The One With the Culture Shock

When I was little, one of my favorite books was called Tops and Bottoms.  It told the story of a lazy Bear who had a lot of land but only wanted to sleep, and his poor neighbor Hare who had no land but was very clever.  Hare struck a deal with Bear, so that he would plant crops on Bear’s land, do all the work, and then they would share the profits.  Bear only needed to choose whether he wanted tops or bottoms.  Understandably, Bear chooses tops.  So when harvest comes, Hare pulls up carrots, radishes, and beets and throws the tops into a pile for Bear.  Knowing he was tricked, Bear demands another planting, this time choosing bottoms.  So Hare plants the land again, and this season, Bear gets all the bottoms of broccoli, cabbage, and celery.  Bear is furious and demands both tops and bottoms.  The third season, Hare plants corn and Bear ends up with the stalks and the tassels, and Hare keeps the corn cobs in the middle.  Finally, Bear is fed up and takes his land back, learns to farm, and becomes much more cautious and aware of his situation.  Meanwhile, Hare buys his own land from the profits from selling the crops, and Hare and Bear become neighbors (but never again business partners).

We can all take some morals from this story (like read the fine print before you agree to anything–lookin’ at you, iTunes users), but I always thought the most interesting idea from it was that things are not always what they seem.  Sometimes the obvious right answer is not so obvious (or right), and it often depends entirely on other factors in the situation.  It’s up to you to take in all the facts and decide how to act about it.

That’s a big lesson to be learning at age 5, but I think it applies to everything in adult life, from mediating an argument between friends, to making decisions about where to live, and especially in politics–for example, more taxes or less taxes? That depends on what you use the taxes for, how much to take, from what (sales v. income) and who you tax.  I’m not going to talk about politics (too much); the point is, there isn’t always a right answer, and your feelings on the matter will often depend on your personal experiences.

I’ve been working on this post for over two three months now.  It’s taken so long not because it’s anything groundbreaking, nor was it particularly difficult to write, but because I wasn’t sure of the take-home message.  A lot of the problem is that here I’m around the people who read this, in person, and there’s the possibility of them (you) talking to me about what I write, maybe asking questions, without the ability to answer the message later or end the skype call.  Does that sound like I’m avoiding people?  Probably.  But there was definitely something about being so far away, and each published post being a surprise, that felt like a protection.  And most of the things I was writing about were a world away from my friends and family here, so as much as I tried to create a scene and take photos that were representative of what I was experiencing, there’s still an element of secondhand theatrical license to it.

I can still write about Finland while I’m here, of course.  I can write about how much I miss good cured fish, dry, fresh-baked rye bread, the breeze off the sea, the indescribable sunsets and sitting in the grass and on the beaches basking in the sun, walking on the icy sea in the winter, hunting for berries and mushrooms in the fall.  I can write about it feeling very weird to miss something that was only mine for a year.  But I miss things about England too. Borough Market, the book fair under Waterloo Bridge, coconut curry soup at Natura Cafe, the chips from my local shop, the tube and the double-decker buses, the city lights reflected in the Thames. The pungent yellow rose bushes I walked past every day coming into Lewisham, learning to pronounce “Southwark” (it’s like “sudduck” if you pretend you have a space between your front teeth), taking the last train on the Bakerloo line after a night at the pub, happy and sleepy, my friendly house-mouse friends I named Nigel and Pixie, and even the drafty old windowsills in my flat.

And I miss spending time in the Netherlands–the canals and the cheese market and little coffee shops in Gouda, tucked into corners of uneven cobbled alleyways between old multicolored houses that tilt so it seems their tops might touch; making friends with the girl in the oliebollen cart by Den Haag Centraal station over Christmas (her krentenbollen are the best), watching de Club van Sinterklaas and bizarre Dutch music videos ALL DAY when it’s too cold and sleety to go outside, the free coffee and cookies at Albert Heijn, Easter brunch of poffertjes met advocaat en slagroom (tiny pancakes with rum sauce and whipped cream) at the diner by the park, tiny butter biscuits and raw sugar nestled next to the cutest little espresso cups, hot coffee warming the hands as you sit on the terrace of the cafes wrapped in blankets, even when it snows.

It feels very weird to miss things, and I think it strikes people as weird when I say I miss more about those places than the places I’ve spent most of my life.  But maybe what makes a place yours isn’t how much time you’ve spent there but how much of life you have made there.

