The previous time I went back to the U.S. -- three years ago -- I was surprised by how much culture shock I felt.
Moving to Europe, I really hadn't experienced any culture shock to speak of. I'd expected various things to be a bit different (and they were), but not long after moving to France I had my first baby. And that was way more of a shock to my system than anything the French could throw at me.
Coming back to my home town after living abroad (if you'll pardon a Pulp Fiction cliché) the little things that had once been familiar now started to seem strange, like the particular foods at the supermarket or on a menu.
Even stranger, though, were the big things. Everything seemed enormous -- as though the country had been afflicted with a bad case of gigantism -- from the stores to the vehicles to the dinner portions to the endless parking lots. I gather many people arriving in the U.S. from other countries are dazzled and impressed by it. I was impressed all right, but not exactly in a positive way. It wasn't just the pointless wastefulness of it all, but even more it was the lack of alternatives and options.
Now, before you start rolling your eyes at me, I'll tell you that I'm perfectly aware that all of my praises for compact, walkable neighborhoods and public transportation have to be taken with a grain of salt since I obviously have the zeal of a convert. The funniest illustration of this was way back in the beginning of my European experience when I met a French woman who'd chosen to make a life for herself in the U.S.A. I started on my usual blah-blah-blah about walkability, and it turned out that she had an equal-and-opposite blah-blah-blah about how things are so much better in the U.S. than in France! (I don't remember what her complaints were, maybe something about French people having a bad attitude or something.) Anyway, I thought it was hilarious as soon as it hit me why she and I were having so much difficulty communicating with one another: As an expat, you constantly get asked to compare your old country to your new one, and naturally (in a friendly conversation with someone from your new country) you focus on what's better about the new one. But then that means that two opposite expats are like matter and anti-matter. I highly recommend moving to another country for a few years and then trying to have a reasonable conversation with someone who has chosen to make the opposite switch -- I guarantee you'll learn something amusing about human nature! ;^)
On my more recent trip back this past summer, I was ready for all the stuff that surprised me last time, so instead I got a new surprise! Everywhere I went, I would sing my usual praises of car-free freedom. I'm a total broken record on this (if you've somehow missed it, please review here and here), but the thing is that after living the first twenty six or so years of my life in car-dependent suburban-type areas, it was such a revelation to realize it doesn't have to be this way, and I'd like people to at least be exposed to this idea and encourage them to want to try (and create) alternatives.
But that was the surprise. My claim (here) that Americans can't take good ideas from other countries was proven wrong. Everywhere I went, my discourse on walkability was old news. (And not just because I'm repeating myself.) People all had their own tales to tell about their neighborhood's walkability and/or about public transportation! :D
Coming up in the next installment: my kids' reaction to America!