Culture shock always surprises me with its subtlety. It would be easier, I think, if the signs were indeed as drastic as the word “shock” suggests they should be. But my experience is not so straightforward.

I’ve come home to a place I know very well, and perhaps the most shocking part about it just how familiar it is. It doesn’t surprise me to use tap water to brush my teeth or walk outside in tight jeans and a t-shirt that clings to my breasts. It doesn’t surprise me to get behind the wheel of the car and drive through orderly traffic on the right side of the road to go to Whole Foods. It doesn’t surprise me to see the aisles of goods, all packaged and labeled and government-approved, every one of them safe for my consumption.

What did surprise me was the smell of the airport, like fake flowers and disinfectant, and the way the air back at home smelled like nothing at all. And how incredibly strong my first sip off a thick, dark Americano from Northampton Coffee tasted. (The watery coffee from the Newark Airport McDonald’s had been more manageable.) Or yesterday, watching from the window of the coffee shop as someone stripped the building across the street of paint with a pressure washer for an hour straight. How much water he was using! Then again, I hadn’t even thought to limit the length of my shower that morning.

Walking home from town, I kept my eyes low to avoid meeting the gaze of passing men. At one point I found myself walking a few paces behind a young guy for a block or more. I immediately started to plan for what I would do if he turned down the same quiet street as me, before catching myself and realizing that I probably didn’t need to worry.

That’s really what it comes down to. It’s not about the way I brush my teeth or the fact that I ate a salad yesterday without worrying if it would give me dysentery. It’s that I’m home and I no longer need to be constantly “on” to get through my day. I think in the end this transition is characterized for me by that lack, and the quiet, nagging sadness that follows it. I look around and inside myself, and things ring plain, trite, false. I wonder, what am I supposed to do now?

It’s okay, of course. I know these signs, and I know they’ll pass, soon and gently. Now I just get to wait, and remember the good in this. Like saying something out loud and hearing Neel answer me from another room, just around the corner. Remember, J, there’s love, too, in the familiar.


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