Tag Archives: USA

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.






Gradumacation! A Long Overdue Update on the Elusive Laura

It’s been a good long time since I’ve posted anything here;  the past several months have seen the finishing of my thesis (al hamdulilah),  graduation from my MA program in Sustainable International Development (again, al hamdulilah),  and returning from Cairo to the US (equal parts al hamdulilah and sadface).  It has, as you might imagine, been an intense period of time, during which my blogging rather got away from me. Blame the thesis.

Now that I’m back in the US and more or less situated in DC,  I’ll be blogging more often. There will be material from my adventures stateside (never fear, being in the US doesn’t reduce my adventure factor), as well as retroactive posts on all the experiences I had during my last few months in Egypt that I didn’t get around to blogging about in real time. I’ll also be working to integrate my blog with my photography website–expect new photos to appear on both, alongside the stories of where and how those pictures were taken.

Watch this space!

Smithies Respond to Offensive Letter with Righteous Rage

A few days ago, a fellow alumna of my alma mater sent a rather puzzling letter to the school’s newspaper in which she proclaimed that the increase in diversity at Smith in recent years is sending the college down the tubes and attracting subpar* applicants, and in which she stated, among other things, that “the days of white, wealthy, upper-class students from prep schools in cashmere coats and pearls who marry Amherst men are over. This is unfortunate.”

That excerpt was possibly the least offensive statement in the entire letter. I could comment at length on the classism, racism, and homophobia of the letter as a whole, or the fact that it reflects a mindset that stagnated in the 1950s, but that’s already been done. (You can read the letter in its entirety–plus commentary–on Jezebel.)

The Smith community reacted to this bomb, predictably, with righteous rage.  Tell Smith women that it’s a problem we’re not wearing pearls and sweater sets and dating Amherst men? Tell any Smithie that her background makes her a charity case? You’d better run for cover.

Within a few hours of the letter hitting the Sophian,  some enterprising Smithies started the “Pearls and Cashmere” project, in which Smithies past and present were invited to respond with their stories of where they came from,  how they got to Smith, and what they’ve accomplished since graduating, with photos to illustrate the glorious diversity of the student body. Several ladies posted their best photos of themselves in pearls and cashmere–some including a classy middle-finger salute for the woman who dared to suggest that they didn’t merit their education if they weren’t pursuing their MRS.

My own response and photo (no pearls or cashmere or rude gestures required) is at the end of this post.

Antagonizing Smithies is a bit like antagonizing a pack of hyperintelligent and slightly rabid she-wolves: you will get the most well-articulated smackdown in history. But we’re above bombarding you personally with hate mail–we’ll put our responses online, where they don’t clutter your inbox, and they don’t risk going unseen. We’ll use your intolerance to affirm pride in our own individual identities, and in our collective identity as Smithies.  And we’ll let the world know how wrong you are in judging us based on your own narrow view of what women’s education is supposed to be.

Smith breeds Sisterhood. Siblinghood. We’re-all-in-this-togetherhood. The outpouring has been truly incredible. Reading the entries on Pearls and Cashmere has made me even more amazed at the variety of  people who go to Smith, and the amazing things we do when we go into the world. Seeing the way Smithies rally to affirm the glory of their multi-ethnic, multi-racial, economically diverse, LGBTQ and ally selves, I have never been prouder to have called Smith my home.



Self-Portrait at Habu Temple in Luxor


Laura Carroll, class of 2006. French major, Medieval Studies minor, with an unofficial minor in Philosophy as well. I graduated 5th in my high school class, scored a perfect 800 on the verbal section of my SAT, and received a Smith Book Award, a STRIDE scholarship, and a Blumberg fellowship, all merit-based. I could have gone to college pretty much anywhere I damn well pleased, and I chose Smith solely because I knew that I would get an excellent education. Once there, I discovered that when you put two thousand brilliant women from diverse backgrounds in the same place and encourage them to learn and explore together, you create a phenomenal community that breeds intellectual creativity. At Smith, I was able to take classes in a mind-boggling array of disciplines, study abroad in Paris, sing with the Glee Club, and fence sabre. I made friends that are still with me to this day.
I’m currently working on my MA in Sustainable International Development at Brandeis, and I’m on practicum in Egypt (this photo was taken at Habu Temple in Luxor). I’ve lived in Morocco and Russia. I’m working on a book-length travel narrative and multiple short stories. I practice aerial arts and dance in my free time. I have a fabulous partner, whom I met at Smith. I challenge conventions about the things that are “acceptable” to do with my life—as have generations of Smithies before me.