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I’ve talked a lot here about the practical and psychological difficulties of living in a different country, and one thing that expats talk about a lot amongst ourselves but that doesn’t get addressed often enough in public is reverse culture shock.

The best resources on reverse culture shock are actually on university websites for students who study abroad and return home to find, unsettlingly, that things are exactly the same but feel completely different because they are the ones who have changed.  The truth is, it’s always weird to be back, and it’s weird to write about things here.  I have a bit of a block about it, to be honest.  Mostly I’m afraid that people will be offended, that people will take my comments as hating the U.S. and criticizing too much.  But being back, having traveled, is giving me a better understanding of why things are the way they are here, and a better appreciation of them.

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It was about a year ago when I wrote a culture shock post about being in Finland, so I thought it would make sense to do the same for reverse culture shock.  Yes, this is (finally) the obligatory It’s just so weird to be back in the U.S.! post.

I’m admitting it feels a bit hypocritical, since I did incredulously tell everyone the story of my two trans-Atlantic plane-mates who were California girls about my age coming back from “backpacking through Europe” a.k.a. giving their Coach bags and Prada sunglasses the grand tour of Paris and Amsterdam (I asked for details–no one’s slummin’ it in Lyons or Leiden here!), who spent the entire 6 hours rhapsodizing about how strange it was to be going back to the U.S. after 5 whole weeks away. I would have been more sympathetic if one hadn’t soundly abused her boyfriend over the phone before loudly complaining about how terrible their seats were and shooting pointed glances at my north-facing window-seat.  All before takeoff.

So I felt a little justified in my reverse culture shock, having been away for 14 months.  But I hope I don’t sound like I’m ragging on the U.S., which is, to be very honest, often the bottom to my broccoli. (Get it?  I made an allegory.) But maybe we need to learn to eat the broccoli stems, and the carrot tops, and maybe we’re all just corn after all.  And then you spend a year in a place where corn isn’t eaten regularly, and you realize that it’s kind of weird.

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1. The very first thing that struck me upon returning to the U.S. was that there are five million choices for everything.  On my way back to Ohio, I stayed in New York for a few days to see some friends and went out to grab a coffee one morning.  All I wanted was coffee that was cold, and I ended up just agreeing to all the questions the cashier asked me, leaving with an “iced latte” the size of my entire torso that cost about six dollars. They do not sell coffee in “bucket” size in Finland, and the jäälatte is an expensive treat that’s not usually worth it.  There are two sizes, if you’re lucky, and Starbucks has only been introduced in the past year–it’s still mostly patronized by tourists.  I have a feeling that “having it your way” isn’t really compatible with a culture steeped in traditional sisu.  Strong black coffee for us, thanks!

2. Also about food: I’m immediately very suspicious about what’s in it. This is the land of corn syrup, genetically engineered pesticides and EU-banned additives, after all. I’ve been obsessively checking food labels, which has been horrifying me more than usual.  I recently looked for smoked salmon at a (fairly high-end) grocery store and had to settle for trout because all the salmon had been dyed pink.  I’ve always loved seafood, but living in Finland has brought it to crazy levels, and I’m looking forward to having real savulohi and graavilohi as breakfast options again.

I’ve also gained six pounds, which inevitably happens when I come back here.  I really miss my meditative commute on foot to work, almost as much as the market.

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3. Advertising. So much of it is redundant, excessive, blatantly pandering to intentional obsolescence, the food products are all unhealthy, and the most disturbing part is that the advertising is emotionally manipulative. It focuses on the negative and how this product can fix you.   Maybe I don’t watch enough Finnish TV but the ads I usually see (admittedly on Youtube and online) focus on family, home life, being healthy and together and happy, and more on wholesome-looking food products like Valio milk or featuring this cute guy (who is actually a semi-famous chef) cooking over a campfire with his dog. Yes, we have Cheerios ads and I’m thankful for that because they’re adorable and wholesome. But between the Cheerios ads are ads for medications, which really freak out Europeans, ads for insurance companies and lawyers with which to sue your insurance company.  I’ll admit that the advertising is something I’m really against, mostly because people won’t do the research to see if the company can back up their claims.

