Why Reverse Culture Shock is Squat On
When I got back from spending a year teaching at a rural school in Zimbabwe, Africa I was excited to be back to England and hit the supermarket.
I’d been away for 16 months by then, after traveling in Malawi and Kenya too, and I thought my days of culture shock were safely behind me.
I’d never even heard of reverse reverse culture shock, so when it hit me I was shocked.
In Zimbabwe the food choices at the only shop near the bush school where I worked was limited to two things: tiny dried fish called kapenta or powdered milk. Neither of them tasted good but they did both supply some invaluable and hard to find protein.
Maybe I’d find some fresh tomatoes or eggs on a good day, but that was rare. That was something to write home about.
Mostly I ate sadza or mealie meal, the traditional staple of Zimbabwe made of ground maize cooked with water into a thick paste. It was served with fried leafy greens and eaten with your hands.
I ate a lot of stale, doughy white bread with peanut butter too. I am sorry to say that in a country where many people were going hungry I gained weight thanks to this unhealthy diet and the lack of fresh fruit and veggies.
There was nothing healthy or tasty to eat and what I did eat I’d usually carted back to school hundreds of kilometers from the capital city Harare. I literally had to carry it for the last seven kilometers.
So of course when I got back to the UK I was excited about going to the supermarket where the shelves groaned with produce and I’d be able to stock up on all my favorite treats.
But when I got to the supermarket the choice was overwhelming and, even though my mum and I were in the supermarket for an hour, I couldn’t choose anything. Nothing.
I just wandered round the supermarket aimlessly with an empty basket banging against my knees while my mother sped round confidently loading her trolley high with enough food to feed an African village.
When me and mum got to the check out to pay for all the food mum had chosen there was a queue.
So I did what you do in Africa when waiting.
I lowered my haunches to the ground and settled into a comfy squat.
After all, you never knew how long you’d be waiting in Africa – half an hour, a few hours, maybe a few days even.
“What on earth are you doing?”
My mother barked.
“Get up now!”
Startled by her reaction I rose quickly to my feet.
So I learned that squatting in the supermarket check out queue just isn’t on in England. In fact, for some reason, squatting doesn’t go down well anywhere in England or other developed countries where we’ve been trained to either sit on chairs or stand.
Today, some 20 years later and in yet another continent, I often feel the same sense of being overwhelmed by choice at the supermarket.
Let’s say you want something simple like some fruit juice. How do you ever choose between all the possible choices, the blends and the packaging options? If it takes me too long to decide I give up.
I protect myself from overload and time-wasting by buying the same brands every time, or by buying whatever’s on special that day.
But, no matter how overwhelmed I am, how long the queue is at the supermarket check out, or how tired my feet are, I never, ever squat.
Which is sad really because the art of squatting is one of the most useful skills I learned while teaching in rural Zimbabwe.
Have you ever experienced reverse culture shock? How did you cope?
Photo credit: MKBM Sidik
Your post is ‘squat on’! ;)
Fascinating read, Annabel. I’ve never been to Africa, but would love to go – especially for the art and music.
Lol:) Yes, I love the music and textiles. Amazing sculptures too in Zimbabwe. I hope to get back there and hope you get to visit too!
What a true and great post!!! I have found many friends say this is true… about so many choices – the squatting not so much!!! When they return home they just can’t breathe for choices… um shampoo – a whole aisle lets not talk about toothpaste for whitening, for brightening, for frightening… We were only away ten days last week, but the re-entry is taking as long… we can’t just sit and stare at the view – we are so busy… Laundry can’t take all day while you chat to locals wandering by…it has to get done stat. Really who cares how long it takes as long as it gets done!!! I am finding not everyone has my thinking on this topic – gotta dash!!!
Oh yes, how easily we relax when we’re away from home but how quickly we regress to rush mode. I need to get back to Africa. I feel as if I’ve been rushing for years;)
Haha! I can experience reverse-culture shock without going overseas – all I need to do is travel from the Aussie Outback to a major town or city! Although the gap between the two isn’t quite as large as what you describe above!
