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.
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.