There’s also a lot of red and yellow in advertising, and big in-your-face fonts and pictures which I only noticed after reading an article about the psychology of marketing.  Probably patriotism has a lot to do with it, as the Finnish flag is blue and white and coincidentally so are many of the ads.  As with anything, there are so many layers to the reasons behind things.  Obviously there are so many choices in the U.S. so companies have to compete to make their ads as noticeable as possible.  In Finland, there are only a few different franchise shops and many of them are run by the same conglomerate, so there are very limited options.  If you’re going to buy milk, 90% of the time it’s going to be Valio because there are no other brand options.  But I think this also encourages local businesses, because it’s easier to find a niche for products that the supermarket conglomerates won’t sell.

4.  Being around during the day, I had been watching daytime news programs, talk shows, etc.  I’ve noticed that there is an overwhelmingly conservative, heteronormative atmosphere the talk shows.  Even the news programs perpetuate stereotypes and the women in particular seem to enjoy pushing the boundaries of how racy they can be first thing in the morning, with almost childlike undertones of talking about “forbidden” things. It’s a strange split approach to sexuality, where it’s used to sell everything from cars to burgers to laundry detergent, and at the same time it’s something dirty and titillating.

There’s a similar issue with nudity, and the Finns love to point out Americans’ split personality about it.  I’ve mentioned before that I have a theory about this, when I talked about the culture of taking off and putting on shoes to show respect.  I think it’s about a cultural difference in where the “dirt”comes from, both physically and metaphysically.  Finnish culture is very attuned to both nature and the self, and concerned with cleanliness but in a different way to the U.S.  Sauna is taken in the nude and can involve rocks (in the kiuas), smoke, birch branches (vihta/vasta), and lake water, but I would venture to guess that Finns feel the most cleansed after sauna as opposed to a shower in your flat in the city.  Indeed, you’re supposed to clean yourself with soap before sauna, not after, when you’re covered in birch oil and lake water and more importantly, your own sweat.  This is because you bring the dirt into the sauna from outside, and inside it you are just human, and anything that comes from within–nakedness, sweat–isn’t considered dirty.

Whereas in American culture, it’s striking me more and more lately that we conceptualize the “dirt” to come from within ourselves.  True, no one would want you to track mud through their house.  But we keep our shoes on in the house in the presence of high-rank guests, we’re expected to bathe and even sometimes to visit steam rooms covered up, and it’s a big deal if someone is nude on the beach.  We’ve invented myriad ways to cover up, fix and hide physical imperfections, and we tend to be squeamish about the human body in general.

I’ve also noticed that newscasters talk a lot about themselves and their personal lives, which I haven’t really seen outside the U.S.  It’s a very different news atmosphere, but like many things, it’s also a function of having so many different levels of news from local to national, and many different social pressures from regional cultures.  I always joke that the only Finnish people I can understand are little old women and newscasters, because they speak the closest to the kirjakieli, the “book language” or written form, as opposed to the everyday vernacular of the spoken language, puhekieli, which tends to be full of slang, dialect words, and shortened forms.

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3. This one I don’t really have an opinion about either way, other than it being a little jolting to a pacifist.  Have you ever noticed that everything is a battle or a war?  We have a war on terror, a war on drugs, now we have wars on women and even (some say) on men.  We battle diseases, abuse of all kinds, racism, sexism, infertility, we fight for religious freedom and marriage equality.  It all sounds very violent to me. Of course we should campaign to right these wrongs, and psychologically it makes sense to conceptualise things like this as battles, but it seems that Americans take it to the extreme.  How about realignment?  Balance?  What about taking a moment to breathe and then thinking about things logically?

5.  Driving.  It’s weird to have to get in the car and drive for 5-10 minutes to grab something from the grocery after having a Siwa (convenience store) on the same corner as my apartment.  It’s harder to get around and it takes longer, having to think about not just myself and the weather, but also whether I have enough gas and if there’s a lot of traffic where I’m going.  I know Helsinki better than I know my hometown now, with all the development that’s been going on, restaurants and shopping plazas I’ve never been to, and having to look up directions to get to places.

