…because some thoughts are worth remembering
Returning to the US after 2 years in Denmark is bound to result in a reverse culture shock. There’s the typical “wait, I understood what that random guy by the store was saying” as we walked down a street, realizing that the default language was English, a language you had native fluency in.
As I observed my own behaviors and reactions after landing in the US, I realized some patterns:
There is something very disturbing about being able to understand every single thing you hear and see around you when you got used to walking in a mental bubble equivalent of wearing a noise canceling headset and only taking it off when you have to understand something and then you concentrate like mad to decipher the foreign language. The amount of information is overwhelming, but more so is that your brain is somehow still treating English like a foreign language.
Another aspect of repatriating is that it has all the logistical and emotional headaches of a move, but amplified. Moving to a new place where you don’t have a job (or a permanent address) is one of those cases our societal structures and policies overlook. And when the place you are moving from is a foreign country, obtaining medical coverage you are used to (before leaving the US or compared to national coverage you get in most developed countries around the world) is near impossible (it turns out there are clauses like you had to have been in the US for the last 6 months to qualify). The logistical headaches also lead to confusion.
On a short walk from my friend’s apartment in the Mission district, I walked passed a Nicaraguan hole in the wall eatery, a Mexican and South American grocery store, charities running second hand stores contrasted with a row of hipster stores (a vegetarian Japanese restaurant, a cheese shop offering cheese flights, a clothing store majoring in metallic gold or silver fabric, cafes offering gluten-free vegan options) where the people walking on these streets matched the diversity of the stores. When my husband ordered his super quesadilla suiza, the cashier, who was also a short order cook, gave us a basket full of chips with a big smile, “Here you go, boss!”. When the order was up, the waiter first yelled our number in Spanish then in English. Oh, and the meal didn’t cost 150 DKK (over $20, which is what we would pay in Denmark for a burrito), and we didn’t get charged for tap water (which we would have been in Denmark), and we weren’t hungry after we finished our meal. On our walk back, I realized I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb, with people of different skin tones, some darker than mine, others lighter, walked by.
Boasting about one’s own country isn’t the only way to be patriotic. Getting ideas for improvement for the U.S. from experiencing how other countries tackled their problems can give us hope while traveling or simply enjoy their way of things, but it feels different after returning to the U.S. Yesterday, we saw bicyclists carrying their bikes on their shoulders to go up the stairs at a BART station. It’s a familiar sight in San Francisco or in any city with a metro system or parks with staircases. In Denmark, there are narrow slopes that run along the steps so you can roll the bike up while you climb up the stairs, pretty much everywhere people travel, because biking is a preferred mode of transportation. I felt this sense of remorse even though I don’t even ride a bike! And what’s up with credit cards without chips? I am told chips will be required soon but the US opted for “chip + signature” vs. “chip + pin” used in Europe. Do we not have confidence in ourselves to remember a 4 digit number? Wait, we use the 4 digit number codes at ATM, so what gives?
You are back in your own country and you start to miss things you took for granted living abroad. At the top level are nationalized health care and gun control. Closer to daily routines are benefits like being able to order most English-language books on their library website to be delivered to your local library without any fees, banking and payment systems that doesn’t require writing checks, streets without potholes (or sidewalks without human feces….), and seeing the true full price of an item before purchase (posted prices include all taxes).
Others are more a difference in philosophy that affect the daily practices, such as a culture of trust, where the default state from which you craft any procedure assumes you trust the users to do the right thing (e.g., goods are exchanged without much paperwork, read my experience when I forgot to take the bananas I paid for at a supermarket). The Danes operate on the basis that what counts is the output: did you complete your work vs. how much time did you spend in the office to complete your work. They take long vacations (which can be annoying for American collaborators who don’t understand their practices and do not take into account that you can’t expect your Danish counterparts to produce any work in the month of July) so they can be focused for the rest of the year. They promptly leave the office around 4pm to pick up kids or run errands so they make sure they get their work done efficiently and effectively. Their culture rewards people with a work-life balance where the South Bay thrives on being reachable 24/7 and appearing to be working longer hours.
I noticed that when we took an elevator, some guy offered to push the button for us even though we could have easily reached the buttons ourselves. I found it fascinating, because in Denmark, holding the door for someone else is not the norm, and ignoring other people in public (i.e., minding your own business) is how they define politeness. Danes are not used to offering help though they are quite helpful if you ask them. They may not necessarily offer help because they know if someone needs help, they will ask for it. It was quite late when our host picked us up at the airport on a weeknight, and we had a lot to catch up on, yet this observation is what I chose to talk about, when you know that no one else really cares!
There are little things, like mistakenly pushing the button below the first floor to get out onto the street level, because in Denmark (as with other European countries) consider the 1st floor to be the floor above the street level. They have many names for what Americans consider the first floor: Stuen, or L for lobby if it’s a hotel, etc. so I got into the habit of just pushing any button that’s directly below their first floor to get out from the building, but of course, in the U.S., that would make it a basement.
Some of it is an attitude adjustment. Going out to eat is quite expensive in Denmark due to the high labor cost, and the high price doesn’t necessarily mean yummy. We got into the routine of cooking dinner at home everyday, and packing left overs for lunch for the next day. When we returned to the U.S., my heart will start beating a little faster and stronger before going to a restaurant, because it used to be a big financial decision and to prepare yourself mentally for a cuisinary disappointment that follows after feeling ripped off for having to pay for a jug of tap water (~$5).
And how can I forget: not reading dates correctly. 9/5/2015… “oh, it already happened in May… wait, no, that’s Sept. 5th”.
The upshot of the reverse cultural shock is that you reenter the country a different person than you left it. While your friends may have also grown, you are changed in a way they haven’t. To accept that one’s sense of self can be so different after a relatively short period of time, and that the sense of self is a malleable and affected by its environment, is at best disorienting. While I may not feel sure of myself just yet, there is a part of me, confident, that I will emerge a better version of myself as the identity jet lag fades into the fog of San Francisco.
Photo: Street sign for the oldest street in Viborg (2nd oldest city in Denmark), called “Nameless”