I have been told in the past by several Americans that the worst time to reenter the US after being abroad is during the holidays. Culture shock is heightened then, they say, because Christmas is when Americans’ crazed consumerism and rampant materialism are at their worst, and the effect can be particularly unsettling if you are just coming back from a place with poverty and other material deprivations.
In my experience, this has not been true.
In 2005, after a semester in Russia, I returned to the US in December. It was very difficult to leave behind the friends and experiences I’d had in Russia, but I’m sure my feelings would have been the same even if I’d come back to the US in March. If anything, the joy of the holidays helped to distract me from potential melancholy.
Similarly, in 2007, after several months in Lao PDR, I came back to the US the week of Thanksgiving. Almost as soon as I got back, I was overwhelmed, but it wasn’t by the excessive consumption attendant to Thanksgiving; rather, I had forgotten while in tropical Asia, about the change of seasons that happens in more temperate climes. So when I got back, I was almost enraptured by the brilliant array of colours on the dying trees, and that indescribable feeling that autumn air has.
Finally, after my first trip to Uganda in 2010, I came back to the US just after Thanksgiving, and just in time for the Bacchanalia that is the modern Christmas “season.” Once again, the natural environment provided much more shock than culture could. It was the 48 inches of snow that fell in Minneapolis that December that made Uganda seem like a different world, and not the jarring hyper-consumerism of the season.
So, while I’d like to believe that I have now reached a point where I am so adaptable that I can reenter the US at the most difficult time of year to do so, without any ill effects, I’m more inclined to believe that Christmastime is not in fact the most difficult reentry period, at least not for me. After all, destructive consumerism is not unique to the US, and at least at Christmastime that compulsive behaviour is, ostensibly, employed in buying gifts for others and not just one’s self.
But, here is where things get SCAAAARY!!! I’ve recently come to realise that the actual worst time for me to reenter the US might be in the midst of a general election season, say for example when I’m actually coming back next month.
Tim Geithner, who I otherwise associate with verbal carelessness, probably put it best earlier this year on CBS’ Face the Nation:
“The quality of political debate (on) economic policy is really terrible. It’s not surprising, given it’s a campaign…”
And it’s true: It is much less surprising to hear terrible reasoning on policy matters during an election year. I normally consider American political discourse to be irrational even at the best of times, but during a general election year, the idiocy soars to new heights. Normally intelligent and articulate people begin speaking in pre-formulated talking points, campaign slogans and political cliches. Otherwise sane and pleasant people jump on board with racist (or perhaps classist) conspiracy theories.
None of this is to say that I have found Uganda to be a bastion of rational discourse. If anything, the kleptocratic clique surrounding President Museveni has precluded meaningful political competition for the past 26 years. Nor would I suggest that politics in Uganda are less visceral than in the US. Indeed, Uganda’s parliament has several times tabled a kill-the-gays bill (although it could be argued that even that is a proxy conflict between fundamentalist American Christians and Western human rights activists). Surely, this is more depressing and less amusing than the wailing of homophobes in the US who claim they are persecuted because they’re not allowed to persecute others.
But because so many Ugandans have become disenchanted with their political system, very few people are emotionally invested in, and therefore irrationally devoted to, political parties or politicians to the degree that Americans are during election years (even tea party-types in the US who claim to have no faith in government and see it as inherently “part of the problem,” place a lot of hope, and money, in their ability to re-shape society in their image if they could just get the right candidates into government).
And this is why I dread coming back to the US during a general election: The irrational anger of the campaign season has an infectious, all-consuming quality which makes it impossible to escape. I can already predict that every other conversation I have while I’m back in the US will degenerate into a talk radio-quality “debate” about the election. And I’m sure that when I tell people stories about the scandalous corruption and abuses of power I’ve witnessed in Uganda, they will make some trite connection to an American political party or candidate that they don’t like.
This is not to say that if you see me during the 6 weeks that I’m in the US, we can’t discuss American politics. But I would make the following requests:
- We only discuss the election after we’ve both had a drink.
- Don’t tell me about something you saw on Fox/MSNBC
- Don’t tell me about something you read in an email forward/heard on AM radio
- Don’t turn a discussion about the Olympics or African wildlife into a rant about how the tea party/liberal academics are ruining America.
These are my rules. Feel free to apply them to your conversations with others, though!