Coming home

People who have lived for a length of time in another country often find that when they return home, it takes time to readjust to American culture.

Last year I posted some comments from a friend of mine, Tamara, who was working for the Peace Corps in Madagascar. She has now returned and I asked her to share her first reactions to being ‘home.’ She sent me the following comments, which I think are quite interesting:

“I keep having a dream that I am back in my village in Madagascar, with no running water, no electricity and no toilet. I have been back home three months, and my life in Madagascar now seems like a strange dream, even though by the time I left it felt quite normal. Although I appreciate the convenience of electricity, running water and a toilet, adjusting to life in the USA has held a number of less-than-pleasant surprises.

My first surprise occurred when I arrived at Chicago airport from Madagascar. I looked around me and saw only overweight giants. The average person in Madagascar is much shorter and thinner due to a very different diet. When I went through customs, I kept thinking the official would require me to put on ten pounds of fat to be allowed back in the United States.

My second surprise was witnessing the reactions of my fellow passengers to the announcement that our flight to my hometown had been cancelled and rescheduled for the next morning. All of us were given apologies, a hotel voucher, transportation and meal vouchers, which I thought was just fine.

But it was not fine with my fellow passengers. The man in front of me threw a tantrum suitable for a six year old: throwing his briefcase down and cursing a steady stream. Two middle-aged ladies frantically started calling on their cell phones, sobbing and screaming “We are stuck in Chicago overnight!” as if they had been sentenced to life in prison.

All I could think of was, wow, a free room with TV, a toilet, electricity and free meals. What’s the problem? We’ll still arrive at our destination tomorrow morning.

Back in my hometown, my first trip to the grocery store, which I have done many times in the past, turned out to be unexpectedly stressful. I had a short list of items to purchase. One item was a can of tomatoes. I looked over the ten shelves of canned tomatoes, and felt like I was being given an exam. Which kind of tomato is the correct one to buy? Whole? Diced? Petite diced? Petite diced with garlic? Diced with onion? Diced with chili spice? Diced with Italian spice? My heart started racing, I broke out in a slight sweat, hoping I could choose the right one.

I turn down the next aisle, and it’s a mile long and dedicated just to pets. There isn’t even a word for ‘pets’ in most of the poorer parts of the world. Animals are raised to provide food for people, not to soothe your soul. Only in America do we have pet foods that are gluten free.

Then I spent an inordinate amount of time searching for ice cream. Stores in the U.S. are huge (and mostly filled with things we don’t need). My whole village back in Madagascar could fit inside one supermarket.

I finally found the ice cream aisle and stood looking at 502 choices. Strange flavors concocted for every taste, hundreds of brands, sizes—even non-dairy ice cream, which seems like a contradiction to me! The choices were overwhelming. I couldn’t choose. So I parked my shopping cart, walked over and purchased one banana, and walked out, relieved to be out of the store.

Life back in the USA seems much more hectic than I remember. Stressful—for no real reason.

As I eat my banana and reflect back on my time in Madagascar, I miss a simpler life, and my friends in my village, Manandona. Living with no electricity, no running water, no toilet, no car, (but lots of mice) is easy compared to the pointless stress and complexity we subject ourselves to here.”


Thanks, Tamara, for sharing your insights with us. Culture shock is real, and for those of us who have experienced it, it is quite disorienting for a while.

Tamara’s blog has more about her adventures in Madagascar. And if you’re wondering what timshel means, read the last page of John Steinbeck’s book East of Eden.

After reading Tamara’s comments I started thinking: What happens when someone lives overseas for so long they can never really readjust to their home culture? And at the same time they cannot completely fit into their overseas culture either. They are suspended between two worlds. So I wrote a story about someone in that circumstance and titled it ‘Between Two Worlds’ which should be in print next spring.

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