THEY say that re-entry can be harder than culture shock in the first place, but I’m not hoping to stay here long enough to find out. There are, however, a few things that have jumped out at us in the past few days (plus some random pictures of our new digs):
Americans are LOUD. I used to think this meant that Americans are rude, or overbearing, but no. They are just plain noisy. After two years in the Caribbean, where people are such soft talkers I could rarely understand a word they said, and a year in Thailand, it’s a big shock to hear people SHOUTING in perfectly quiet situations for NO APPARENT REASON.
On an Amtrak train, I heard two men halfway across a train from each other conducting a conversation, of which, although I was another half a train car away, I could hear every word. Later, snugged in my seat, desperately trying to hear the faint train announcements about a delay, I was thwarted by a lady 4 seats back describing how she ironed the nightgown she gave her daughter for Christmas before sending it (did I really need to know this??). After she hung up, she had the temerity to stand up and announce to everyone, “Did anyone catch those announcements?”
Fed up, I somewhat snippily said, “No, ma’am, I couldn’t hear a thing because you were talking so loudly,” then immediately apologized, because I felt like a total ass.
She said, “Oh, I’m sorry, you should have interrupted me.”
I replied, “I tried, but you couldn’t HEAR me.”
She harrumphed and turned to another guy a few seats ahead, asking if he had heard the announcements. I felt vastly better when he snapped, “No, ma’am, I couldn’t hear a thing because you were talking so loudly.” Ha!
The other day, Philip and I actually heard every word of a conversation two guys were having . . . across the street.
Seriously, volume, people. In Thailand, you’ll be on a packed sky train, right next to someone on the phone, and they are discretely covering the mouthpiece with their hand and talking so quietly YOU CAN’T HEAR A THING THEY ARE SAYING.
Americans are BIG. Not just fatter, but large in every dimension. This one shouldn’t be surprising, but I find my self, at five-foot-two, frustrated to not be able to see anything in and roughly jostled by people twice my mass in crowds.
Americans are friendly, but… strangely hostile. There’s a reason Thailand is known as the land of smiles – even if you just casually catch the eye of someone speeding past on a motorbike, you get a smile. Every interaction starts with a smile, which I’ve been told is a way of establishing face. It’s gentle, and very, very nice.
Needless to day, in the U.S., this does not happen. While some people smile, mostly they just look at me with slight suspicion when I automatically smile on catching their eye. That said, boy do they have the habit of cheerfully discussing the most intimate details of their lives with strangers, and genuinely asking how you are and — mostly — being interested in your answer. It’s disconcerting after Thailand, where the interaction almost always ends with the smile (which may be cultural, but is probably also because of my utter, shameful, pathetic lack of Thai language skills).
But while you have a good chance of having a friendly conversation with your checkout lady, there’s a flip side, which is the outright hostility and frustration you get from so many other people, like they’re pissed you just exist. My first night in DC, Philip and I were walking down the Friday-night-crowded street in Adams Morgan when I ended up doing that little dance with a woman approaching me, you know, the one where you’re trying to figure out who goes to which side. She huffed, scowled, turned to her friend and said, “Oh, it’s one of THOSE.” Seriously? In Thailand, that exchange would have involved nice mini-bows (kinda nods with a baby curtsy), big smiles and a little laugh. Not an irritated implication that I was a total idiot for not being able to read her mind about which way she wanted to walk.
There’s also a sense in the U.S. that, at any point, someone could just snap, an underlying violence and hostility that we both find unsettling. We’ve heard that in Thailand, the smile only goes so far, and that American dudes sometimes get in trouble because they start a bar fight and expect it to just be a bar fight, in the process insulting someone’s honor, and end up stabbed and dead because the other guy had lost so much face. But, short of this kind of massive douchebaggery, in Thailand you never get the sense of hostility that is palpable among so many people here.
OMG HUGE PORTIONS AND WTF YOU CALL THAT FOOD??? You’ve heard it a million times, but it bears repeating: There’s a reason America is struggling with an obesity epidemic. Americans eat absolutely enormous portions, and total crap “food.” Seriously, one Chipotle burrito or average meal at a restaurant is literally 2-3 times more than the serving size in Thailand. Or anywhere else in the world, I suspect. And what IS that crap they are eating??
Recycling! We totally forgot it existed. Got through the first big bag of trash, took it out back to throw away, and realized there were recycling bins. Score!
Sidewalks!! Wide sidewalks, without street stalls, electricity poles and random electrical boxes blocking the whole thing! No more walking in the gutter. More importantly, I don’t have to listen to Pip bitch about walking in the gutter!
Stay tuned for more pithy or inane observations…
In the meantime, check out this awesome 10 Japanese Travel Tips for Visitors to America.