All I needed was some new socks to wear to work. That’s all I was looking for. It took me about 5 to 10 minutes to get in there, find what I was looking for, and to choose according to my needs. It’s not like I was walking around just looking at things even though there were sales and clearance signs blaring in my face. How rude. All I wanted was what I needed. That’s all, but try telling that to the cashier who kept insisting that I sign up for a rewards card (No thank you. I don’t come here often enough.), that I buy extra items that are on sale next to the register (No thank you. I just came here for the socks today), and that credit card that in her mind is the best thing on the planet (Really, no thank you. I don’t need it, and I don’t want it.) Then she made the moment even worse when I told her that I didn’t need a plastic bag for my socks, which I could clearly fit into my purse, and she then proceeded to give me a strange look. Excuse me for being environmentally conscious.
The wave of reverse culture shock comes in spurts, and it always comes from the most unexpected situations and places. This is what I’m discovering during this week as I try to readjust to what is supposed to be my home culture.
This moment at JC Penny, one of the largest department stores in the United States, really made me reflect (and get slightly frustrated about) on some of the differences in the two cultures that I’ve come to call home.
France, and most of Europe really, is extremely environmentally friendly and conscious. In France, it’s just a part of the daily living norm. They don’t use plastic bags at groceries stores. Instead, you have to pay for reusable bags. Recycling not only available in 90% of places, but it’s FREE! Though there are some states in the US where recycling is free, in Indiana, my state, you have to PAY to recycle. So, most people don’t. Also, most people walk everywhere in France, drive small cars, take public transportation, or ride bikes to get to where they need to go. In addition, many cities have a city park/garden. It’s amazing.
This is quite different than the US. Every time I’ve gone to do shopping or to run errands while I’ve been home, I’m simply horrified by the amount of plastic bags that people use. I keep forgetting to tell people that I don’t need plastic bags or to dig up and use the reusable bags that my mom has. Every time I go shopping, I can’t help but to get slightly irritated and to think how wasteful this country is. It also kind of hurts my soul to throw away plastic and glass bottles and jars as well as paper and cardboard. I can’t help but to think, I will be paying for recycling when I get my own place.
Now that I’m driving around my car again, I am very much aware of its effects on the environment. Though I understand that everything in the States is just much more spread out, which basically requires driving everywhere, I still feel a slight twinge in my gut every time I drive somewhere as well as the complete frustration at the fact that there is a huge lack of sidewalks and bicycle lanes here. So even people who do want to be more environmentally conscious struggle with it because options just aren’t available.
Also, we do have parks here, but you have to drive to them, and often times they don’t really have gardens to walk around in. Most are just playgrounds and open grass areas. I want to walk through gardens every day. I really do.
The lack of environmental friendliness here isn’t the only thing that I’ve noticed. Going back to my small anecdote from the beginning, I had forgotten until today how much consumerism is ingrained in our culture. It’s appalling. Nothing is ever enough. Every store has their own type of rewards system, which is intended to encourage people to buy more because they get cash rewards or discounts. I don’t need it because I’m not a shopaholic. I only buy what I need when I need it.
Also, the whole idea of a department store having their own credit card is ridiculously appalling to me. This country is already in enough debt and most people already have debt through student loans, mortgages, car loans, or other credit cards. Why are we encouraging going into debt or more debt? Why are we encouraging people to spend money they don’t have on things they don’t necessarily need? Now, a credit card is good to have if there is a big purchase that you need that you can’t necessarily pay for right away but that you will indeed be paying off or an emergency, but department store credit cards? I just don’t get it. I especially don’t understand why the sales associates feel the need to keep telling me about all of the rewards that I’ll get if I spend more money on things I don’t want or need or spend money that isn’t even mine on things that I don’t want or need. I understand how the system works. I understand the so-called ”rewards” and ”perks” that I’ll get from having said credit card. I used to be a cashier in a department store. I hated it because I did not agree with this idea of extreme consumerism. What happened to just buying what you need when you need it and being satisfied with what you have?
I loved not being bombarded to sign up for things I didn’t want or need or to purchase extra items I had no interest in in France. I really did. I suppose the good thing about the intensity of consumerism in this country though is that it makes me evaluate every purchase I’m making. I so don’t want to be a part of it that I ask myself a list of questions before deciding to buy something. So, I guess there’s always a plus side to the downsides.
While living in France, I had developed my own way of eating. I ate a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables, pasta, cous cous, lean chicken and beef, and beans. I usually only ever drank water, milk, or juice occasionally drinking pop as a treat or drinking alcohol when out with my friends or at a party. My first experience grocery shopping being back home was astounding. Where in France there’s one section of one aisle of pop drinks, there is an entire aisle, both sides completely filled in the United States. Then, as I was purchasing different food items and looking at the ingredients, I was astounded at how much sugar, salts, and high fructose corn syrup is in food. I had completely forgotten how different of a world this is. Also, there is about one section of frozen food in the supermarkets in France, but there are about one to two full aisles here in the States. I can only imagine what kinds of preservative chemicals are in those foods.
This experience really shocked me. I knew these things about my home culture, but they were very much pushed to the back of my mind until I came back home. It frustrates me because one of the reasons that people are so unhealthy in this country is because the amount of chemicals, sugars, and salts we put in our food, not to mention the fact that fresh fruit and vegetables are slightly more expensive here as well. The upside of that though is now I am extremely hyper cautious about looking at food labels before I buy a food product. I honestly want to make sure that I’m fueling my body with things that it needs and that will be beneficial for it.
A lack of exercise is also apparent in this country. I can already feel the results from being less active from sitting and driving most of the time. While I was living in France, I lost about 8 pounds, not only because of the food I was eating but also because I walked everywhere. I was constantly active. Many people live very sedentary lifestyles here, something that is not as common in France and other European countries, and I’ve become extremely hyper aware of it. Of course, there are gyms where you can get memberships, but not everyone can afford to pay for that. So, I’ve been making a conscious effort to try and make sure that I exercise a little bit every day, because I can already feel the differences in my body from not walking everywhere every day.
These are just a few of the many little things that I’ve been noticing this first week back home.
Every day I am faced with another wave of reverse culture shock. I’m learning so much more about my home culture because I’m now seeing it through the eyes of the French culture. Though there are definitely some good things about the States culture, I can’t help but to feel overly frustrated by the bad things.
Encountering reverse culture shock is normal. In fact, it would be odd if someone didn’t experience it after living in another culture for awhile. For right now, I’m just trying to take it one day at time, remembering the good things about my culture but not succumbing to the things that I do not agree with, allowing the ways in which I’ve changed from living in the French culture to continue.
What are some of the moments of reverse culture shock that you fellow expatriates have experienced?