I’ve returned home before during the course of this insane jaunt around the world, once because I got sick and another time to surprise my family for the holidays. Each return was a shock to the system: weatherwise, pricewise and peoplewise. But my return this week from Bangkok to attend the 2nd annual Travel Bloggers Exchange Conference (TBEX) has proven much more difficult than my other ‘re-entries’. Reverse culture shock is a real concern for long-term travelers, so if you feel it I am here to say: you are not alone.
I think there are several reasons for my current disconnect, each of which contributes to the otherworldly, awkward feeling of being an outsider in a city I used to call home. Part of it likely stems from my neighbourhood – the Sesame Street Soi where everyone yelled out a greeting as I walked down the street and stopped me to see what I was eating at that moment (I almost never walked around without food – this is Bangkok, after all) and what I planned on eating later that day.
In addition, I was subsumed within the tumultuous events in Bangkok these last months, from peaceful protests, to my area being declared a live fire zone, to actual fires raging in parts of Bangkok. It makes coming back to New York stranger still, since those events occupied a significant amount of brainspace until quite recently, and understandably no one here really wants to hear about them. I also spent a full seven months in Asia this time around; notwithstanding the political roller-coaster, there would still be some amount of reverse culture shock in coming home for the summer.
And against the broad canvas of my general readjustment, I’ve noticed a series of ‘holy crap’ moments, whereby I need to remind myself that life is just not the way it was a few days ago.
Reverse Culture Shock from Asia to North America
1. Table Napkins or Toilet Paper? My first thought when eating out this week: wait, you mean we each have a napkin? For the last 7 months, restaurant napkins unspooled from a cartoon-clad plastic dispenser of toilet paper that sat in the middle of the table. Napkins were first come, first serve – and meals generally ended with a tiny pile of discarded paper next to my plate. I went for dinner with my friend Cheryl this week and watched her put her napkin on her lap, suffering my first etiquette disconnect. Did I really used to do this? I guess so.
2. Waiting for All Food to Arrive. Common courtesy generally dictates that you wait for everyone to get their food before you dig in, with small wiggle room for dishes that absolutely must be eaten hot (read: fajitas) or where someone skips a course. Not so in Asia, where you will easily receive your dish well after everyone else at the table has finished theirs. Waiting for everyone to eat would be a travesty as most of the table’s food would be cold by the time that lowest-common denominator moment arrived. I need to remind myself to wait when eating in a group since my instincts are now to dig in first, look around later!
3. Portion Control. Or lack thereof, obviously. My style of eating has evolved from ‘obsessed with food but saving it for meal times’ to ‘obsessed with food, ergo every moment is meal time’. In Thailand, grazing is a national sport, and I fit right in. Walking down the street, one is bombarded by an infinite series of culinary options, unfolding in front of you like your own personal buffet. But portions are small, and you eat until you are full and then move on until you feel that familiar pang of longing for those perfectly grilled pork skewers and sticky rice. Portion sizes here in the US are astoundingly, disturbingly large. I sense a summer of appetizers (or a series of leftovers) for me.
4. Prices. Were I to eat in New York the way I did in Bangkok, I would be bereft of funds – quickly. But when a skewer of pork and sticky rice cost 5 baht (15 cents) each, and a full plate of noodles or chicken curry runs me under a dollar, money goes quite a long way. I spent more on a subway ride in NYC than I did on food for an entire day in Thailand. While I know this is merely the reality of returning to North America, it doesn’t make the sticker shock any less painful or jarring.
5. Where are all the Ladies? My life in Bangkok revolved around a set of talented ladies who made my existence much more enjoyable. I would go to my Coffee Lady in the morning and chat with her about her day, while stopping in to say hello to my Tailor Lady next door. I would eat dinner at Soi 6’s Pumpkin Lady, and lunch at the Som Tam lady just next to the Ratchawithi intersection. I would wave to my Shake Lady when I returned home, stopping at the Fruit Cart Lady for some pineapple as I walked down my street. Where have all the ladies gone? Sadly, life in North America is too fast paced for a different, specific cart to satisfy each need. But I often find myself thinking of these women and their impact on my life in Bangkok; I looked forward to talking with them every day, and miss their radiant smiles.
6. Smiling at Everyone. Speaking of smiling, having spent 7 months smiling at everyone and everything, be it in response to a smile from someone else or just because it is the thing to do, I am hopelessly used to it as a matter of course. This smiling thing is not par for the course in New York, and the customary reaction has been wariness (what is this crazy girl smiling at?), confusion (why is she smiling at me? WHY?) or, from those under the age of 10, a smile back. That’s not to say NY isn’t friendly – it is – it’s just a different breed of friendly, moving on a separate plane of existence from the one I was accustomed to. I wonder if I will be surprised at all the smiles in reverse, when I head to Nepal at the end of the summer.
7. Personality-Drenched Public Transportation. The complex network of buses, trains and taxis in New York is both thorough and effective – but it’s not as exciting navigating through a city like Bangkok. There are no motosai taxis, the orange-vested, fearless motorcycle drivers who are the lifeblood of Bangkok’s tangled web of streets, sois and back-alley shortcuts. There is no BTS Lady, yelling out the stops on the SkyTrain in her comforting, lilting voice. There are no boats along tiny klong rivers running deep in the heart of downtown, hectic and fast, a secret snapshot into everyday life amidst the concrete. And there are no tuk-tuks belching smoke into the air, their drivers giggling madly as they whisk you about town. Here, there are traffic rules. And they are enforced. This is probably good for my life’s trajectory, but it’s nowhere near as fun.
8. My Face is No Longer Melting. I never truly discovered ‘hot’ until I stayed in Bangkok through their shoulder season. April was beyond hot, the heat hitting you like a wall the second you stepped outside, leaving you drenched with sweat in seconds. Unless you are Thai – and thus do not sweat. But us farang were a soggy, sweaty, pasty-white mess. Whether I walked slowly, carried a wet handkerchief and drank water like it was going out of style, the net takeaway was that my face was melting off. Conversely, the summer in North America feels comfortable and cool – a good thing as people complain about these last few 32-degree days in NY.
9. Tall Beautiful Woman? Not Necessarily a Ladyboy. I do not want to generalize too thoroughly here, but if you stroll through Bangkok and spot a tall, beautiful Thai woman – chances are she was born a man. Some of the most stunning, delicate and well-dressed women in Bangkok were the ladyboys and they were a ton of fun to spend time with (as a woman, of course). I am still at the point where, upon seeing a tall woman here in NY, I glance at her hands and feet. An unexpected and funny leftover from my months in Asia.
10. Bargaining. I went to buy two popsicles near Battery Park city this weekend, and when the vendor told me the price, I said cajolingly “Come on, I’m buying two – you can’t give me a better price?” Understandably, his look indicated that I had just grown a second head. Bargaining was a way of life, be it in stores, market stalls or wandering down the street in search of food. Not so in North America.
Readjustment comes with its own set of perks, however: it is cherry season here, and I have been happily consuming bags of them, leaving red stains on my notebooks and countertops. I missed sharp cheddar cheese like it’s nobody’s business, and I am planning to eat poutine (my province’s culinary claim to fame) this weekend.