on observing someone else’s culture shock

You would think that nine months in to this parents of two young kids thing we’d have it pretty much figured out, but truth be told we’re still barely managing to get our homework done and get moderately nutritious food in the kids’ mouths, so social lives? Hosting other people? Yeah, no. But a few weeks ago we found out that one of the two Beninese employees with whom Andy worked most closely in the embassy was going to be in Washington, D.C. for a few days. We knew we’d regret it if we didn’t reach out and show some hospitality in this case, so we did.

Dinner at our house was nice but fairly uneventful. But before dinner, Flynn and I took our guest for a stroll around Target. I knew it would be interesting for her, but although this was her first trip to the U.S. she’d spent significant amounts of time in major world cities outside of Africa, so I guess I underestimated the level of culture shock she would experience at Target.

Every few aisles she would just stop and almost giggle. “It looks like this all the time?” she asked about the toy section. “But it’s not even Christmas season!” She was baffled by how many different choices there were for types of diapers. She couldn’t believe the store was so clean and the shelves were so well organized. She was shocked to learn this was where the average American shopped, not just the wealthy.

The whole experience was so overwhelming for her that she had trouble deciding what to buy. She ultimately settled on instant oatmeal, which apparently isn’t available in Benin, but which she took a liking to when some departing diplomat left her a few packs. And of course we sent her off with some books and art supplies for her kids.

Not long after her visit I was back at Target and noticed a middle-aged man standing in the laundry section looking rather troubled.  I recognized that look. It was the same one I had shortly after arriving in Benin, and, sick, found myself in a pharmacy with no idea how anything was organized let alone what any of it was. After I gave the man a sympathetic smile, he asked in heavily accented English (yet, it should be noted, still much better foreign language skills than we diplomats possess when we arrive overseas), “Is this how I wash clothes?” He was pointing to bleach. I led him over to the detergent, and as his eyes scanned what I realized all of a sudden must be 100 choices, he looked more troubled than ever. “Is there, um, one you like?” I hooked him up with the Target brand and sent him on his way.

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4 Responses to on observing someone else’s culture shock

  1. Lis says:

    I really like this post! The way you let the two stories speak for themselves without overly analyzing is really powerful. We are headed to Togo in a few months. I imagine we’ll have quite a few moments of this nature. I hope we’ll encounter kind souls like yourself in our times of utter confusion!

  2. Sunny says:

    When we came back from Manila I teared up in the cheese aisle. It just wasn’t fair that they had o idea what it could be like.

  3. It all comes down to relative perspective. Though have traveled around a lot, including places with much less choice than we have, it was really after Vienna when we came back and I just could not get over how much “stuff” was at the mall. Where do I just find the white t-shirt I had come in for. Needless to say, it ended with me in tears on a bench by the fountain just becuase it was all so overwhelming and “on all the time” but everyone else in the mall thought I was off my rocker. But when abroad, I always find it’s fun to ask in the various aisles of stores, people are always willing to show you how they do things, and it breaks the isolation a bit.

  4. Caroline says:

    So true! American stores can be very overwhelming for first-timers OR those of us experiencing reverse culture shock. How fun for you to be on the other side, serving as a guide. 🙂

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