Fresh First Impressions

Americans are fat. And pale, really pale–unless, of course, they aren’t. All the signs here are in only one language. The air is clean, and smells like sweet dried grass. And the sun–you can actually sit out in it without being drenched in sweat!

They warn you about reverse culture shock. They say it, over and over again, until it becomes a cliche festering in your mind: You’ll notice how big everyone is. You’ll be disgusted by the consumption and waste. You’ll make yourself sick on the food. Yeah, yeah, I get it, you say to yourself. I’ve been gone a while. It’ll feel different to be back. Okay, yeah, sure, whatever.

Then you actually do it–you actually go back. And you realize just how right they were.

Coming back into an English-speaking, ethnically diverse country after a year in a predominantly Chinese (and Taiwanese and Hakka and other languages which I don’t speak)-speaking one, and one where being white marks you as the one foreigner in any group, is an intensely bizarre sensation. I wrote about it a few weeks ago when I visited Australia; the best way I can describe it is complete sensory overload. Going from a world where you can’t help but take notice of the one non-Asian person in any crowd and subconsciously perk your ears up at the slightest English syllable to a world where people from every background swirl about, bandying English about as if it’s no big deal–and, what’s more, to actually have it not be a big deal–is disorienting to the point of incomprehension. When you’ve trained your senses to seek out and highlight everything “foreign” from a Taiwanese perspective, putting yourself in a world where everything is foreign is like overloading the circuits on a computer.

Or, here’s a better analogy. Imagine you’re watching a movie in a dark room, on a small monitor with a broken speaker. You lean forward in your chair, squinting at the screen and straining your ears to catch even a few words of the dialogue, so as to piece together the story. Over the course of the movie, you get pretty good at this, your ears and eyes completely attuned to the tiny screen and speakers.

Then, just as the movie enters the shoot ’em out climax, someone switches on all the lights and, simultaneously, the movie theater-sized screen and speakers on the wall behind the tiny monitor you’ve been watching. Instantly, the room fills with bright lights and full-volume explosions.

What do you do? Clutch your ears and close your eyes, of course! It’s just too much, too fast, for your quiet-and-dark-attuned senses to handle all at once. That’s what it’s like to come back into your native environment after a year abroad.

Fortunately, I had that experience–an experience which, I realize, also mirrors Plato’s allegory of the cave to some extent–along the Esplanade in Cairns a few weeks before coming home to America, leaving my homeward observations to look like those in my first paragraph, rather than leaving me rocking on the floor of the plane as the seats around me filled with people who looked like–gasp–me!

My new impressions of the West  certainly do not fit into any sort of neat and tidy box.

They are negative: We’re all so fat! Why don’t we have any bilingual signs even in international airport terminals? What’s the deal with our crappy airlines? Why do we have such negative election press?

They are positive: The air is clean, and smells great! I can drink water from the tap! People are friendly! We have fully stocked bathrooms!

They are indifferent: The flies here are different. The sun is cooler. People are still people.

It’s odd, though–the things that strike me the most are utterly random and, usually, utterly small. I’m currently listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd on Pandora; last night I watched Downton Abbey on Netflix. Neither of those sites are available in Taiwan. I’ve been eating my fill of bagels, croissants, peaches, and cheddar cheese. None of those are common or quite as good in Taiwan. My rotisserie chicken doesn’t have the head attached, and it tastes just better somehow. Today I walked past a Redbox, and shopped for toiletries in a Bi-Mart. Redbox triggered a twinge of nostalgia, of all things, and Bi-Mart seemed cavernous and full at the same time–despite the fact that Carrefour has always been at least as well-stocked.

And, perhaps it’s because I’ve recently returned from abroad, or perhaps it’s because I’ve come unarmed into the middle of an election year, but I can’t help but look around me and wonder how American politics fell into the hole it’s in now. I love America, and hate to see the insularity which seems to be creeping over it. Again, I realize my bias, but I wish that every young person would live abroad somewhere for at least a few months, maybe adopt the phenomenon common in places like Europe of taking a gap year to travel and work abroad. It changes your perspective radically, as I’ve written about before.

Perhaps the best aspect of living outside your country, and one which I didn’t talk about before–indeed, couldn’t have talked about, considering that I had yet to experience it–is the comparatively clear-eyed view it gives you of your own country when you return. So now, I see beyond the cliches into the truths on which they are based, and try not to perpetuate them. I can see how big everyone is and that thought may temper the longings of my homesick stomach. Having spent a year breathing gray air and drinking only bottled water, I can fully appreciate the ability to take in a deep breath of pure farm air and see the hills across the valley; I can fully cherish turning on the tap and getting a cup full of water both clean and tasty.

Soon, I’m sure, I will no longer think twice about such little luxuries as free music streaming over my speakers, or a piece of cheese bread in my hand. But maybe, in the process, I’ll be able to cling to these first impressions of my home, both good and bad, and to keep them from festering into false memories.

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