Attending Smith was one of the best decisions I ever made.






*Subpar, in this instance, meaning anyone who isn’t an upper-class, white, heterosexual, cisgendered female.


East Coast Earthquake

We interrupt this evening’s regularly scheduled blogging to inform you that the earth shook yesterday afternoon. On the East Coast. Where such things, as a general rule, do not occur.

Doubtless, you’ve already heard about this event, because the news media and the social media spheres were both awash in it. If you live on the east coast, or know someone on the east coast, you might have even experienced the XKCD seismic wave phenomenon:


Because you have already heard so much about the earthquake, I will not bore you with details. I will not tell you how it started with a mysterious rumbling almost like a cat’s purr, nor how the sushi chef at the restaurant where I was lunching barely glanced up from his work to calmly tell the crowd, “it’s an earthquake.” As a fellow patron began to scoff, “we don’t get earthquakes in DC,” the ground started shaking in earnest, splashing out bowls of miso soup and spilling mugs of freshly-poured tea. Then, as a  small, detached part of my mind started looking for the nearest doorway and another part of my brain tried to figure out magnitude, the shaking stopped. It was replaced by the excited jabber of incredulous voices and the instantaneous googling on mobile devices.

But I will not tell you all of these things, of course. You’ve heard similar things from all over the blogosphere by now. You’re probably also aware that the quake did very little damage, as evidenced by snarky images like this one.



I do, however feel the need to blog something about this event for three reasons.

1) It was my first earthquake.

(Okay, technically there was one about six months ago at about 5am, but since I slept through it I don’t think that one counts).

2) It was unexpected.

I remember hoping, as a child visiting relatives in California,  that there would be an earthquake every single time I went to the west coast. My relatives lived a stone’s throw away from the San Andreas Fault, and I was sure that if I spent a week or two in proximity I’d be in an earthquake and therefore be the coolest kid in school when I got home. I never experienced an earthquake in California. How did it come to pass that I’d experience one in DC?

3) I was scheduled to practice aerial that same evening.

To those of you who aren’t aerialists (I’m assuming that’s most of the people reading this blog), the two might seem completely unrelated. What could the earth shaking possibly have to do with hanging from the ceiling…from exposed beams in the ceiling…in an old building…in an area not known for earthquakes and therefore not known  for earthquake-resilient construction…see where this is going? I don’t know much about rigging, but I do know that you want your support structure to be able to take a lot of weight and a lot of g-force.

My friend Echo, of  shenanigans at Smith fame, is an engineer as well as an aerialist. She’s also (rightly) paranoid about safety, and insisted on extra care in inspecting the beams, bracing the ladders, and using floor mats even on the lowest of apparatuses and the simplest of tricks.  According to her, aftershocks are likely within 48 hours of an earthquake, and if you’re hanging upside down from the ceiling when the earth starts shaking, you’re pretty much guaranteed to fall. A mat can make the difference between a mild concussion and a cracked skull. Though there wasn’t an aftershock during practice, and no one fell, I remain much more viscerally aware of bodily fragility and the tenuous nature of even the best structural engineering.

A Brief Update, With Promises of More

I haven’t posted in quite a while, largely because I’ve been moving around a lot and juggling about a million things. This past month has contained experiences about which I could (and might still) write innumerable blog posts. But because I am human and have limited time, here’s the quick and dirty rundown of the events of the past month.

In the past month, I have:

1. Gone to Costa Rica and attended the Travelers’ Philanthropy Conference. This  involved my first-ever trip to Latin America, my first professional conference, both daytime and nighttime hikes in the famous Cloud Forest of Monteverde, and my first encounter with an insect longer than  my forearm.

2. Moved out of my apartment in Waltham, MA and moved everything that I own into storage. It involved a UHaul cargo van, a lot of boxes, and a lot of stress. ‘Nuff said.

3. Visited the Massanutten Resort in the Shenandoah Valley. This involved an Appalachian storyteller, whitewater kayaking, a trip to the Natural Bridge,  and a three-hour sales pitch in which the resort staff tried to convince us that we wanted to buy a time share (we didn’t).

4. Traveled to St. Petersburg, Florida to visit family. This involved lots of seafood, visits to quaint teashops, and spending good times with friends.

