Thursday, July 25, 2013

Reverse Culture Shock

I spent a lovely couple of hours yesterday morning with Teenage Daughter, her friend, The Traveller, and The Traveller's Mum. It was a catch-up I'd really been looking forward to. The Traveller's been back from India for a month now and I got to hear all about her five month stay there.

One of the first things The Traveller mentioned was reverse culture shock. Anyone who's travelled overseas knows what I'm referring to. It's the culture shock you experience when you get home and it's real.

The first morning The Traveller woke up in her own bed at home, she was overwhelmed by the fact that she was alone, not only in a big room but, in a big house. I imagine she never before had thought of her room or her house as being particularly large but she was feeling it that day.

I remember years ago when Australia began to welcome Vietnamese refugees and asylum seekers how people were shocked that several extended families would live in one three bedroom suburban house. By the mid-seventies, when Saigon fell, most Australian families lived one family per house. That's still the case but the houses keep getting bigger. Families of four these days think they couldn't possibly live in houses the size of the ones they grew up in. It's all relative, of course, because people in Third World countries seem to be happy just to have a roof over their heads and don't seem too hung up on who they're sharing a room or a house with.

After waking, The Traveller ventured into the kitchen for breakfast and encountered her second wave of culture shock. For five months she'd been happily starting the day with a vegemite and cheese covered chapati. Back in Australia she was faced with the endless choices of breakfast foods. That's not bad by any means but have you gone to a full pantry or fridge, stood there with the door open, your finger to your lips wondering what to have? We're so blessed with choice that sometimes it's a curse. And we don't even appreciate it for the most part.

The Traveller told me that they had flour, rice, dhal, tomatoes, potatoes and onions as the staples out of which they made most of their meals. (Hopefully, if The Traveller is reading this she can add to the comment section anything I may have left out.) They made fresh chapatis everyday. All their meals were cooked on a small gas burner and there was no fridge which made things like milk and meat somewhat tricky. In all the photos she took over the course of the five months in India, she is the picture of health. I don't know about anyone else but I have a lot more than a fridge, small gas cooker and full fridge and pantry in my kitchen. One cupboard is replete with appliances I rarely use.

I could never live the way The Traveller did for that five months. For a start I'd end up with the worst Delhi belly in the history of the world. As I listened, however, I felt blessed by my modest suburban home and comfortable kitchen.

When The Traveller went to the supermarket for the first time after her return she was appalled by the amount of packaging on all our products. In India she shopped at local markets and used her plastic and material bags until they fell apart. A lot of us are trying that here and fighting what feels like a losing battle. Can you even buy strawberries loose anymore?

Out of the kitchen and into the laundry. What laundry? In India The Traveller hand washed all her clothes outside and hung it to dry. Hand wringing was sometimes a two-person job. The area The Traveller lived in is prone to fog and it was difficult to dry clothes on foggy days. The "Chinese laundry" set up in my rumpus room doesn't seem so bad now. After all, it's only the clothes that can't be put in the drier.

And finally, a piece of advice. When travelling in India the rule of thumb is to allow an extra five hours. Yes, five hours. I wonder how the people who get antsy if the plane sits on the tarmac a little too long or if the bus is late would cope in India. Hang on, that's me. I think there's a lesson in both patience and gratitude there somewhere.

We are just so lucky here. I'm not saying we're better or our life or our country is. I'm just saying our life is easy in comparison because of all the luxuries we have. And they are luxuries even though we think they're necessities. I also think we can learn a lot from the Indian lifestyle. It's not one I could adopt or cope with but I like the idea that less is enough when it comes to what's in the kitchen, as well as packaging. In fact, I like the idea in relation to our rooms and houses, too. My house feels pretty small but I bet if I off-loaded all the superfluous stuff it would feel big enough. After all, in previous generations a house the size of mine may have housed a couple of families or, at least, an extension of my own.

As for the five hour rule. Aaargh. I'm going to remind myself of it, however, every time I find myself feeling impatient because I have to stand in line or am caught in a traffic jam.



  1. Seems there's some synchronicity going on with some of our posts recently. I just wrote one on Dragon Mother that's got echoes of this one - the main thrust being what people don't have in other cultures but what they DO have as a consequence.

    I often feel that in our abundance, we've lost the ability to be appreciative of what we do have, and all too often, we bemoan our plight if we can't get that particular little treat that we had a craving for. I HAVE done the surviving off minimal staples thing, and it was here, through a particularly difficult financial period - I bought 10 kilo bags of potatoes for a few dollars, ditto onions, 5kg bags of rice, bulk trays of eggs, and as much cheap fruit as I could afford, and that really was the bulk of what we lived on...the kids and I. It was tough - BUT, the money to do that WAS coming in regularly, and I had a roof over my head, and I knew it would end eventually... We have it easy here - even those who are doing it tough by our standards...

    Good post, Rachel - thanks!


  2. Totally agree with Kaz's comment and I like your term "reverse culture shock" which is a new one to me. My children have grown up with the reminders of how lucky they are and how hard it is in other places. Yet they still forget.

    You have articulated the argument I have with my children regularly when they ask "what is there to eat?" and I rattle off a list of very nutritious, healthy basic foods only to be met with groans because they were hoping there might be some rare treats around the house.

    I also share the annoyance of packaging. Only this week I sent a complaint to a large company about their packaging but am yet to receive a response. I am trying to avoid bringing plastics into my home. Avoiding highly processed foods helps improve our health and save on packaging. Sometimes I feel like my "drop in the ocean" is not enough, but if I can gather more "Drops" around me, we might be able to create a wave of change.