I made my first trip home to the Midwest after I’d lived out of the US for about 2 years. I wasn’t yet an ‘expat aid worker‘ but I had married a ‘local’. My husband and I lived minimally, surviving on his salary. Neither of us was on the front lines by any means, but the war in his country had only recently ended and things were still on edge, so we lived a bit on edge too.
This trip home was a classic example of so-called ‘reverse culture shock.’ Before my 2 years in my husband’s country, I’d been on the West Coast for almost 5 years. So being back in my mid-sized, middle class, Midwestern home town was a trip. People were big. They shopped in bulk. They ate large portions. They drove everywhere. They loved the mall, super-sized stores and fast food restaurants. The women had big hair, summer tans and gold jewelry. The fruit at the supermarket was big and fake looking. When you got it home, it was flavorless. Buildings were closed up, air-conditioned, sterile. The houses were sided or nicely painted, the lawns square and manicured. Streets were wide with multiple lanes. People drove shiny new cars and minivans. I felt a bit like I’d stepped into the Black Hole Sun video….
On the one hand, sleeping under a down comforter in a chilled, quiet room with venetian blinds drawn meant I didn’t wake up with the sunrise and the roosters, and that was nice. My feet didn’t get dusty when I walked around outside. There was a washing machine, a dryer and a dishwasher. There were no mosquitoes or roaches or any other bugs in the house. The streets weren’t jammed with buses and cars beeping, revving engines or blowing out clouds of black smoke. I could watch old episodes of my favorite childhood shows on Nickelodeon, and they weren’t even dubbed. My mom made my favorite meals. You could drink water from the faucet. There was an abundance of cheese, real butter, green salads, and the chocolate didn’t taste like flavored wax. I didn’t worry about being assaulted — or worse.
On the other hand, I felt like a stranger.
I remember my mother complaining about how my younger brother was wrecking the house and didn’t care. The house didn’t look wrecked to me at all. It looked just how it had always looked, and it was about a thousand times nicer than where I lived with my husband. “Come in here and look at this!” she said. “He put a hole in the carpet.”
We were having a conversation about a hole in the carpet?
I followed her into the room where the hole was. “It’s right here….” She scanned the floor for the hole. She couldn’t find it. She knelt down and ran her hand along the carpet, feeling for the hole. “Ah! Here it is. Look at this!” I looked at the small tear in the carpet and made what I hoped were appropriate comments. I felt closed and distant. I was angry at her for complaining. Did she have any idea that most people in the world didn’t even have carpet? And she was upset over a small hole?
I couldn’t relate my mom, or anyone else really. I didn’t know where to start when they asked what it was like where I lived. Most people had no idea where the country I lived in was located, what language was spoken there, or that there had been a war there that they were funding with their tax dollars. My grandmother wanted to know if we had toilet paper over there. It took too much effort to explain and contextualize. My self-righteousness ran high.
One of my best friends from college came out from the West Coast to see me for a few days. She at least knew her geography, wars, history and US foreign policy. But it took us awhile to find some common ground. I had my young child with me. I wasn’t as hip as I used to be. She talked about how she didn’t have her dream job yet, that it was hard for people our age to get going on a career. She talked about her aspirations to be something or someone special. I tried to find a way to relate, but it was hard. Where I lived most people didn’t have big career dreams and aspirations, they felt lucky to have some kind of income.
It was her first time in the Midwest and she was culturally shocked too. Things mostly just made her laugh in dismay. She found the Midwest ‘scary’ and Republican. We had often gone vintage clothing shopping in college, so we took a day trip away from my home town out to some smaller rural towns to check out the thrift stores. They normally sat on desolate Main Streets alongside little diners, variety stores, quirky craft boutiques and secondhand bookshops. She took black and white photos of the 1950s style storefronts, the old-fashioned signs for ice cream and hot dogs, and the church signboards with crooked or missing white letters that urged sinners to come in and be saved. We ate French fries and grilled cheeses and drank lemonade at one of the diners. A friendly old man in a baseball hat and overalls tipped his hat and held the door open for us, chatting us up in his slightly Southern accent.
After I got back home to my husband, my friend sent me some cassettes of her favorite bands, things she knew I’d like. She explained in the enclosed letter that one of the bands was fronted by Courtney Love, the wife of the lead singer from Nirvana. The band was called Hole.
I was excited to have some new music from an old friend. I popped Hole into the cassette player. Teenage Whore… Babydoll… Garbadge Man… It sounded harsh and ugly to me. My husband made faces. ‘Why are you listening to that?’ I pressed stop, annoyed at him, yet I couldn’t explain why I was listening to it. I wanted to defend myself, my college friend and Hole, but I had nothing to say.
For the next several weeks, when he was out of the house, I listened to Hole over and over, trying to learn to like it, trying to hang on to bits of my old self.