For those of us who have spent most of our lives here, America doesn’t seem like an odd place. You often hear people making jokes like, “We don’t have a culture.” We’ve been gone for thirteen months, which really isn’t all that long, but it was apparently long enough for us to get used to other cultures and ways of life. Now everyday things around here keep surprising me.
Everything in America is huge. The houses, the yards, the cars, the televisions, the roads, the portions, the people. Really, everything seems comically over-sized to me, like I’ve somehow wandered onto Big Island in Super Mario Brothers 3. The urban sprawl around here is also pretty ridiculous. I can’t believe the amount of time Americans spend in their cars. Parking lots take up acres of space. It seems like nobody walks anywhere, which is pretty alarming to me, especially since walking became our main mode of transportation during our trip.
Related to that is the lack of public transportation options. I never thought about this before, but one important benefit of public transportation is that it forces people to walk. Say you live five minutes from your train stop and your work is also five minutes from the train. You would have to walk twenty minutes a day just to get to and from work. I’m not quite sure why the transit options here are so limited. It’s kind of a vicious cycle, with nobody wanting to take the bus because it’s not very efficient, and the city not wanting to put more money into the system because nobody uses it. I think the bus system in Madison is more complicated than almost all of the bus/train systems we encountered while we were traveling. (The notable exception is the Tokyo subway system–that was such a mess.)
Other things around here are strange, too. The money is all green. Prices don’t include taxes or tips, and the guidelines for tipping are pretty confusing. Gigantic cups of soda are cheap and often have free refills. There are strict rules about alcohol, like when you can sell it, whom you can sell it to, and where you can drink it. Hardly anyone smokes. The waiter brings you the bill before you ask for it, which now seems incredibly rude, like you’re being shooed out the door. On the other hand, servers and cashiers are all expected to be nice to you. They can even lose their job if they’re not nice to you, but it all seems so artificial. Sure, nobody likes the snobby waiters in Paris, but do you really need a big fake smile and a conversation about the weather while you’re buying your groceries?
Door knobs here are round and impossible to open if your hands are full. The toilets have way too much water in them. Prescription drugs are not only advertised, but aggressively marketed to their target audiences. Some foods are eaten with a fork and some are eaten with your hands, and with some food, like chicken or potatoes, it depends on how it’s prepared. (Baked chicken is eaten with a fork, but fried chicken is eaten with your hands.) Garbage disposals are both strange and convenient. Kids in high school can drive and many of them have their own cars. Driving is very neat and orderly and everyone follows the rules. Soccer is almost never on TV (thankfully). Americans tend to be very religious and assume that you are as well. Children are very spoiled and their parents talk to them instead of punish them. “Now Timmy, it hurts Grandma and makes her feel bad when you kick her in the leg, so please don’t do that. Do you think that sounds fair?”
The incredible wealth and waste here is hard to believe. I think the constant talk about the terrible economy is kind of funny, because everyone here seems to have tons of material possessions and I still haven’t seen anyone digging in dumpsters for dinner. Water, energy, and food is wasted in huge amounts here all the time. To name just one example, in many other countries, it’s normal to turn the shower off while you’re lathering up your shampoo or soap. In America, that seems like a ridiculous practice.
This whole phenomenon of feeling out of place in your own country is known as Reverse Culture Shock. Sometimes it’s fun to see the differences because it feels like we’re traveling in a foreign country again. The problem is that the place we’ve been homesick for, and looking forward to returning to, feels completely different. I think that’s harder to deal with because, obviously, America hasn’t changed. We have. As Thomas Wolfe noted over 70 years ago, you can’t go home again. Once you leave, “home” as you remember it will never exist again. I feel like I don’t fit in anywhere and that’s an uncomfortable feeling. I’m sure once we settle into a routine and get back to work, life will seem more normal, but I don’t know if things will ever be the same. And maybe that’s not a bad thing. After all, challenging yourself and getting to know your home culture is an important part of travel. It just means we might be consistently confused and amazed by this country for the next few months.