5. Returned to my erstwhile home of DC, where I’m currently putting the final touches in place for my imminent journey to Cairo, Egypt. This involves lots of reading, lots of logistics, and lots of distracting myself with friends and aerial classes.

Further updates will doubtless be forthcoming as I work out more of the last-minute details and consequently have more time on my hands.

On Passports and Privilege

I sent in my application for a new passport today. Passport, passport card, expedited service fee, certified mail…$240 in all. Knowing that in a few weeks I’ll have a shiny new passport with 52 pages, valid for another ten years, with no greater hassle involved than some paperwork and a trip to the post office…priceless.

I’ve just read the courageous article by Jose Antonio Vargas, the Pulitzer-prizewinning journalist, in which he reveals for the first time his status as an undocumented immigrant, and how that has affected his life. His story shows that, contrary to popular diatribe, undocumented immigrants to the US do, in fact, contribute in many positive ways to the country. He has a career in journalism of which I am in fact quite envious, has obtained a highly prestigious writing prize (shared with his co-authors who helped cover the Virginia Tech shootings), and has to all accounts lived that fabled story of the American Dream.

But he can’t get a passport.

The paperwork that I find simply annoying is to him insurmountable. The routine paperwork check at the beginning of each new job that for me is just an irritating step on the way to a paycheck is to him a source of constant anxiety. But he, an immigrant who has spent the bulk of his life inside the US, been educated here, worked here, paid into social security, supported the economy…he is in no way less deserving of a job or documentation here in the US than I am.

I am lucky. To have been born in the country in which I was born, permitting me to live and work here, obtain a passport, and have virtually no barriers to international travel. I did absolutely nothing to deserve such luck—it was simply an accident of birth. As is the situation of Vargas.

In the current set of debates about immigration, the greatest amount of vitriol seems to be bandied about by people who are demographically similar to me. White people born into middle-class backgrounds in conservative states within the US. The thing that most of these people don’t seem to think about, when prating about how immigrants are bad for the country, is that they themselves are the descendants of immigrants. Is it really so easy to forget?

My family came to this country a little over a hundred years ago, on boats hailing from Ireland and Italy. They joined the ranks of countless other immigrants at the time, some of whom came over on regular passports, many of whom did not. Every single new group to come over faced hostility: my Irish ancestors were faced with “no Irish need apply” signs at pretty much every business establishment that was hiring, and actually pretended to be English just so that they could get jobs. My entrepreneurial Italian grandfather named his business Modern Pharmacy, because the Piantanida Family Pharmacy just sounded too damn Italian. He also thought that immigrants were destroying the country and stealing honest peoples’ jobs, and by “immigrants” he meant everyone except for Northern Italians like him.

We haven’t made much progress, as a society. At this point, the distinctions between Irish and Italian are largely forgotten, despite being quite vehemently defended in the 1920s, when each European ethnicity was seen as being an almost-separate race, and Eastern and Southern Europeans were considered undesirable. Now that the descendants of most of the various European ethnicities have all been here for a while and inter-married, this kind of discrimination seems preposterous. At this point, we talk about “American” as though it were a unilateral identity…but the common dialogue still seems to see it as a white identity. It is not.

How do we define what it means to be American? Vargas is attempting to change the dialogue with his organization Define American. He’s talking to people, collecting stories. Trying to get people to think about what “American” really means.

America is a country of immigrants, regardless of how long ago those immigrants may have arrived. “American” is my college roommate, born in the US to Mexican immigrants, now working on her PhD in engineering. “American” is my Muslim friend from Tanzania, currently teaching at a university in Florida. “American” is my Filipino fencing coach, my African-American professor of social policy, my Ukrainian-born professor of Russian language and literature. I could go on. Every single one of these people is just as much an American as I am. Some have regular American passports, some have green cards. Some may be undocumented, I don’t know and feel no need to ask. All have a right to be in this country. All have a right to try to live the American Dream.






Making Jewelry in Cambridge (or, Crafts as Leisure in the Developed World)

This evening I took a jewelry making class at Boston Bead Works in Cambridge.  The shop, on a side street in Harvard Square, is a great local secret for bead and jewelry aficionados, and contains a wide selection of glass beads, cloisonne, and semi-precious stones. Though I’ve dabbled in jewelry making off and on (mostly off) for many years, I’d never taken a class before, and was pleasantly surprised. The class was small, the instructor was attentive, and at the end of the evening, I had a shiny set of earrings made with a wire-wrapping technique I’d never before seen, stringing amethyst beads inside a silver hoop to resemble an abacus.


