Returning to the USA: Weirder Than Anticipated

Phnom Penh.

I’m back in the USA for the forseeable future. My boyfriend and I are experiencing a curious kind of post-third-world life culture shock. It’s especially acute when you go in around 24 hours from Phnom Penh to a quiet Sacramento suburb.

Earlier generations went home on horseback, via a steamer, or through a series of short airplane hops: I suspect that longer transition period made coming back seem less bizarre.

The mall was especially weird. The Apple store had more employees than customers. We had to remind ourselves that we didn’t have to snarl in Khmer at pushy perfume sales people. Three shops were devoted to baseball caps. Smiley sales associates asked us if we were Finding Everything All Right.

“This place is so big and no one is living in it,” observed my boyfriend, as we walked down the echoing corriders of Arden Fair Mall on a Tuesday.

I thought of the Borei Keila people I’d been reporting on for the past month, who are battling intensely over tiny apartments and tiny patches of land.  You could fit all of them rather comfortably by most Khmer housing standards into around 1/4 of this suburban California shopping center.

I wonder how recent Southeast Asian immigrants respond to this kind of unused space upon arriving in the USA – Sacramento hosts a very large immigrant population, after all, a number of people must have had the same thought as me about the uses and misuses of space. 

The newspaper here runs letters to the editor from senior citizen, irate because the local cable company pulled the classic movie channel off the standard movie package. They are “shocked and saddened.” American television has more commercials. Valentines Day is a big thing. “Size matters,” an attractive woman says in an ad. “Buy your girlfriend a BIG teddy bear for Valentines Day.”

(Cambodia is currently concerned that Valentines Day is code for “Premarital Sex Day.” Which is pretty amusing.)

It would be remiss to write this without mentioning that people are much bigger here. Upwards and outwards. I’m again the smallest person in the room again most of the time. My boyfriend, however, is enjoying no longer being the 6’6 Colossus of Phnom Penh.

Restaurants are another curious experience, with every server speaking fluent English and a culture of dedicated, big-shiny-smile Customer Service, to an extent that makes us feel both uncomfortable and somewhat embarrassed.

Delicious eels at Central Market.

We’re used to pointing at things in a menu and assuming 80% of our order will be wrong, not having some guy called Denny advise us on today’s specials and squat down beside the table to be on eye-level with us. (Why the hell do they do that squat-and-talk thing anyway? Do they think we like it?)

I used to be interested in food writing, but a healthy amount of time reporting on grotesque human rights violations has pretty much killed it for me. You spend enough time around impoverished people scuffling over a cup of rice a day, and you find yourself becoming, at least inside your own head, one of those sanctimonious types you swore you’d never become.

I always thought those Think of the Children types were profoundly obnoxious, and now I’m thinking like they do. We’re eating one pound hamburgers and $7.00 family buffets, drinking high-end sparkling wine (guilty as charged), and enrolling in diet-plan after diet-plan, and the majority of the world’s population is busting its collective asses for rice, grain, and clean water.Maybe for some shelter if you’re going to get all fancy about it.

The poor eat poorly in the USA, but at least they eat. I think of this as the Poor Are Fat countries, standing in direct relief to the Poor Starve to Death Under a Sweltering Pitiless Sun On A Regular Basis countries.

I think we’ll get over it—it being reverse culture shock, returning to the USA, you name it. I’m interested in seeing how long it’s gonna take, however.


8 thoughts on “Returning to the USA: Weirder Than Anticipated

  1. I know how you feel. Th first night back from Cambodia I couldn’t sleep. I just stared at the bedroom window, intensely nervous that it lacked bars.

    It was a quiet, crime-free neighborhood, but after years in Cambodia …

    1. Same thing. Thinking “What the hell, ground floor, no fence, no bars?” Of course, my parents home in Sacramento has been robbed rather impressively twice in not that long, so maybe we’re the crazy ones.

