Tag Archives: loves and loathes

Reverse Culture Shock

I’ve been back in the US for about two months now, and as always, reverse culture shock is beginning to sink in. In many ways, reverse culture shock–culture shock that happens when you’ve returned to your home country–is often more difficult than the culture shock that you experience when you move to a foreign country. You expect, when traveling someplace new, for things to be different from what you’re used to. No one expects to find differences when they return to what used to be familiar, the place that for most of their lives was home.

I’ve navigated this issue several times now. The first time was the hardest. I had just returned–quite unwillingly–from living in France for a year. I’d felt more at home in Paris than I had anywhere else previously, and I felt that it was where I belonged. The art, the food, the culture all spoke to me. French felt like my mother tongue.  I had adapted to France to thoroughly that people were shocked to find out  I was American. France, from Paris to Saint Michel to Aix-en-Provence, welcomed me and made me feel that I was truly at home.

When I returned to the US, I felt that life was ending. Everything that I had grown to cherish over the past year was finished, and the shock manifested in unexpected ways. The cheese counter at the local grocery store made me want to cry. American English sounded harsh against my ears. I was despondent for a very long time, wishing more than anything that I could go back.

This time around, it’s a bit different. With France, I had fallen completely and unabashedly in love.  With Egypt, I had a much more complex relationship. There were many things I loved–the monuments, the desert, the hospitality of the people.  There were many things I hated–the traffic, the sexual harassment, the lack of trees, the fact that almost all of my hobbies in the US could be construed as scandalous in some way.  With protests happening on a weekly basis, I was ready to leave when I finished my practicum–but I stayed until the last possible moment, all the same.

Here in the US, I’ve gone from Boston to Florida to DC in the space of the 2 months that I’ve been back. Each one of these places has its own distinct culture, which both heightens and mitigates the sense of culture shock, depending how comfortable I feel with each one. Boston feels the most like my natural habitat in the US, and so I felt the most at home there. But it was also the first place I returned to, so it’s where I felt the brunt of the disconnect between my life in Cairo–circumscribed by the ongoing revolutionary activity and cultural politics–and my life in the US. Florida, where I grew up, felt strange in the way of childhood homes.

Now that I’ve finally settled in DC, with plans to stay for at least the next year, the disconnect grows stronger. Instead of feeling that my circumstances are curtailed by protests and sexual politics, I feel that my circumstances are curtailed by the economy and the terrible job market. I no longer have to check twitter to make sure that there’s not a battle going on downtown before I go out, or brace myself for graphic sexual invitations every time I walk down the street. The direct threats to my physical well-being are much fewer and less apparent here. The main threats I feel now are far more nebulous: looming student loans, the grinding process of applying to jobs and the fear of never finding one, the feeling of stasis that comes from suddenly ceasing to move after such a long time away.

Having gone through reverse culture shock so many times, I now know how to handle it. Focus on the good things about whatever place you’re in–the friends and family you’ve returned to, the old haunts that you’ve missed. Try to find at least a few people who have been to the place you’ve returned from, so that you can share stories and reminisce. Look for a cafe or grocer that specializes in food from the region that you’ve just returned from.  And throw yourself into your new location so that you experience it completely, like a new traveler in a new place for the first time. You’ll discover hidden treasures that you never knew about, and you’ll be able to preserve, for at least a while, the feeling of still being on the road.






Washington DC–loves and loathes

I’m currently back in DC, where I lived for a year following my return to the US from Russia. This week has reminded me of many things about the city, the ones I love and the ones I loathe. Rather than giving a blow-by-blow account of everything I’ve seen and done during my week in the city, I think it makes the most sense to give the rundown of all my favorite and least-favorite aspects of this place that I once called home.

Things I love about DC:

1. Independent Bookstores, restaurants, and coffee shops

I love that in DC I only have to visit chains if I want to. In this week, I have successfully managed to frequent nothing but independently owned and operated businesses. The excellent bookstores of Politics and Prose and Kramerbooks have wide selections of publications you actually want to read (as opposed to giant displays of Twilight-themed paraphernalia), and they both have their own cafes attached. For coffee and tea, there are any number of good options, including my new favorite of Baked and Wired in Georgetown. And the restaurants of DC are many and varied, from hole-in-the-wall establishments serving authentic food from pretty much any country you can think of, to places where cuisine is elevated to a high art. Sadly, I can’t afford to eat at the latter nearly as often as I’d like. But it’s nice to know that they’re there.

2. Neighborhoods with personality

A corollary to the first point. Neighborhoods that foster independent businesses tend to acquire a flavor all their own. I tend to hang out a fair amount in Dupont Circle, with forays into U Street and occasionally Adams Morgan. Georgetown is a bit upscale and consumerist for my general comfort, but the presence of the aforementioned bakery and coffee shop guarantees the occasional visit. It’s nice to be able to get to places with such different flavors easily, and know that I’ll have a different experience in each one.

3. Affordable arts and culture

Arts are expensive to pursue in most places, so one of the things that I love about DC is the fact that the arts are accessible to the wider public. The world-class Smithsonian Museum is free, and every night there are free concerts at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. If you want to dance, my favorite studio Joy of Motion has affordable classes and proclaims that “dance is for everyone.” And at Joe’s Movement Emporium, an aerialist friend and I were able to rent practice space this week without sacrificing our firstborn children to pay for it.



Things I hate about DC:

1. Corporate/Political Culture

Remember what I said about all the distinct neighborhoods? That’s only part of the picture. There are large swathes of DC that are soulless corporate blocks where Starbucks-toting suits rush along in briefcases and uncomfortable shoes. These are the places that I try not to frequent–pretty much any area with a high rise. Usually you’ll find a chain coffee shop on every corner, no real restaurants in sight, and people who look too stressed out to be enjoying all the money that they earn.

2. Rampant Social Inequality

DC is arguably one of the most important cities in the Western hemisphere politically. Some of the most powerful people in the world live and work here, or come visit from miles away and stay in fancy hotels. Yet DC also has one of the highest rates of homelessness in the country. Children who grow up in poor neighborhoods like Anacostia may never set foot outside the slums of DC, even though three international airports and multiple embassies are just a stone’s throw away. The high level of social stratification in the city is a microcosm of the social stratification of the US. At least the capitol is reflective of the country as a whole.


3. Traffic and Transportation

If you drive in DC, you will quickly learn that the traffic is insane, the streets are confusing, and the rules of the road are really more guidelines. Add to that that building interference and CIA scramblers will make your GPS lose signal approximately every 2.5 minutes, and driving in DC is clearly not a walk in the park.

Which brings me to the metro.

This one is more of a love/hate relationship. I absolutely love that the DC metro system exists, and I wish that more cities in the US had good public transit systems. That said…the metro doesn’t function well at all. It’s expensive and takes forever, and after the highly publicized crash in 2009 it came to light that the metro system hadn’t been well maintained in years. There are entire websites devoted to the issues with the DC metro. Though I could rant for ages about it, I think the best illustration of the glories of the DC metro are best explained through humor. Behold: the metro song.