overweight: There are some people who have genuine weight disorders that can be attributed to their genetics. The majority of Americans do not fall into this category. Did you know that more than one out of every three adults in the US are not only overweight, but obese? That's insane. This was especially apparent to me coming back from Norway, a country where it's completely common to bump into your friends on your daily run up to the city dam or at the gym. It lives and breathes fitness and health compared to what I see here. Ever since I got back I've been running to and from my car as often as possible and doing exercise in my room to maintain the shape I got into climbing up the various inclines scattered all around Norway. Even without the mountainous terrain, there's really no excuse for your average, non-disabled person to not get sufficient exercise every day. If someone's the type to cook a lot, there tends to be a lot of downtime during that; heck, even as you stir you could be dancing. There are some (very few) cases in which things like this won't be reasonable, but truly, if they're not juggling ten different things at once each and every second of every single day, people have got the time to exercise.

Norway is not the King of Everything and the US is not the Worst of Everything by any means, but the two places have vastly different ideas and cultures about the above topics, and three months in the "foreign country" was enough to make me see the country of my own birth as weird.





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