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6.  Money. It’s always weird to switch back and forth between currencies, but at this point most of the European currencies don’t faze me anymore.  It takes a minute to wrap my mind around the various krona, but it makes sense after a while and, much like language, it’s always better to think in the local currency rather than to try and convert–things aren’t worth the same amount in different countries so it’s better to base your estimates on the norms for where you are.  But every time I come back to the U.S. I’m baffled by our monochromatic, all-the-same-size bills and worthless coins.  It’s much easier (if a bit heavier) to carry around one- and two- dollar (or pound or euro) coins than try to count out a lot of bills.  And I think it’s peculiarly interesting that everywhere else I’ve been, the cent coins are some subset of 1 cent, 5 cent, 10 cent, 20 cent, and 50 cent, and the most reasonable countries have even discontinued use of the 1 cent coin.  In the U.S., we not only get pennies back in change, but we use a 25 cent but not a 20 cent, and the 50 cent coins are so rare as to be functionally extinct.  Why the difference?

Speaking of getting pennies back in change, I’m always frustrated when I go to buy a coffee and get a handful of pennies, nickels and dimes back.  They’re such a small value compared to what I’m accustomed to–well, in Helsinki you’re hard pressed to get a coffee under 4 euros, but in London I would save up my 20- and 50-pence coins and use that change as my coffee budget (I lived in SE, not central–think bodega, not Starbucks).  If I had to use a whole pound coin I would know I’d been buying coffee too much.  I could give exact change here, to get rid of some coins, if anyone could ever figure out what that would be.  I’m also frustrated when I come back and never know what anything is going to cost, because sales tax is added in at the till.  It’s an annoying cycle of having to estimate a bit over and then getting handfuls of change back because I’m not going to bother counting out exact change after having waited for the real total.  Yes, plastic is easier, but sometimes when you’re juggling two bank accounts and several types of currency, you have cash on you and you’d like to be able to use it efficiently.  And then there’s the security issue with the way the U.S. handles credit cards, although I’ve heard that they’re trying to switch over to chip-and-pin soon.

5.  And then there’s the funny little things, like catching myself trying to put away the wet dishes in the cupboard, or being stunned by the price of corn (4 ears–in the husks!– for a dollar at Kroger).  Telling friends and family that corn is sold individually or in pairs, cobs often cut in half and pre-cooked, for 8 or 10 times the price.

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I don’t want to sound super negative.  I want to make it clear I’m not trying to attack the U.S. I think the things that bother me about this culture are complicated, a product of history, the government, the economy, modern innovation, innate human instincts and flaws, and a huge messy interaction of all of the above. I’m not blaming Americans for the problems I see in this culture. Overall I think individual Americans are like anyone else–essentially good, with a few bad ones sprinkled in. I might not get along with everyone, but I feel a kinship with my fellow Americans when traveling.

Both the worst and the pleasantest culture shock came in New York, in LaGuardia on my flight back to Ohio.  The worst by far was standing in line for security as the TSA agents screamed at people to put their laptops in separate bins and to take off their shoes.  I’ve become accustomed to being treated with respect regardless of the situation, and no irritating bureaucracy or xenophobia has been as degrading as having gloved agents scream conflicting instructions in my face as I stood spread-eagled in socks inside the scanning machine.  And I’m even one of those crazy people who takes a it’s-not-hurting-you-so-just-do-it approach to security!  In contrast, I got pulled aside for random thorough screening leaving Helsinki, and the agent had a polite conversation with me while checking my carry-on.  I had some personal items in my bag which most people wouldn’t want flashed around an airport, and the agent felt around, must have realized, and made a point not to take everything out of my bag.  It’s little things.

New Yorkers are usually cast as brusque, but as soon as I landed it stood out to me that everyone was talking to each other, perfect strangers having conversations as though they had known each other for years. I heard two businessmen telling each other intimate details about their wives and children, so that I thought they were traveling together, and as I walked away I heard one ask the other what business he was in.  I’ve seen this happen in Finland, usually with the old ladies on the tram that carry on a one-sided conversation with you whether you speak Finnish or not, but it’s always very restrained, very formal, and usually about the weather.  No one asks for details about your personal life.

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But as soon as I stepped foot on American soil, it was like gaining 300 million nosy cousins all at once.  Overwhelming, yes, but after a while I began to realise something about Americans.  Every culture has something unique that they contribute to the collective human experience, and I think this is what we have to give to the world.

Americans are like the labrador retrievers we love so much: a bit too big, we eat things we probably shouldn’t, we get in the way and have to be in everyone’s business.  But we’re in your business because we care, because we like to feel part of a community, to share our stories with others because that’s how we relate to people.  We’re huggers and talkers, busybodies and exaggeraters and we have strong opinions about everything.  We bring a boundless enthusiasm for life that stays with us wherever we go and no matter how long we’ve been away.

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