Culture Shock and Kaleidoscopes
About two years into living in Asia and backpacking through South East Asia I developed a serious case of homesickness for California. The sickness progressed to its most fierce stage while I was on a beach in Vietnam filled with Russian tourists and staying in a bedroom shared with 12 drunk Swedes. Only a month before, this scene would of been an ideal place to rest my head. The two best reasons to travel are to go to new places and to meet new people, but suddenly the idea of four-day friendships and sleeping in a different bed every night became exhausting. I stayed abroad for another month and a half, visiting friends in Australia and then backpacking through New Zealand with my siblings. Getting off the plane on American soil was euphoric. I even asked the customs agent for a handshake after getting the “ok” to come back into the country.
Culture shock doesn’t get enough credit, it is a huge deal. The brain struggles to connect everything you have learned with what is considered the social norms of a new place. You learn the societal norms and mannerisms through a dissociative reaction to what your current understanding of the world. The world suddenly changes, and therefor you must change and adapt as well. I’m great at evolving, but pretty terrible at changing (as I think most people are). When I returned, I made a strong subconscious effort to remain in the backpacker mentality: I never changed my mindset to “home,” I didn’t go out to look for steady work, I crashed on free couches and beds, and I continued looking at everything in my
old new environment with my traveler’s global (or arguably Martian) perspective. I struggled with cell phone texting etiquette, I said “Hello” to people on the street and got strange looks, and it took me quite awhile to feel normal without a backpack. Above all, the culture shock I’m having the most trouble with is this:
This is the remainder of my plate of food from a restaurant in Mammoth, California. I had eating a quarter-pound cheeseburger and half of the fries they had given me. The picture is the leftovers of that meal. In this picture, I would say that it is 1 1/2 potatoes, which means that the meal, in addition to the quarter-pound burger, came with 3 potatoes worth of french fries. My observations are obviously skewed by living off smaller portions for years, but this meal would have been three days of food for me in South East Asia. My question is this, “If someone put 3 full potatoes on your plate, would you eat them in addition to your burger?” This isn’t a rant, it’s just an observation of my American culture shock, but it does become upsetting when you learn that the US has 40% food waste per year.
My point is this, “home” loses it’s deep-rooted sentimentality when travel expands your views of the world. The burden of knowledge weighs heavy on the mind of those returning to their origins. As the Bohemian-Austrian novelist, Rainer Maria Rilke, stated, “The stranger who comes home does not make himself at home but makes home itself strange.” If all of my experiences have evolved my way of observing the world and processing it, then perhaps it is impossible to ever leave the backpacker’s mindset that I have internalized over the years. All of this weighs heavy on me as I remain in California but no longer of California. It makes me wonder, what exactly was I homesick for? Comfort? The Past?…Non-squat toilets and hot water showers? Perhaps I am the boy playing tag with his friends. He places his hand upon the tree and announces that he is “safe,” but how much longer can he hold onto the tree before he heads back out to play again?
Nietzsche has a theory called “Recurrent End.” According to his theory, time is a flat circle in which we repeat our lives over and over again. I’ve already lived the life I am in now, I’ve already wrote this post I’m currently typing on my laptop, I’ve already finished the cup of coffee in front of me…and will do so again.
“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence — even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!” Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine”? If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are, or perhaps crush you.” -Nietzsche
I am possessed of this thought. I have lived an exceptional life thus far, and will continue to live one until the day I die. This is not the first time I have returned to California, this is not the last time I will do so, and if I am born into this moment once more, I wouldn’t change a thing. Small flat circles within the larger circle of my life, repeating infinitely forever. Perhaps this is a scary thought for some, and even I only playfully tinker with this theory, but if it were true, what a beautiful kaleidoscope our speck of lives would be.