50. Reverse Culture Shock

There’s a term for this now: “First World Problems.” And in this social-media dominated universe, the term’s become a hashtag. It means complaining about something banal — on a “public” soapbox like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram — because it’s a minor nuisance. It’s shameful because your quality of life is high enough that all your first world amenities are met (health, nourishment, shelter, education, public transit and a means of watching The Kardashians) and yet you have the gall to whine about how much it costs to fill the tank of your crossover SUV.

First World Problems are so commonly vented, they’ve become cliché.

#FirstWorldProblems has become a popular hashtag because our lives are so good these inane complaints become cliché.

First World Problems alone aren’t the topic of this blog post exactly. But their realization among people who’ve traveled or spent an extended period of time in a developing-world country is kind of what Reverse Culture Shock feels like. It’s a feeling many backpackers are familiar with.

A homeless mother with her baby rides on

The reason it’s called Reverse Culture Shock and not simply Culture Shock is because you’re shocked by what you’ve come back to. Culture Shock is just being shocked by where you go. For a first-time backpacker to the Philippines, Culture Shock is seeing the squalor of Manila for the first time, as the sticky hot wind off Manila Bay blows the smell of raw sewage through your jeepney, as strangers pass you their change to hand to the driver, and a grimy, dusty homeless kid pops up in the window selling you individual pieces of Juicy Fruit for a penny, while his family sleeps on the boulevard behind him.

Culture Shock: Disbelief at what you see in a foreign country.
Reverse Culture Shock: Disbelief at everyday things you see upon returning to your home country.

Reverse Culture Shock is when that backpacker goes back to Canada and is rattled to his core by the amount of food thrown out nightly by the restaurant he’s working at.

I know Reverse Culture Shock is actually a thing because when I got back from a Canada World Youth/Journalists for Human Rights exchange program in Senegal (beenou), the CWY people sat us down for a “welcome back to Canada” orientation (disorientation?) in Montreal before letting us return to our home cities. They told us, “The world around you has changed in the 3.5 months you were away.” They brought us up to speed on local and federal current affairs (this was 10 years ago, mind you — wireless networks, the Internet and world news reach wasn’t then what it is now) and warned us, “Some people won’t understand what you experienced overseas,” and “Not everyone will want to hear about your experience,” and “You may be shocked by everyday things in Canada that you took for granted.”


They were right. Costco shocked the hell out of me.

There’s a scene in the 1993 Oliver Stone movie “Heaven & Earth” starring Tommy Lee Jones, where the female lead — a Vietnamese lady married to a U.S. marine (Jones) who fell in love with her after the war and brought her back with him — arrives in the United States as an immigrant. The lady wanders the fluorescent-lit shampoo aisles of a major grocery store or pharmacy, her eyes as wide as saucers, gawking at the sheer abundance of not only shampoo, but of everything.

I was watching the movie with my parents and my mom immediately blurted, “I remember feeling that way when we arrived in Canada. Your auntie and I looked up and down the shelves and I said to her, ‘Dolly, it’s like ‘Stateside,'” meaning it was like the Navy Exchange store on the U.S. Naval base in my mom’s hometown of Olongapo. Until that point, that was the only other time my mom had seen so many shampoo bottles in a single store. Culture Shock.

Before moving to Canada, my mom had never seen as many shampoo bottles in one store as at the U.S. Navy Exchange in Olongapo City.

When I was in Senegal, our host families and exchange brothers/sisters (or homologues, as they called them in French) often raved about one of their most popular dishes,  le Yassa au poulet. It was delicious. It’s a sort of pan-fried chicken coated in a sauce of onions, dijon mustard and various spices, and served on a bed of rice. Everybody loved it, so they served it pretty often. I continued loving it, yet by about the sixth or seventh time it was served to me, I noticed they would always serve quarter chickens, leg and thigh connected. Never any white meat.

I asked my homologue Thierno why they never served white meat in the Yassa au poulet and it gave him pause. Theirno replied, “You know, I never really thought about it, but yeah. They rarely serve the white quarter pieces (breast and wing).” He just laughed and shrugged it off.

The following day, when I asked one of the reporters with whom I worked at Wal Fadjri Quotidien where all the white chicken meat was at, he laughed too. But then he shot me a serious glance and said, “You won’t believe it.” He explained that on the outskirts of the city and in the rural areas, they butcher a whole, local chicken, so you’ll get white pieces in the Yassa au poulet there. “But here in Dakar, the grocery stores and markets are sourced from larger chicken farms, which only sell the dark quarter pieces.” OK, then where do the white quarters go? “Morocco,” he replied.

It was weird to me that, wherever we ate in Senegal, they rarely served white-meat quarter chickens.

I was floored. The white pieces of chicken were worth more to the chicken farmer (or more likely to the soulless chicken corporation that runs the farms) when sold as an export to nearby Morocco than it is when garnishing the plates of Yassa au poulet served in restaurants and homes across Dakar. I thought about all the times I’d gone to the grocery store in Canada and been able to choose packages of whatever cut of chicken I wanted, or heck, just buy a whole chicken. These options weren’t as readily available in Dakar.

Several weeks later, after our désorientation in Montreal, and after unpacking my bags and sleeping in my old bedroom in my parents’ basement, I went to Costco with my mom. I’m looking at the industrial coolers, 15-20 feet long, packed full of cellophane-wrapped packages of boneless, skinless chicken breasts, 18 breasts to a pack, and my jaw drops.

This, my friends, is Reverse Culture Shock.

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