I am talking with a group of friends in late November. “I can’t believe how early Americans start celebrating Christmas,” I say. One of them blinks at me. Later it comes out that all of them already have their trees, have already started baking, have houses coated in red and green and wreathed in carols.
A different day, a different informal group of women. One is talking about her phobia of germs. Without thinking, I start talking about how surprised I was at the griminess of the children’s hands in Mauritania. They all wanted to shake hands, and afterwards my primary thought was to wash hands, although I hated myself for this. But the silty sand combined with the stickiness, the dirt, and the thought of the children’s living conditions… I finish my story and everyone is silent. I kick myself. I did not mean to emphasize how “different” I am, just because I’ve lived somewhere else.
Culture shock is understandable—naturally everything’s different to this poor ex-pat who doesn’t know that she’s supposed to cook a sheep’s head for the Eid, or that it’s rude to lean back against the cushions when there are men present.
Culture shock is eminently forgivable. People make allowances, more easily, for the stranger than the neighbour. But as an American-looking American-sounding woman of indeterminate age, there is no excuse for me to be feeling out of things here. This is my home, my native land, right? Reverse culture shock is offensive because it implies criticism. What right do I have to say when people should start celebrating Christmas, or to be critical that everyone’s got such a germ phobia that they carry hand-sanitizer everywhere?
So we tamp it down, we the hidden outsiders. We fake, pretend we know the cultural reference, just like we faked it overseas, when everyone knew we didn’t.
Sometimes someone will call me on it. “This must all be so weird to you,” they’ll say. And I usually smile gratefully (someone gets me!) and nod, and then, being me, start talking again about my life overseas. Boring people. Because no one really wants to hear all about it all over again. (Aside: actually I met someone the other day who did. She kept asking me question after question about life at the University of Nouakchott in the mid-00s (aside aside: does that work as a way to describe the last decade?) and gave off NONE of the “I’m-secretly-so-bored-WHEN-will-this-woman-shut-up” signals. I even changed the subj and she brought it back. She was fascinated!)
But I am torn, and as ragged-edged as that metaphor implies. Because I want, simultaneously, to fit in and to be different. I like who I am; I like the experiences I’ve had that have contributed to my current outlook on life. Sometimes I embrace the criticism of my own culture; I mean what I am implying. But sometimes, I just want to be like everybody else. I forget that no one is just like everybody else, that every single woman in that circle is feeling out of it in one way or another.
And now I want to hear from you. I know many of my readers have dealt with this.