I’ve been back in America for six months now—my longest stretch since college—and I have to admit, I’m still not over my reverse culture shock.
A couple months ago, Sam and I thought we were pretty well re-assimilated into Midwestern life, and then we went to an Olive Garden, and there was bacon and cheese on everything, and it was weird. Weird in the excessive way that only America is. We rolled home with heavy bellies and swore to eat nothing but vegetables and rice for a week.
Then, as if we needed to prove our patriotism, we went to a craft store.
Our mission was simple: buy a package of clothespins. I was hardcore nesting before James arrived and was convinced we needed to make a clothesline of pictures over our bed. (Thanks, Pinterest.) When we walked into the store, I expected maybe a few different sizes of clothespins. Maybe some wood and some plastic. Instead, I encountered package after package of clothespins. Not just small, medium, and large, but also jumbo paperweight pins and some so tiny I couldn’t determine any reasonable purpose for them. There were colored clothespins and patterned clothespins and metallic clothespins. Every color of the rainbow. Polkadot. Chevron. Floral.
As we continued browsing, we kept stumbling upon more and more clothespins. They were everywhere. I felt that familiar culture shock creeping up on me, the kind that makes you have a panic attack in the toothpaste aisle of Walmart because there was only one brand in India, and you don’t remember how to choose between twenty. I grabbed a package of plain wooden clothespins and hurried to the checkout.
America may be my homeland, but its culture of choice never ceases to stress me out. Here, you have a thousand different options for every little thing. The choices should make your life easier, but instead, they’re a constant reminder of what you’re missing out on. You know that you could have picked the blue clothespins, and maybe they would have looked better, and it’d be oh-so-easy to go out and get them, too.
It’s an endless cycle, swinging between the instant gratification of one-stop shopping and the let down of buyers’ remorse.
To be honest, I miss this when I’m abroad. I get tired of closet-sized stores and walking miles to find limes (because one grocery store was out and the other was closed for lunch, of course). But when I do come back to the land of warehouse-sized stores, it’s never as satisfying as I’ve imagined. I miss the ordeal of it all. I miss the satisfaction of finally finding everything on my shopping list. I miss the gratitude that inevitably follows.
Once, in Kosovo, I found a rare packet of cumin, and it was the worse cumin I’d ever tasted, but I treasured that spice and cooked with it anyway. And in India, I pestered a shopkeeper for weeks until his “brother” showed up on a motorcycle cradling a unmarked can full of the coffee beans I’d requested. The coffee was sketchy and terribly acidic, but it didn’t matter. I’d found real, non-instant coffee in the middle-of-nowhere India, and that felt like a win.
As we prepare to move to a small village in France, I find myself once again grateful for tiny shops, limited inventories, and random store hours. I’m glad that my son will learn to be happy with fewer options. I’m glad he’ll have to be patient as we hunt things down. Of course, he could learn these things in America—and I admire lots of families who practice minimalism and gratitude—but it’s much harder when there are a thousand choices at every turn.
These days, I don’t want choices. I want to sit on the French bakery steps with my son, waiting for the owner to return from her coffee break, dreaming about the macaroons inside.
I want to see his face when his patience pays off and he takes that first delicious bite.
Photo: Christian Schnettelker, Creative Commons