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Returning Home Culture Shock?

Current Events in America

Getting Up To Speed On Current Events in the US

Since we have returned home the question most often asked of us is, “Do you have culture shock?”  In a close second place is, “What are you going to do now?”  I will address the first one in this article.

“Shock” is an extreme word and feels like an exaggeration to me.  The phrase “Shock and Awe” comes to mind, and since 2003, I have just felt guilty using the term to describe something I have gone through.  Honestly, I am not in anyway shocked since I have returned home, I would just say I am more aware, much more aware.

As Aracely and I traveled from country to country throughout Central and South America we witnessed changes in culture, customs and traditions.  We made an effort to distinguish countries or peoples so we could gain a better understanding of a place.  Is the United States drastically different from the places we visited?  Overall yes, but not to the point of shock.

Markets in Sucre

Locals Bartering at the Tarabuco Market in Bolivia

If we lived with an Amazon tribe for 6 months, which people can do, then yes, it would be a shocking experience returning to the USA.  We didn’t subject ourselves to these extreme challenges.  Every country we visited had at least one developed city.  Each country also had indigenous populations living off the land in a way we don’t see in the United States.  We weren’t away from those developed cities for a long enough period of time to forget what’s it like living in the 21st century.  Our trip involved all landscapes, urban and rural.

Now that I have explained why we aren’t feeling shocked, let me make you aware of what we do recognize.  The United States is a consumer driven economy and successful marketing drives it.  I know, you already knew that.  I did too, but I didn’t feel pain participating in it like I do today.

Packing and selling our stuff

Our Stuff

After retrieving only a few of our 10 or so Rubbermaid bins from storage at my brother’s attic, it quickly became apparent that we have too much stuff.  This is after selling half our stuff at yard sales and on eBay prior to leaving on our trip.  During our travels over the last year we have lived out of large backpacks, nothing more.  The experience made us realize we don’t need all this stuff and it’s rather frustrating to own it now.  We admit, we wouldn’t have realized how little we really needed if we didn’t spend the last year backpacking.

We can drink tap water!  The United States has drinkable sink, shower and toilet water.  Drinkable tap water doesn’t exist in most places we traveled and it was often an inconvenience having to run out of the hostel to a corner store just because you were thirsty.  I don’t think we realize how good we have it here.  We now do our best to avoid drinking bottled water, saving waste and money.

American Auto Leases

The Auto Lease Sales Pitch in America

All the cars look new and the highways are, well, highways.  Our infrastructure in the Untied States is incredible.  We can travel by car anywhere on paved roads in a country that spans 2,500 miles across.  Not only are the roads paved, but they are also clean.  And the vehicles driving on them are new; a great contrast from the vehicles driven in Central and South America.  Auto manufactures have ran successful leasing campaigns convincing consumers that they must purchase a vehicle every 2-4 years.

Living With Less

Our New Old Car From Sean of www.Philly2Hoboken.com

The most difficult part about all this is that no one relates to us on these issues.  Those around us think we are silly for buying a 20 year old car that runs, for drinking tap water, and for being so mindful about waste.  I realized then that living in the US actually requires effort to not be wasteful.  The “consume” message is so ingrained in us all that we feel the need to buy such things as event specific disposable plates, greeting cards for Halloween, a purse to match every pair of shoes and a new fully loaded MacBook Pro for blogging.

We aren’t shocked, but we are more aware of the culture in the United States and it’s quite different from those living in Central and South America.  We are grateful for the opportunities this country has given us, but we aren’t so proud of the way we live in it.  Now is the time to change and live with a little less, actually much less.  Less stuff and less stress, we believe.

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Kady says:

I inserted a trip home to Minnesota sandwiched in the middle of my RTW experience, and so after Australia, New Zealand, SE Asia and Korea, I flew home. The “culture shock” for me was being able to revisit my former life, but this time, WITHOUT the responsibility of my job. I was able to give more time to visiting the friends and family I so sorely missed while away. Friends I had no time for when I was working 70 hours per week. I was even able to spend a week with my aunt in the hospital while she recovered from open heart surgery, something I never would have been able to do before.

I’m back on the road now…in Nicaragua, looking forward to another 8 months of travel, and an eventual re-entry into life in the US with a new attitude about supporting myself in a simpler life, making it possible to maintain and nurture the relationships that are so important to me.

Secondly, I look forward to being able to flush toilet paper.

Jason says:

Melvin,
Exactly, we don’t need all the stuff to be happy. And thinking intelligently, if we had less we wouldn’t need to make as much money and that would mean more free time. It’s not rocket science. The only problem is that the United States economy would crash since its a consumer driven market. 🙁 I know, the beard is gone. I also shaved it during the trip, but those videos aren’t out yet. They are coming soon.

Melvin says:

If you are not shocked, I AM! Your beard is off!!! You are looking strange to me now! LOL

But you are very right with your post & it’s good. I felt the same & the hardest was to see how this kind of life sucks you in again… from week to week. But one thing definitely changed after such a trip! You are wiser & know about that you don’t need all that stuff to make you happy!

