It’s been a long time since I’ve chilled out in the US. In the last two years, I’ve only spent about a week back home. So when I packed up my life in Ukraine and prepared for my yearly pilgrimage for the holidays, I knew there’d be some reverse culture shock to deal with.
I just wasn’t prepared for what it would be.
1. Toilet paper can actually go in the toilet. If you’ve read my travel guide to Ukraine, you are aware that the plumbing systems in the country are… sensitive. Apartments are usually fine, but honestly when I was out and about I was not going to play that risky roulette, especially because I couldn’t read any of the signs in a bathroom. Just toss the tissue in the bin, no problems.
Excepting any rugged camping situations, which are few and far between in my life, I have never done anything but flush in the States. So how is it, that three decades of habit were washed away by a year and a half in Ukraine? Three weeks home, and I’m still faking out the wastebasket.
2. I can understand EVERYTHING. I feel superhuman, like in all those sci-fi movies when people start using the other 90% of their brains (though I’m still terrible at math, so maybe 75% would be a more accurate number). It’s not just about hearing all the conversations that go on around me – though they are vastly interesting. Hell yes I want to know more about that woman’s Trader Joe trip and the grief that arose when she forgot to buy Tristan’s tea. Who is Tristan? Why is he so hooked on tea? And what kind of tea was it? — but it’s also that I can read every street sign, every menu posted outside restaurants, and every sticker in dive bar bathrooms. I read an entire text message conversation over a girl’s shoulder on the subway today. Office gossip has never been more intriguing. And it made me wonder how much delightful drama I missed in Ukraine.
3. So… I can just plug this straight into the wall? Abroad, my boxy converter became an extension of my electronics, and therefore an extension of me, and to leave it on my bedroom floor in New Jersey for days on end just seems heartless.
I do appreciate being able to charge all my electronics at once, though.
4. The prices. They make me want to weep. I steeled myself for the sudden leap in prices that would happen as soon as I skipped across the ocean. I reminded myself that in the States, cappuccinos are indulgences, not a sustaining part of my existence, and I prayed for those who would have to suffer me in the morning. But some things you can’t just cut out of your budget, especially when half the point of coming home is to run around on a constant treadmill of catching up with friends. It cost me more to go from Grand Central Terminal to Connecticut, forty-five minutes away, than it did to take an overnight train across Ukraine.
5. Oh, we actually use change here. Sure, I think I have eighteen cents. Let me just tip out the entire contents of my change pocket and push past the Cuban, Ukrainian, Serbian, and Israeli interlopers while I fish that out.
6. All these bus drivers are alarmingly friendly. Day two of being back in the States, I was waiting outside my parents’ house to catch a bus from New Jersey into New York City. When the bus pulled up and the doors opened, the driver shouted “GOOD MORNING! How are you doing today?” Having spent the last eighteen months in Eastern Europe (and having lived in New Jersey before), this amount of enthusiasm was straight up alarming.
People in general are just more polite than I remember them being. I was walking through a busy Christmas market in the city, and a man stepped out from one of the shops in front of me so that I had to swerve. He turned around and said, “Oh! I’m sorry!” Literally, that would never happen in Ukraine. I’ve had to remind myself to say ‘thank you’ when someone holds the door open and to keep my elbows tucked in while riding the subway.
7. Yeah, drip coffee is good, I guess. Considering I got hooked on coffee through the French press gateway, reintegrating myself into the land of ‘normal coffee’ drinkers should be no problem. Eighteen months of cappuccinos, lattes, and flat whites can’t destroy foundational habits, right?
8. Also, why am I still nervous upon entering a coffee shop? Going to a new coffee shop in Ukraine was the epitome of stress, which inevitably took the same progression –
1. I can actually get through ordering a small cappuccino in Russian, no problem. But
2. There will be a moment when the barista asks me something I can’t understand. At which point
3. I will have to out myself as a clueless foreigner, a dullard holding up a growing line of caffeine-deprived people. Which means
4. Not only have I embarrassed myself and confused the barista, but now at least three other people have looked up from scrolling through their Instagrams at the sound of English. So yeah, every time I went to get a coffee in Ukraine
5. I became a person of interest to at least half a dozen people.
That should not be a problem in the US, where if I’m ever asked “Where are you from?” it’s because people don’t believe there are native New Yorkers. But still I’ve noticed a hesitancy in myself whenever I’m about to walk into a coffee shop or bar, as if it’s a social situation where any sort of mortifying cultural faux pas could jump out from the corners.
9. How is it so easy to split a check on five different credit cards? Splitting checks is just not done in Ukraine, so when my friends in DC blithely suggested we hand a stack of credit cards to our waitress, my brain did not compute. I had brought a wad of cash specifically for the purpose of splitting checks, but the waitress was back wanting our signatures faster than we could have even figured out the math.
10. I find the thought of moving to the States terrifying. As part of my pilgrimage through the States, I spent a weekend in Washington, DC, with friends. In addition to catching up with them about life and love, I also grilled them on rent prices and the dating scene, as DC is on the shortlist of places I might move to when I return to the States. To be honest, despite my lifelong indifference to DC, it’s starting to seem like a viable option.
“Sure, yeah, I can live here,” I’d say, the tension in my face pulling up a smile. “Yeah, this would be nice.”
I have spent a lot of time recently thinking about coming home in a year or two and where I’d eventually land. And whether it’s DC, Chicago, or New York, no matter how much I love a city the thought of moving there makes my anxiety hit the roof.
Which is dumb. I’ve heard from multiple expat friends about the relief and contentment they’ve gotten from moving back home. Life is just easier, you know? Routine chores are actually routine – you don’t have to spend three weeks trying to find the right light bulb for your kitchen and you can find movie times without sifting through the schedules for the English language screenings. But when I compare moving back to the States, to a city where I have friends and job prospects, up against moving to a country I’ve never been to, unemployed and still waiting to hear about an apartment, the expat option always seems more appealing. Life at home may be easier, but life abroad seems less complicated. Whether it’s Seoul or Tbilisi, moving to a new city abroad seems way less anxiety inducing than coming home.
But I do want to come home, at least for a little while. I’m starting to take the necessary steps to see that happen in a year or two. So I need to wrestle out what it is about moving back to the States that is so terrifying and how I can get over it.
11. I love being in the city. When I came home for Christmas last year, I did not click with the city. It seemed cold, impersonal, and dirty. It held zero charm for me – something that might have bothered me, but I was so enamored with life in Ukraine that I didn’t let it bother me too much. But I was worried that when I came back this time, I’d feel off-balance and disconnected again, and this time for longer.
I don’t know if you’ve ever loved a place so immensely that you want to hug its sidewalks, the support poles of the scaffolding, the discarded Christmas trees that still scent the streets with pine. But I’ve been in constant delight almost every minute I’ve spent in the city, except for when the park rat jumped out at me (not COOL, park rat). I’ve spent days on end in the East Village, pretending I was cool enough to hang out there. I revisited old coffee shop stomping grounds, ate all the dumplings from China to Poland, and went to matinee movies.
Which puts the question on infinite loop, “Should I come back? Should I come back? Should I come back?”
And then I think…
Help me feel like not such a weirdo — what reverse culture shock have you experienced coming home after your travels?