Culture shock

I am battling a serious case of culture shock at the moment. It has been about 48 hours since I got home from Burma, and my reintegration into Toronto is not going well. Withdrawal pangs grip my body.

The cab eased onto the expressway, and as Pearson International Airport faded behind me, my eyes stung. The city lights were oppressively bright, the pavement smooth beneath the wheels of the car, and life was suddenly humming along at its routine fast pace.

Picking my way through Burma’s cracked and uneven streets, my senses were jarred and stimulated from all directions. So much to see! So much to taste! And if you sit quiet enough, allowing yourself the chance to just listen, you may be surprised at the stories told before you. I take it all in stride. This is how life works here. The buildings are covered with moss, the roads are bumpy, the local food bounty is seemingly endless with in-season produce.

“Mingalaba, Hello! Where you from?” I am asked this question at least 20 times a day. More if my cheeks are painted with thanaka to protect me from the blaring sun. I receive smiles from men and women as I wrap myself in my longyi, walking side-by-side with 6 foot something redheaded, red bearded partner. Our longyis are both blue.

In the morning, my life is simple. Longyi and a clean shirt. Shan state fisherman pants and a clean shirt. Thanaka on my cheeks. A breakfast of fried eggs and rice. Lunch at a local tea shop, cold shower that floods the bathroom.

Back in Toronto, I stand confused in the cereal aisle of my local supermarket. I imagine the intercom crackles to life. “We’ve got another shell-shocked client in aisle 3. For crying out loud, someone just choose a cereal for her.” The illusion of choice is dizzying. Do I want a cereal high in fibre? Something chocolatey? Something with fruit? Granola? Who am I kidding. My hand trembling, I select the same brand I always do. I repeat this with the pasta sauces, yogurt options, almond milk. It is agonizing, and by the time I walk home with my new food options, I am ready for bed. I hide in a blanket fort for hours, dozing gently. I am not hungry, as I have picked up a stomach bug. The only reason I have replenished my food options is because the pet rat is staring at me with a great deal of hunger, and I need to feed her. I load her bowl with all of her favourite fresh foods, and escape back into slumber.

I shuffle routinely on the subway. Queue up for overcrowded stairs. I stare blankly at the advertisements in front of me. Only a few weeks ago, they were familiar and I was oblivious to them. I feel myself being sucked back into the capitalist consumer culture I come from, and I want to run screaming from the train. Hide in a neighbouring garden, content with what I can produce.

My culture shock comes from returning home. I am reminded of what I have, what I want, where I have been, where I am going. I am at ease abroad. My stress level drops, I laugh more, I stop and smell the flowers.

So why on earth can’t I stop and smell the flowers once I get home? It shocks me to the core to think that I could.


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