Laura says:

Traveling definitely makes you appreciate what we have back in the United States and what we take for granted. But on the other hand, it makes you more aware of the things we could improve on. Consumerism is one of the things that bothers me the most. It’s amazing that everything you need for a year can fit in a bag that you can carry on your back.

Jason says:

It is truly amazing! That’s what is most shocking when you come home and take things out of storage and fill back up your chest drawers and closet. You get this OMG feeling and just want to get rid of everything that you own. I haven’t gotten rid of all my excess clothes yet, but it won’t be hard. I still wear the same few things as if I were still backpacking.

Sunny says:

First off, just wanted to comment and say I practically spent a whole day following your journey and I so admire you two for what you’ve done! I went travelling/backpacking for 6 months in 2008 and I can definitely relate to your thoughts and reactions. I have the same ideas about “things.” It all seems so unneccessary, doesnt it? The one thing that I think about all the time is my clothes. I’ve never had an enormous closet, but I find myself rarely spending money on clothes, especially new clothes. I feel better about either shopping at thrift stores, re-making old pieces, or just actually wearing clothes until they actually wear out. Budget travel experience/backpacking truly makes you appreciate the other things in life. I think it is something everyone should allow themselves to experience. Truly enlightening.

On another note, I’m excited to say my boyfriend and I are planning to go for 6 months in Southeast Asia in 2011. He’s never been out of the country and I’m so excited to show him what I’ve been dreaming about since I’ve gotten back to the states!!

Cheers, you two–inspired!

Jason says:

Sunny, That’s exciting to hear, because we know the more people that get out and see the world, the more likely we are to help change the world. Thanks for taking the time to learn about our travels!

I started to become conscious of the environment about 6 years ago, but it wasn’t until this trip that I really had an awakening of what excess consumption in developed countries does to the rest of the world. And I truly do believe that all the things we have today contributes to wasted time and stress in our lives.

And this is why people should travel!

Do a lot of people in the US drink only bottled water? We felt so bad about all the bottles we were going through in Tunisia when we couldn’t drink the tap water. We actually held onto them to throw out in a recycling bin when we got back to Italy. Having done this we got a good idea about just how much plastic we were consuming — pretty scary! It’s terrifying to think that whole countries of people are doing this needlessly!

Traveling made me realise how easy it is to live your life in one country as if the rest of the world doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter. Once you’ve traveled you can never go back to that and wouldn’t want to.

We too have a lot of stuff in storage back home. I wonder how much of it will survive an umpteenth cull!

Great blog post!

Jason says:

Yes, the United States is 100% on bottled water. The marketing giants of Coke, Pepsi and Nestlé have pulled a big sheet over the heads of Americans. All this when we have some of the cleanest tap water in the world.

It’s true. Once you live in a place long enough, no one else exists for many people.

Wow this is incredible. This is exactly how I’m feeling write now. I was just about to write a “Status Update” about being back in New York and you took a lot of the words right out of my mouth.
The first thing I did when I got back home was gut my room, the garage and the basement of all the worthless stuff I’ve collected over the years. Now I just need to find a place that buys baseball cards!

Great article.

Jason says:

I don’t think I can get rid of my baseball cards, but I do have plenty of other stuff!

scot d says:

Yes, yes and yes – good post and I totally agree.

Returning home from a four month trip through central and south america, mine and my fiancee’s ‘re-entry’ experience mirrors yours.

Too much stuff – we did the exact same. Thought we’d gotten rid of so many things before we left…then got ride of so much more when we returned. Is it because we got used to travelling with less, or simply that we met people who were happier with less? Or is it because we escaped from the incessant assault of marketing messages? Or simply because there were less places to buy things or less capacity to transport them? I don’t care. Happier without so much stuff!

A great book we read when we came home was Tim Ferris’ ‘For Hour Week’ – have you read it? he strongly advocates down-sizing, as well as trying to incorporate more travel experiences into your work. Reading it helped us when we came back to the ‘real world’ after time in the Amazon rainforest and other places.

I’m with you regarding cars, too. Our ‘new’ car is pretty ancient, unattractive, fuel efficient, practical, cheap wonderful piece of machinery. Makes my friend’s Benz look even more ostentatious. Still, we’re the ‘weird ones’ for choosing such a ‘piece of crap’.

Thing is, travelling gives you that wisdom, strength and sense of sureness in your decisions. So no matter what advertisers or even friends say, you know that down sizing, consuming less and being less wasteful is the right thing to do.

Anyway, good post, thanks for sharing it!

Jason says:

Thanks for the comment Scot. You raise some good points on why other countries haven’t reached the consumerism as you see in the States yet. I do believe they are heading in that direction. I think the more developed countries set the example and less developed countries follow. I saw many blue painted tiendas with the TIGO logo in Latin America. It will come to them too.

Audrey says:

I think one of the best ways to both appreciate and cast an objective eye on your home country is to travel or live abroad. The United States is a fantastic country that is home to incredible opportunity and so much potential. However, I often get frustrated and overwhelmed when we return to the States by the consumption and what is considered “normal.” Traveling through Latin America, Europe, and Asia has also made me realize that the United States has a lot to learn from other countries in terms of public transportation, energy conservation, mobile connectivity and more. Each country has good and bad points; the goal is to always improve.

