Monday, December 15, 2008

Traveling Abroad

It appears we may have adjusted to life at the equator, after all. On our home leave trip, predictably enough, we nearly froze to death in New Jersey. But this time, we also froze in Florida. And here in Texas, the final stop on our multi-city tour, it ain’t warm either, y’all.

In other ways, too, the America we know (and mostly love) is strange to us now. We’ve read the news about the economic crisis, and the markets in Asia have fallen, too, but we weren’t prepared for the mood of gloom. We didn’t know the standard greeting had changed from “Hi there!” to “You still have your job?”

America looks different to us, too, after our year in a crowded city-state on a tiny, tropical island. It’s a land of squandered space, where the houses are built on tiny postage stamps of grass but the big-box stores get acres and acres of parking lots, most of their spaces empty even during the holiday shopping days. And the flat, sprawling suburban vistas of the South confuse our sense of proportion, accustomed as we are to our vertical cityscape.

In the malls and the theme parks and the grocery stores, there are so few people at any time of day that we keep wondering: where is everyone? In the restaurants and hotels, we squirm when the staff keep up a never-ending stream of conversation and then expect a tip. And it must be said that the food courts disappoint us. In any of Singapore’s neighborhood hawker centers, we could easily eat the mom-and-pop food of a different culture every night. In US malls, the choices range from fake Chinese to fake Italian - all processed by the same conglomerate.

On the upside, we’re now in a country where “salsa” is not the same as marinara sauce. And we did make the switch from driving on the left to driving on the right quite easily. We were happy to find that the roads and buildings in the places where we used to live were still very much the same, in contrast to the perpetual construction and reconstruction in Singapore, where everything seems to change every six months. And we were lucky to be able to see family, friends, and neighbors after being away for so long.

But it does make me wonder what it will be like to move back to the country where we lived all our lives until two years ago. I always thought it would be like coming back home. But now I wonder if it might feel more like our move to Singapore - learning to live in a country that’s foreign to us.


Anonymous said...

I'm so glad to have you back and blogging. This is exactly what we have been wondering about as we think ahead to moving back to the states. Thanks for the insight. Sarah

jima said...

Jenn -
Venitha and I were just having this discussion about crowded malls and holiday shopping. The realization that what constitutes a "crowded mall" here would be a slow day on Orchard really came home to us.
Hope you enjoy the holidays, whichever country you're in!


venitha said...

Soooooo sorry about your cat! Pets are such precious friends - they're really in our hearts forever.

On a cheerier note, I highly recommend being 5 months pregnant when you return home. No time to think about anything but baby prep, and that's all anyone wants to talk about, too.

Happy happy holidays!

BB said...

I experienced a very minor version of reverse culture shock after just a month in France; I can't imagine coming back after years of living away. All the articles I've read say it can be pretty weird, and sometimes even more challenging than the initial adjustment to the country you're coming back from. I think a big part of that must be the sense that you were supposed to be coming "home," but it doesn't feel like home any longer.

It's such a gift, though, to be able to look at the US differently when you get back, though. It still surprises me how few folks in the States (besides those who immigrate) have ever really been somewhere else long enough to get the sense that life can be lived differently. The wide gulf between the prevailing development pattern of the US and that of most other paces in the world is one of the common differences that really hits people upon coming back; but it's also other cultural things small and large, like the way we eat or the fearfulness that marks our public discourse or the post you made about being able to say "Merry Christmas" without fearing you'll get sued.

I hope you'll be able to find a way to bring some of the things you love about living in Singapore back with you into your lifestyle in the States; I also hope it's not too terribly long until you return, because it was hard enough to visit you in New Jersey! :p