  2. Craig Etcheson

    I have to say that I am sorely aggrieved to learn that you have abandoned us and returned to the Land of Milk and Honey, where, as we all know, the streets are paved with gold, and everyone is smiling and thinking, “It’s a beautiful dream… but for some reason, I can’t sleep.” At first I felt a bit like a jilted lover when you forsook reporting on the KRT, evidently finding land-grabbing and its victims to be a more compelling story (although I have to admit that you were doing some good work on that). Now what am I to think? It is as if you have kidnapped the entire harem and made off for Jalalabad, with all the camels for good measure. Harrumph. Have fun at the mall. But at least keep reporting on something!

  3. Hoping to get a job in New Orleans….plenty to report on there! (Also, New Orleans is so delightfully third world and mildly terrifying, none of this streets-paved-in-gold crap there. California suburbs? I’m finding them unnerving as hell.)

    Should add I forsook the KRT since my usual carpool had left the country and no one was interested in *paying* me to report on the trials….finances need must. I’m glad the Twitter thing seems to has taken off in my absence however. Nervous about the future of Case 002 and curious about how far Kasper-Ansermet is going to get.

    1. Craig Etcheson

      We never did get a chance to compare NOLA recipes. But you never know. If you get yourself down that way, we may cross paths again sooner rather than later. My better half has to defend her thesis at Tulane sometime later this year, and I might go with her. Meanwhile, for anyone having a ‘Nawlins jones, I note that tonight (Saturday the 11th), the Pygmalion krewe rolls in Orleans at 6:45 pm, which will be 7:45 am on Sunday in Phnom Penh, so early risers here can catch that live on the Mardi Gras Paradecam. I may even put on my t-shirt emblazoned with the motto, “Louisiana — Third World… and Proud of It!”
      As for the KRT, what can I say? A lot of us are nervous about the whole damn thing. I been working on this project for twenty years, so I’ve seen a lot of crises come and go. But the current imbroglio has real potential to end badly. Still, all we can do is keep chipping away at the stone.

  4. Dear Faine,

    Welcome back. You’ve made the very observations that a great many of us have gone through. Your experience might be more pronounced because you’ve comeback to suburbia America Sacramento. America, however, has many “Third World” pockets (you’ve mentioned NOLA) where many immigrants like myself would say are much worse and more dangerous than where we came from, East Oakland, San Francisco Tenderloin and East Los Angeles, come to mind. The area around Westfield mall in downtown Sacramento can be pretty gritty after 4 pm.

    In fact there was a recent article about Iraqi refugees saying so about the Tenderloin District, where I had worked for many years as a social worker helping newly arrived immigrants and refugees negotiate their ways around their new country.

    You are dead-on about space and sense of space in America. We often complain about overcrowding, but after 30 years in America, I still can’t get over how much open space there is in America, especially when you drive up/down California I-5.

    When both Vietnam and Cambodia were 1st opened up, in the late 1980s, a few of us former refugees were able to visit for the 1st time as journalists and/or NGO workers. We exchanged notes about this very idea of “reverse culture shock” with each other. It was much more acute then because at the time Vietnam & Cambodia had none of the so-called modern amenities so it felt like returning to the same place that we had escaped from. Coming back to the US was a discombobulating experience, one that we weren’t sure we would get over.

    It did take a while to resettle back to life in the US; however, we sort of felt like zombies for a while, in a daze.

    One aspect of this experience that is rather difficult to adjust, but you will eventually will, is being back at ordinary nobody again. In America to even able to see your local elected officials take some connections, but over there you were somebody. You were among the handfuls, not millions. America is so huge and much more stratified, you are a much smaller fish in a much bigger pond.

    In my former life as an NGO executive, I was used to be able to see ministers and directors representing NATIONS, but here and I am just another media relations hack and an occasional journalist. Even when I represented the US Department of Commerce in the states of Alaska, Washington, Idaho, Oregon and California, there was a pecking order that I had to follow.

    Faine, your voice has been important in those stories you’ve written from Cambodia and I thank you. The fact that you recognized the reverse culture shock the way you have says a lot about you. I wish you luck in your future endeavors, especially if you end up in NOLA. The Vietnamese, and Central American, communities there could use a journalist like you. They struggle with the many issues that you seem to have a good handle on.


    Sonny Le

  5. Michelle

    I really relate to this now. I didn’t expect this culture shock. I feel like a zombie–like I’m not fitting in, just watching. It’s weird.

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