Abacus Earrings

The photo quality here isn’t great because I took the picture with my ipod. But you get the idea.


Though I could leave the post here, as a “this is a cool thing to do if you’re in Boston,” I prefer to take a moment to think about why activities of this kind are available specifically here. Bead shops like this one exist in cities all over the US, and I’ve seen them in Western Europe as well. In the developing world, though, art supply shops with classes on how to make things are pretty much non-existent. In China, when I was buying seed pearls, the saleslady was aghast that I wanted to leave my strung pearls as-is, rather than having them made up into a necklace or earrings right away (I relented and allowed her to turn a few strands into jewelry there at the shop–the necklace and earrings that she put together are quite lovely). Point being, though, that the idea that I would want to go home, take the strands apart, and make something by myself was pretty much unheard of.

There’s a particular mentality in the West, and in the US in particular, that basic art techniques can and should be accessible to everyone, if only on the simplest levels. Shops like this one offering beginning jewelry making, paper embossing, paint-your-own pottery, etc. are exceedingly common. The do-it-yourself mentality is strong, and structured art projects give people a sense of fun and accomplishment.

From what I’ve seen in the developing world, things are very different. Crafts like pottery and jewelry making are seen as professions, rather than leisure activities for the middle class. Though I did have a friend in Morocco who made pottery for fun, she was very much in the minority. And the fact that she worked closely with American Peace Corps volunteers may have something to do with her view of art as a potential leisure activity.

What makes this difference, between craft as profession and craft as leisure? In some ways, it may come from how consumer goods are produced in a given society. In a society like Morocco, where until very recently most peoples’ plates and cups came directly from the potter’s wheel and had damned well better be usable, making pottery was not something to be tinkered with. Likewise, if you wanted jewelry, it was going to be handmade by a craftsperson, and the supplies needed would generally only be available to the professionals. In a society like the US, where most of our plates, cups, jewelry, and pretty much every material object is manufactured, rather than made, crafts like pottery and jewelry making are seen as quaint activities and throwbacks to an earlier time. If you make your own bowl and it breaks, you might be sad, but you can still buy another bowl at Target. If you make your own earrings and mow through a foot of silver wire trying to bend it into the right shape, it’s okay, you can still buy earrings at the mall. Your efforts aren’t materially affecting your well-being, nor are they taking away from anyone else’s profession. So you’re free to explore, and free to screw up, and you spend an enjoyable afternoon. I’ll be curious to see, as manufactured goods spread to more societies, and as leisure time among the middle classes increases, whether the phenomenon of do-it-yourself craftwork catches on in the developing world.

A Muslim Wedding in New York

This weekend, I traveled to New York City for the wedding of my dear friend D from high school. The ceremony was held at a mosque in Queens, with a  reception at a nearby Halal restaurant. Though I’ve been to innumerable Catholic, Protestant, Unitarian, and Jewish weddings, this was my first Muslim wedding ceremony, and it was beautiful. D wore a purple caftan hand-tailored in Pakistan, and her hands and feet were covered with intricate Moroccan designs in henna. Her new husband wore a suit and smiled from ear to ear. The imam, a friend of the couple, spoke about love and responsibility in marriage, and how each of them should bring out the best in the other.  Then the couple read vows that they had written themselves and exchanged rings.

Before the ceremony, and later at the reception, I had the privilege of meeting several of D’s friends and colleagues–men and women of all races, from at least three continents, representing different nationalities, religions, and sexual orientations. In this microcosm, we talked about everything from travel to linguistic jokes, to women’s colleges to whitewater rafting. And the fact that we were all able to talk and laugh together, despite many of us only having met for the first time that day, gave me such a sense of hope. A union of this kind, between an American woman and an Egyptian man, with the love and support of both families in the midst of such a diverse and accepting crowd, could happen in very few places in the world. New York City is one of those places. And despite the bitter diatribes that have arisen in the city over the so-called “ground zero mosque” and the social fault lines that often arise over lines of color, ethnicity, and creed, beautiful moments of unity like this one still occur. It reminds me that for all its faults, the United States is still a place where people of different backgrounds can come together.  It’s a reminder of the best that the country of my birth can be.