Spots of Time

September 10, 2004

Reverse Culture Shock

The beach house sunroom was filled with young California women – 90% of which were new mothers discussing their babies – cute habits, ages, IQs – you name it. "Seriously, Paul CRIED the first time little Sammy did the spit bubble kisses!" "So how old is your little Joey?" "He’s just 12 days younger than Tracy’s baby Riley!" "No, you’re kidding! How cute!" Etc.

All of a sudden, one of the (few) non-mothers said casually, "You know, if Riley and Joey were born in India to parents who were friends with each other – like their moms are here – most likely they would be serious discussion of them marrying, when both came of age. The husbands might even make an arrangement right then and there."


Eight pairs of eyes turned to the woman, who was now realizing that her comment had disrupted the normal flow of conversation – which, had she kept her mouth shut, would have no doubt continued with birth weights, first words and other normal "new mom" conversation. Instead, after an uncomfortable pause and a few polite "Really? How interesting" comments, the conversation returned to the previous topic. The young woman sat quietly back into the couch, harboring strange feelings of social ineptitude and the inability to make conversation. At her earliest opportunity, she left the room and took refuge outside on the beach. That woman was me – about five days ago – the day after I arrived back in the United States.

What was my problem?

Prior to my return, friends of mine who had traveled for a long period time talked to me about the concept of Reverse Culture Shock – basically, getting use to being back in America after living or traveling overseas for an extended period of time. And, I had prepared myself for it. Or, so I thought.

But, with the exception of some shock over prices ($8.00 for a burrito??), and marveling at the clean air and lovely blue skies (in LA, unbelievably enough), it felt pretty much normal to be back at home. Until I had to open my mouth in the company of a group of predominately young mothers – with whose lives, despite similar ages and backgrounds, it seemed I had nothing in common. Yet, this "baptism by fire, I suddenly realized, is the start of what will become usual conversation for me.

The year before I left the US, I attended the weddings of four friends. While I was gone, four more weddings took place and six babies were born (with two more on the way). And, while I was thrilled with the marriages and the prospect of cutie little cuddly babies, I neglected to think seriously about how that would change the relationships I had with my friends. The beach house birthday made me realize that a lot of my conversations, from now on, are going to start involving babies – and that, I guess, is my biggest culture shock of all.

The late 20s and early 30s, it seems, is a time of transition. I vaguely realized this when I left to travel but now that I have returned the reality is fully apparent. It is a time of friends getting married, having babies, moving overseas, returning to schools, changing careers, and generally refocusing their lives. Priorities become different, they become changed. While going out on a Saturday night and drinking or dancing is still the reality for some people, for others watching a video with a glass of wine and the baby monitor is another. For others it is getting use to having someone share your living space or returning to a time of deadlines for term papers and group projects.

So, Reverse Culture Shock, at least for me, will be less about getting accustomed to my return to American culture and more about getting use to the changes that occurred in my own circle of friends and acquaintances while I was away. Due to my relative isolation I have not had time to deal with the changes in an easy, gradual manner. When I left, only a few of my friends were married and none had children. Now, all of a sudden I’ve entered the new and somewhat separate worlds of the "singles" and "the married" and "the married with children."

Apparently, my life over the next few weeks will not be so different from the first few days or weeks traveling in a new country. While I was overseas I found that my transitions between new places were always similar in that certain adjustments had to be made before I could fit in and feel comfortable. Learning words in a new language, understanding what behavior was deemed socially acceptable (or unacceptable), and finding my way in previously uncharted territory. And, it seems those skills will come in handy again – oddly enough, in a land I have known since the day I was born.

In a week or so, when I get back to San Francisco, I have the honor of meet three new people who are sure to become a part of my life – Liam, Josephine and Luca. These three souls are children of friends of mine – children that did not exist when I left the United States. They will be living examples of the fact that time goes on and that just as my life has changed and evolved, so have the lives of my friends (and by no means just the married ones).

While I pride myself on keeping in touch with people, my circumstances did not always allow me to be as (individually) communicative as I would have liked. And so, while I have kept abreast of most of the "big changes" for my friends and relations, I am sure to encounter many surprises over the next few weeks and months as communications lines are re-established.

So, if at times it seems I am tongue-tied or say the wrong thing, please excuse my social gaffs and understand it will take me some time to learn the new language required of me. I have a lot of catching up to do.