Culture shock

Culture shock when leaving and returning to the United States | by Robert McKeon Aloes | Age of Consciousness

Experiencing a shock and feeling lost in the movements

I lived in Texas for several years and didn’t think too much about what the culture meant. I didn’t think there was a lot of culture in Texas, at least in a big, easy-to-perceive design. Little did I know that my understanding of what culture is would completely change in the span of two years as I went through culture shock to both a new culture and the culture I grew up in.

In the fall of 1999 I was in a high school debate living in Katy Texas and loving it. My freshman year of high school sucked in many ways, but I felt like I had really hit my stride during my sophomore year. I found my niche in debate, had friends, and had a thriving romance.

Usually, my debating tournaments ended late and my mother picked me up early in the morning after we returned from another school.

It was 2 a.m. on a particular stretch of Highland Knolls Drive just before Mason Road. Mom told me we were moving to Paris. I don’t think she was happy about it.

I was crushed.

To give a bit of history, this was not the first time I had heard of this possibility. My father worked at Schlumberger, and they asked him several times if he would like to move to Paris. Even this time, my parents broached the possibility for me and my siblings. The difference was that he was told that it would end his climb up the corporate ladder if he didn’t work there for a while.

I also want to make it clear that I didn’t particularly like Texas culture. I lived in the suburbs of a more liberal city (Houston), but a few times I was told I was going to hell because I was the wrong Christian. We were Catholics and we were not in the majority. I felt a lot of paid lyrics but I behaved differently, and I had a hard time reconciling the two.

So it wasn’t that I wanted to stay, but I didn’t want to leave. I was afraid of change. I was afraid to go somewhere else where I would have to get used to everyone again. I had already moved a lot at that time. I had been to five elementary schools and two middle schools, and more recently half of my friends transferred to a new high school. I didn’t handle the change well and wanted stability more than anything.

We moved to Paris in the summer of 2000 after my brother finished high school. It was a weird place for me at first. I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t know which places were safe, I didn’t dress like Europeans, I had no friends, and suddenly I could drink alcohol. Nothing on the TV was in English, the electricity was on a different frequency and their DVDs didn’t work in my DVD player.

Oh humanity!

I was also in a city. I have never lived in a big city yet as big as Paris. I had mostly lived in the suburbs and I hated the suburbs. I felt a monotony, but not in the city. I didn’t know how to cross the street with a lot of traffic or handle a lot of people. It was a great cultural leap.

I went to the International School of Paris, and I really had a good time. I started to feel good and I was surrounded by people who had moved as often as me. I made very close friendships and was able to see the Eiffel Tower every day because our school was across the river.

I didn’t feel so out of the ordinary anymore.

When we came back for Christmas that year, I was pretty obnoxious. I was so thankful to be home and have all the American amenities. I pissed my dad off in two days as I complained about Paris talking about my love for being home all the time. I didn’t know the house was changing, and I wasn’t changing with it.

After my first year in Paris, I fell in love hard. I didn’t want to fall in love, but I fell in love with Paris, and to this day, I think of Paris every day. I really loved living there. I loved the city, going around the city, the museums, the people, the cafes, the metros, the escargot, the espresso. I fell in love with the culture.

I graduated from high school and had no intention of going to university in England. I regretted it then, but I came back to the United States anyway. I went to college, and the house wasn’t the same. I had a weird feeling, but I still felt like I woke up in the wrong country.

The backstory is a combination of growth, changing perspective and national hurt. As I became more aware of American culture, it was hard to ignore what was so messed up. It was easier to see after being away for a while. The ideals I had learned in school had to meet reality, and they did when I returned home.

The other element was American culture versus European culture. In Paris, a car was utilitarian. The jobs were utilitarian. No one cared about the car you drove or the job you did. People did not discuss their work. In America, your job is so much a part of who you are that it’s hard to have a conversation without talking about your job. The news was not used as entertainment but as actual news of events without opinion. It felt like there they just gave you the facts, and often that was boring compared to the 24/7 news cycle in the US.

A national injury occurred while I was away. I visited Houston in August 2001 and flew a week before 9/11. It was truly an event that most of America, if not the world, witnessed, so the reaction was so moving, more so than previous national tragedies.

Almost everyone saw the second plane hit live, and if they didn’t see it live, they certainly saw enough of the replay to feel like they saw it live. Most people also saw the buildings collapsing. I’ve seen the reruns of that first week so many times, it’s etched in my memory.

That day felt like time stood still as we watched the tragedy unfold, and it was also the day that turned our culture upside down.

I left the United States at the end of the Clinton administration where there was a lot of peace in the world, and now there was this war. When the United States invaded Afghanistan, a group of my father’s friends in Paris stopped talking to us just because we were Americans. There were bomb threats at the embassy in Paris, and we were told to be more careful in the city, but I wasn’t paying much attention to what was going on.

Not even 9 months after being home, the United States invaded Iraq. I remember seeing the path leading to this, thinking I was dreaming. I had a hard time adjusting. There was the same level of intolerance I had felt overseas, and I’m white. I am white and male and from an upper middle class background. I felt like a stranger in my own home.

Over the next decade, I adapted to the new America and came to accept that it was a new reality.

I moved to California in 2014 and had a little culture shock here too. I was miles away from families, I went from 60 days of sunshine to 300 days of sunshine, I no longer had to endure 5 months of winter, and I could go to the beach whenever I wanted. I also learned to conserve water due to extreme drought. Earthquakes were just normal.

I have to accept reality because it’s not how I want it to be.

The move to California wasn’t like 2000 and 2002, but I noticed I wasn’t feeling well. Now, it feels weird going back to the Midwest, mostly because of the weather, but also because the political thinking is so different. Either way, I have to do the same thing I did back then, which is to keep striving to accept reality as it is and not have a misperception. That doesn’t mean I can’t do anything to improve my life or the lives of others, but I have to accept that I am who I am where I am today.