Blame it on the 12-hour, overnight flight from Beijing. Perhaps the six days spent in the hazy capital prior to leaving. Or the plane, darkened to encourage sleep, filled with black-haired Chinese flyers. After being away from the US for nine months and eight days, we landed at daybreak in Seattle, emerging into a shiny, new world. I was bewildered. Someone, please pass me some sunglasses.
I was suffering reverse culture shock. Remember, I had spent the last six months in some of the more challenging countries of our world. It was becoming somewhat normal to experience the crowds, the garbage, the chaos. My first shock was the return of customer service. While window shopping at a deli in the airport food court, a clerk over-eagerly asked, “Hello, how are you? What can I get for you?” I mumbled something about not needing help and shuffled away. It felt odd, fake, and I wanted to say, “Don’t talk to me until I’m ready and then let me struggle to figure out a way to get what I want, because we’re not supposed to be speaking the same language and you’re supposed to be uncaring and I just want some sushi rolls and give me my change!” Oh shit, I have been on the lonely, non-English speaking road for too long.
The second shock was the infrastructure. The Seattle airport was new and shiny. So was the plane. On our second flight we were flying into the morning sun and the plane was full of people with blonde hair. Everything burned my eyes. I wanted to turn the brightness down, yet this was not my iPad. Landing in Milwaukee, Ken’s mom picked us up from the airport and drove us to New Berlin. Not a fan of freeway traffic, she drove Layton Avenue.
Normally this stretch of road, with old homes and worn-out strip malls, wouldn’t get much notice from me. On this day, I couldn’t stop staring. The roads were so wide, so organized, so clean. Grass was cut, flowers were in bloom, trees were full, landscapes were clear of garbage. Cars moved almost politely, stopping at intersections, staying in their lanes, following traffic laws, not honking their horns. Oh, and there were hardly any cars on the road. This was Milwaukee’s rush hour and traffic was sparse… seriously. You suburbanites who want to feel better about your commutes, spend a week in Mumbai.
I made a point of driving through Milwaukee’s poor “hood” a few days later. Yep, wide, clean, quiet. It too made me stare in wide-eyed wonder. Wow, I thought, life is good, even at 23rd and Keefe.
My final shock was the people. The large, obese people. What happened, America? I am no svelte gal, and I try not to pass too much judgement about weight, yet when four women boarding the small plane from Minneapolis to Milwaukee were all candidates for gastric bypass, I thought, enough is enough. People, we are too big! Sure, obese people existed in every country we visited, yet we would see one or two a week. In the US, I see at least one an hour! While I wish no one the bodies of the stunted and underweight people we saw in India, Nepal, and Cambodia, I do think we could learn something from their simpler eating habits and shed a few pounds ourselves. Stop the junk, cook our food, and move around.
Living in Milwaukee for a couple months has definitely lessened the shock of being in the Western world. I find myself being more chatty with the clerks at Outpost. Noticed that 23rd and Keefe has some garbage tossed about on the street. Put on a few pounds myself, eating too many tortilla chips and drinking margaritas (finally!)
Our travels have certainly made an impact on how we look at the world, especially our own home. While we are eternally grateful to have been born in a country of plenty and blessed with rich lives, it feels important to live with an open mind and do things more simply. Stay tuned for more about that.