Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Reverse Culture Shock

Hey there. We've now been back in the US for about eight months. Honestly, it feels like much longer. Sometimes our four-year stint in Luxembourg seems like a dream. Wait, did that actually happen?! Being back in our old house in our old neighborhood has undoubtedly heightened the odd sense that we must have just imagined it all.

Before we completely adjust back to American life and forget what it was like to re-enter our home culture, I thought I'd quickly share a few experiences of reverse culture shock.

Driving everywhere
In Luxembourg we managed without a car for a year and a half, but only because we purposefully arranged our living situation to make this possible from the start. While we might be able to get away with this in certain areas of the city, the fact is that Portland (and America) is much bigger, and our house here is in the suburbs. Granted, we're at the border of the suburbs and the city, so we have relatively good bus access. Not only that, but we both work from home, and the kids' school is across the street. So we still are able to easily live with one car and the occasional Uber/Lyft. Nevertheless, driving everywhere is a key part of the culture here and we had to readjust to that mindset. And by the way, the roads here are so dang wide!

Everything's easy
You don't fully realize until you're back in a place where everyone speaks your native language just how perpetually tense you were in every interaction abroad. We constantly braced ourselves for miscommunication, confusion, frustration, misunderstanding, scolding, humiliation, and failure each time we set out to accomplish the simplest of tasks. Back in the USA, we speak the language and we know how all the systems work. And if we don't know, we're confident we can find out. Add to this the friendly customer service culture, and life feels like a cinch. Sure, the over-the-top American eagerness to please can be a bit obnoxious at times, but we laugh it off and thank our lucky stars we (mostly) understood what they said and got exactly what we wanted in a reasonable amount of time.

Endless options and variety
We can attribute the stark contrast between the US and Luxembourg partly to their comparative sizes, but there's no denying that America is the land of options aplenty. I'm trying to think of cases of more options in Luxembourg. Cheeses? Castles? No doubt there are a few more. But when we set out to buy anything here in Portland, whether online or in person, a product or a service, we are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of choices.

Not only are the food and restaurant options expansive in the US, but we also really missed the flavors. We learned that the central European palate is much more refined than the American palate. While they are probably distinguishing all kinds of subtle flavors, all our American brains register is "bland." With the possible exception of some parts of the middle of the country, we Americans like our flavors and spices turned up to 11. We are now bombarded with flavor every time we eat out, and we absolutely love it. Also, free tap water at restaurants is amazing.

Job permanence
Luxembourg is a land of transient expats. Most of our friends and colleagues moved countries and/or changed jobs every 2-4 years. Therefore, it's quite jarring to walk into Target or the gym or the post office and see the same people working there as before we left. I even see the same people in the same jobs since I was toting around a baby and toddler. Why haven't they moved on to a different job yet? Oh, wait, that's actually totally normal!

School culture
Obviously, there are lots of differences between public school in Luxembourg and the USA. Since we first moved to Luxembourg and faced a school culture that was different for both us and our kids, we've tried to instill the idea that one is not better than the other. I think they have a good grasp of this philosophy, and they are hesitant to judge and compare when asked. Nevertheless, here are a few key items we've been adjusting to in Oregon school:

  • Tons of opportunities (and expectation) for parent involvement and volunteering.
  • Lots of technology use, such as class sets of iPads and laptops, learning software that automatically adjusts the level as you go, email addresses and Google drives and blogs for the kids, etc.
  • Baffling playground rules like "no running on the wood chips" and "no pushing each other on the swings."
  • Lots of positive reinforcement from the teachers in the form of games, contests, verbal praise, emails to the parents, stickers, candy, earning rewards and parties, special privileges, etc.
  • Teachers rarely, if ever, yell at the class as a form of discipline or correction.
  • Lots of school community/social events.
  • Larger class sizes--approximately double!
  • Fewer and shorter tests.
  • Lots of fundraising.

Junk mail
This is kind of a random one, but it's very noticeable and extremely annoying. We get so much mail here and 95% of it goes straight into the recycling bin or shredder. What a waste!

'Nuff said.