Benjamin Chait

Culture shock, reversed

17 August 2013

The hardest part of travel is returning home.

My friends warned me of this. Almost everyone shared that for all the culture shock one finds while abroad, the first few weeks back home are the worst. However ready I thought I was, nothing prepared me for this.

Landing in America was a blur. Oddly enough, US Customs and Border Protection screened the entire flight in Dublin allowing us to land in a domestic terminal in Philadelphia. One moment, I was in Ireland; some anxious few hours spent hopping across the Atlantic; and suddenly, I was walking about on American soil. My iPhone worked again with full service, messages began to light up the screen. People once again spoke the same language as me; signs were readable once more. Prices were in US dollars—my credit card worked and I was no longer playing a game with exchange rates. A short time later and Sarah and I met with Brooke, one of my closest friends from university; we relaxed and caught up for a bit before departing for an evening in Newark with Sarah’s family. Still dark when we departed, an early-morning flight had us in Denver almost an hour early; the Rocky Mountains just waking for the day.

The first weekend home was almost a dream. I was more emotional—happier—about being home than I would have imagined. Seeing the front range, I realized how much I missed this place. And for all the experiences abroad, part of me was so incredibly happy to not be traveling—at least that instant.

Somehow, others had a perception that my travels were a simple vacation, a “holiday” of sorts; nothing feels further from the truth. It’s hard to describe but for me, backpacking on its best day was more challenging than my job on its worst day. Yes, certainly each and every day was rewarding and rich and what I made of it. But that itself is what makes travel challenging: I have to make something of each day. Extensive planning, research and exploration kept the past year in budget and safe. I accomplished goals while abroad, saw places I had set out to visit. So yes, I had a blast, but it was far from “easy.” Being home is thus bittersweet.

Some few weeks later, it still feels surreal to be in America. In some ways, it’s almost as if the past year was just a dream. A blur. My world has changed, yet everything remains the same.

Looking around me, I wonder how much has changed—or how much I have changed myself.

America feels loud.

Everywhere I turn, noise follows. Part of me wonders how much is based upon language. When traveling, I often ignored those conversations around me when I could not speak nor understand the language; now I find myself constantly bombarded. Small moments like sitting in a café or even music on the radio seem overwhelming. My days are a cacophony; only at night can I truly find quiet. By no means is this bad—I just find myself more aware of my surroundings than before travel.

Maybe being hyperaware of my environment is a side-effect of extended time abroad? For the first time in nearly a year, my days are not full of learning new places, people, things. Boulder is a place I can navigate, I have family and friends and my favorite local spots. We drive on the right side of the road. I feel comfortable with the culture—tipping, how to be polite and so forth. Yet parts of it nag at me. Why do we tip? Who decided upon sales tax rather than VAT? Small questions lead to bigger ones. I’m confounded at our insecurity as a nation, our paranoia. How have we become so ill-at-ease with our neighbors?

I realize I’m exhausted.

Unexpectedly, the most aversion and challenging reaction I have to any culture is none other than my own. Without question, I am happy to be home. I’m thrilled to sleep in the same bed more than three nights in a row. Learning new languages and exploring new cities was absolutely a thrill but so is being here, in one place, where I can find some stability. Build some true connections and relationships. Not constantly say goodbye.

In many ways, I’m thankful for the chance to slow down and breathe.

Maybe one day I’ll have more of a plan. But not yet.

Right now I’m devoting time to focus on myself. I’m trying to make more time to take better care of myself and to grow as a person. I hope I’ve done that these past few months; for now, I’d like to dedicate just a little more time to me. Working on simple projects. Learning new skills. Starting to run once again. Small things in the hope to make each and every day count.

Whatever happens next, I look back upon my experiences and have no regrets.

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