Some of you will have noticed (in quiet desperation, no doubt) that there have been no new posts on this blog for some time. The cause for this paucity of updates was a brief, action-packed return to the US which afforded many experiences but little time for blogging thereabout.
Many American travelers like to claim that they suffer “way worse cultural shock” upon returning to the US than when traveling abroad. Some will even go so far as to say that they ONLY experience culture shock when they come back to the US. While I think such claims are really just a way of saying “I fit in very well over there,” I would agree that you don’t really understand your own culture until you’ve experienced another.
Toward that end, here are some things that really stood out to me during our recent return to the US. Because it was so short a trip, I felt we were still seeing America with relatively fresh eyes for the duration. I’ll leave aside some of the obvious differences (e.g. moving about on the right rather than left) in favour of these:
Occupation of Space:
I noticed this almost immediately after we’d cleared immigration in O’Hare. We were waiting in a queue that wrapped around four times. Even though most people in the queue had luggage, I estimated that the same number of Ugandans would have fit into the space before the first bend in the line. The reason for this is not just that Americans are physically larger (and not just the grotesque chug-a-lugs) but that we need more buffer space around us.
There were plenty of other signs of Americans’ need for space: houses are farther apart, and not just in the suburbs; vehicles in traffic stop much further away from each other; and when I wanted to try on garments before purchasing them at a store, I was able to have a separate room to myself, rather than just having someone hold up a sheet in front of me.
The road running in front of our apartment in Kampala, which is also the road upon which many other individuals, businesses and two sizeable churches are situated, is a dirt road. Outside of the city centre, only trunk roads are paved.
But when we were in Minnesota, we were struck by the fact that even alleys are paved (For my Ugandan readers, an alleyway is something like a panya, running parallel to the main road, behind houses). This difference is probably more due to economics than culture, but it is interesting that Americans place importance on a narrow passageway that only a few souls will ever have need to use.
Dealing with Scarcity
Genuine scarcity is something that the average American rarely, if ever, encounters. Even though plenty of Americans don’t get enough vitamins and nutrients from their food, they usually get enough food. So when a situation of even limited scarcity arises, Americans seems to lack the mental faculty to deal with it in a rational way.
Such a situation arose at the rehearsal dinner preceding my sister’s wedding. My sister’s now mother-in-law was worried that she might not have ordered enough food, and somehow this sense of worry had pervaded the minds of some guests. One of the groomsmen had heard rumours of scarcity and therefore took an inordinate amount of food, because of this threat (this is not my inference; this is exactly how he articulated it to me). Someone more familiar with scarcity would know that when food is scarce is precisely when you should not overconsume.
The first night we arrived in Minneapolis (a Thursday), we were immediately struck by how few people we saw. 11 pm is usually when the partying starts in Kampala, but at that same time in Minneapolis there was hardly a soul to be seen. Granted we saw a few other cars, but no people moving about. Similarly, during our 10-hour drive from Minneapolis to Indianapolis, the only time we saw any people was when we left the main highway, and actually entered some sort of business establishment. No matter where you are going in Uganda, whether in urban, rural or even national park areas, you can’t help but encounter people walking around, talking to each other, or just sitting there.
But Americans are not so easy to spot. Perhaps it was because we were there in the autumn when outside temperatures are somewhat cooler, or perhaps because the US as a whole is less densely populated than Uganda. But it seems that Americans like to hide themselves away from view, whether in buildings or cars. Perhaps this is connected to my first observation?