Thursday, May 12, 2011

Reverse Culture Shock

If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.
~John F. Kennedy

There I one of the biggest airports I'd been in or seen in the last few years. I was at London's Heathrow airport. Destination: the US of A, my home away from home. Or more specifically, my more permanent home.

I had just gotten off the airplane that had flown me from Nairobi's international airport to London where I was to have a layover before the next flight to Dallas. As soon as I got off the plane, I experienced the biggest single episode of culture shock that I can recall. It is hard to describe what actually took place inside my mind but I'll try anyway: As I was walking from one gate to the next, I saw a large electronics store located inside Heathrow airport. Now coming from a small town in Kenya where such stores not common I was completely and utterly blown away. More than anything I was flabbergasted by the amount of advertising for all the electronics one "needs" and absolutely cannot live without. The newest products such as e-book readers, digital cameras and camcorders, all kinds of smart phones and of course all the possible accessories for every single item in the store.

Having been accustomed to the simple life, in a manner of speaking, where advertisements are not as common or as overwhelming. Certainly there are advertisements for goods and services - though I've found that many many times the advertisement materials are used more for decoration than to actually indicate the goods the store has to offer.

I was so taken aback by the number of electronics plus the advertisements for all the electronics that I actually felt I could not take it, per se. I ended up going off to find a quiet place away from the advertisements to find the smallest shop that sold food - so that I could avoid the overwhelming feelings of advertisements as well as the overwhelming number of choices.

Even having found the smallest shop that sold food and snacks - which happened to be a bakery that had bagels - I still had some difficulties in figuring out what exactly I wanted to eat. Breakfast bagel with egg and who knows what or maybe just a plain bagel? Or a sandwhich bagel with veggies and such in between the bagel? Toasted or untoasted? And the biggest choice of all: which kind of the bagel I wanted to have... well there were approximately 20 or so different types of bagels to choose from.

My search for simplicity ended with a tragic end as I was still confronted with a plethora of choices that was enough to lead to my shutting out the world as I found a quiet corner to sit in and read a book as I waited for the next flight... Trying to avoid the crazy outside world of so many choices and also trying to make sense of it all.

While this one example was definitely drastic, it is actually what happened to me. On my trip to the US, the first time I had gone back in about two and a half years, I experienced the worst reverse culture shock at the airport en route to the states. Once I arrived in the States, I still experienced some culture shock though nothing as terribly pronounced as this particular episode.

Something else that took me a bit of getting used to was driving. Not having driven a car in two and a half years certainly had an impact on my driving back home during my leave. The first time I tried to drive I was accelerating way too terribly slow.

Certain things like driving, and using a microwave oven to prepare a snack or even a meal all seemed like such foreign concepts to me on my arrival in the US. Yet at the same time, in the back of my mind I remembered another life when using such things was the norm for me...a time when I didn't have to worry about having electricity or running water in my home. A time when I could choose, by the turn of a knob - to have either cold or hot water flowing out of the pipes. It all seemed like memories from a previous life and yet I was reliving such things.

Now, it seems, I am back to my reality where water and electricity may not be there when I get home. Where I sleep under a mosquito net to be able to have a pleasant night's sleep.
A reality where instead of being able to drive around I use public transport for almost all my travels (though sometimes I walk when the distance is short).

I live in a world where greeting my neighbors and other people in the streets is common, even if you don't know them. A world where life is relatively simple.

Realistically, I like living in this world. Though I may not live in this world for the rest of my life, I honestly wouldn't change anything.