Jason says:

We should always improve. And I am currently wondering if we are indeed improving. It’s a tough question.

Audrey says:

That’s the million dollar question – are we improving. On our last visit to the States, we noticed a lot of things that indicated “status quo” based on the position the country held for so long as the “most developed and powerful country in the world” and that we would just naturally hold that position. But, take a visit to China or some other countries in Asia and you’ll see how much more advanced they are in public transport and quite a few other technologies as they could leap frog ahead. Will also be curious to see how China does with renewable energy research and investments.

Alonna says:

Welcome home guys! Ben and I have been back from our RTW trip for 3 months now. We struggle with this as well – and we came home to our house filled with much, much more than 10 rubbermaids!

Another way we’ve changed a lot is money and how to spend it. We’ve always been a bit frugal, but now it’s so hard to keep my mouth shut when friends and family talk about spending money on new cars, fancy landscaping, or replacing kitchen cabinets. Now I know how far that money can go while traveling, and it makes me sad to watch people spend it on more “things” instead of experiences.

One more point – when/if you “settle” down somewhere, try hosting couchsurfers. They typically have similar views, and it’s very refreshing to find people you can relate to on these issues. Good luck!

Jason says:

And it’s not even about how far that money can go while traveling (although that goes through our mind too), it’s about what else that money can be used for, like paying off debt. We don’t want our government to live in debt, but we do… so why shouldn’t they?

Andi says:

I agree the hardest part if finding people to relate to! Maybe meet up with some local CSers to discuss traveling stories?

Jason says:

Not a bad idea at all Andi. It would help us get back into the budget traveler state of mind. We hope to spend a lot of time Couchsurfing across the US during our road trips.

Earl says:

On my last visit home to the US, I was surprised to find so many of my friends and family interested in ‘shopping’ for no other reason than to fill up their time. There was that ‘if I’m bored, I can always go and buy something’ mentality, which of course is quite hard to understand when one has been traveling out of a backpack for so long.

When I was in Australia last year, the government launched a campaign where they mailed hourglass timers out to every household, asking everyone to use them in order to limit their showers to under four minutes in duration. Every single person I knew in Australia used the timers and reduced their showers to under four minutes.

When I explained this interesting idea to people at home, the most common response was, “nobody is going to stop me from taking my 10 minute shower!”

Clearly there is just a vastly different mentality when it comes to certain aspects of conservation and waste.

Jason says:

The problem with waste and conservation is that we can’t see it. And if we can’t see it, or rather, if it doesn’t effect our lives directly, typically humans won’t react. It’s an individual society that looks to prosper short term.

Dan says:

Nice article, nice to know I’m not the only one who also thinks this way. After growing up in Brazil, I completely understand your point, especially living in the US now. Everyone at work and people we know, they all seem to have “everything”, but when it comes down to it, what do they really have? A huge debt, credit card bills and student loans pilling and a subprime mortgage they can’t long afford. Me, I have my family and no need to keep up with jones.

Jason says:

Yup Dan, you are right too. Unfortunately, the United States economy is dependent on that behavior.

Adam says:

Great post guys! We felt much of the same things upon returning home from our year of traveling, and we came to many of the same conclusions you did, particularly with how wasteful we are as a society.

We are just so much more aware now when it comes to waste. We didn’t think twice about having a big meal, throwing the leftovers in the fridge, not really “wanting” to eat them the next few days, then tossing them out when they got too old.

Now we just simply can’t do something like that. Food is needed so much in so many other parts of the world that we just can’t bring ourselves to throw out a perfectly good meal simply because we’d rather eat something else. We have tried really hard since our return to waste as little as possible, and that’s just when it comes to food.

But all the other stuff you mentioned is also important–plates for holidays, shoes to go with every outfit, stuff, stuff, and more stuff. Sure, stuff is nice, but it really was so much simpler when we only had a few outfits and one bag. It just made life easier. Sometimes we view all this stuff as nothing more than a hindrance.

Great post as this rings so true to us. Now the challenge is keeping this mindset as you are here longer and adjust to this life again.

Jason says:

You are exactly right Adam, as time goes on it’s going to be harder to keep these fresh views in our minds. Funny you mentioned the leftovers, we talk about that almost everyday. It’s a constant struggle, especially with how easy it is to buy more. I am the guilty one with the MacBook Pro, it’s my weakness. We each have our weaknesses I am sure, but its a step in the right direction to be aware and begin to make the changes necessary.

Stacy says:

“the stuff you own begins to own you” — Fight Club

Loved this post. Thanks!

Jason says:

Awesome movie! That line is so true.

LeslieTravel says:

Great post! I can relate, After I spent a year backpacking RTW, it was strange to be home in North America. I also was shocked by how much stuff we had. I’ve been back in NY for a year now, and find that it’s easy to get sucked back into the old way of life… cherish those memories! 🙂

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