But why not be a trendsetter and start a squatter’s movement? You’d just be updating OZ’s fine tradition of colonial settler ‘squatters’ and ‘squattocracy’ after all …
Hi Red, haha, now squatting doesn’t seem so good. Squattocracy. I’ve never heard that before. I have yet to experience the true outback. I think there is a little shock in store for me there. I get a bit of a shock going to cities too so I can relate to that but I’m sure it’s much more of a gulf for you:)
Barking mums are not to be trifled with.
Hi Dave, lol. Yeah, and you haven’t even bet my mum!
Great post – I know that feeling well, although I’m afraid my stiff haunches don’t permit as much squatting as they used to…
I experienced a similar grocery-induced culture shock right here in my hometown. I’ve been shopping at Aldi almost exclusively for the past few months (smaller store, limited selection, etc) and doing the rest of my shopping at the local butcher and road-side produce stands. Quick, simple shopping.
Well, at back-to-school time, I ventured to the local Wal-Mart Enormo Center for school supplies, and figured I’d wander through the grocery section to pick up the few things I needed.
BIG mistake. Like you, I was totally overwhelmed at the vast selection, and I just shut down. Couldn’t buy a thing – TOO MANY OPTIONS!
Amazing that in such a short period of time, my shopping habits had adapted so readily to the “Aldi concept”. It’s comfortable to me now.
I dread the day I have to shop at a big store again – Wal-Mart or whatever.
It doesn’t make my life better. I truly don’t want that much selection. I don’t NEED so many choices – I wonder if any of us really do…
Great to see you here!
You’re right. I go to Aldi too and can get in and out super fast because there are less choices and I know where everything is:) Love that you support small local stores too.
Ironically, one of the keys to happiness is reducing choices.
Last year, I remember seeing a variety of books on “choice” and it was interesting how important choice is, as a skill, among a sea of options.
Thanks! Interesting feedback. Maybe that’s why there’s so much indecision and procrastinating in the world. Too many choices create analysis paralysis!
I enjoyed this article Annabel!
I would have to fully agree with you that the squat is one of the most useful, yet feared, skills in the world. Throughout Africa and Asia, squatting is commonly practiced. It’s so much more convenient and practical than a chair, and one those muscles get built up, it’s so comfortable! I haven’t squatted in a supermarket, but I’ve squatted in some other places and gotten some pretty peculiar stares!
Lol, loved reading this. So glad you’ve experienced the funny looks too and that it’s not just me who finds squatting comfy!
I backpacked around the world and I was living on nothing in so many places and meeting so many awesome people in the same situation. When I came to Canada I was disappointed that Canadian society is almost built entirely on a sense of entitlement and shelter from the rest of the world.
Hi Andrew, that is disappointing. We gain so much from travel and experiencing other cultures but some people just aren’t open to that. Their loss and less travelers on the road when we go exploring:)
Last time I lived in the Western world, the US in this case, I had been away for 11 years, living in poor countries. Although I had visited Holland and the US yearly, living back in the US again was different. What was the most difficult for me was living in a prosperous country with people having a sense of entitlement and all the complaining about how expensive things were, etc. Sometimes it was hard to keep my mouth shut.
Hi Miss F,
Ah yes, it is hard to hear people in the western world complain about anything! Poor you trying to keep quiet. Travel does create a gulf between us and our peers. That’s why I love hanging out with other world travelers like you:)
Great article ;) The biggest culture shock I had was returning from the Atlas mountains to Heathrow the noise and speed is overwhelming. With regards to choice in the supermarket the one product that still stumps me is MILK… Seriously I don’t get it – you take a cow, you milk it… the first time I went shopping over here I swear I stood infront of those chiller cabinets till half the contents turned sour!
Loved hearing from you. Lol, oh dear, I know what you mean. No brand for me every time when it comes to milk.
Your comment about the noise in Heathrow reminded me of when I took my son aged two to see a train in England. We were visiting from a small island in New Zealand and he’s never seen a train before but loved his toy trains.
Then a super speed train came through the station at full tilt without stopping and I swear we BOTH started crying. It was such a shock, scary and deafening!
I often reflect on how little we appreciate how “lucky” we are.
Like you, I tend to shop by picking up the same brand, week in, week out. Mind you, I’ve had to learn which brands are “safe” for me to eat/use, and find reading tiny labels tiresome. I mostly stick to fresh foods, and count my blessings.
I love the picture you have posted of your friendly local shopkeeper in Zimbabwe – and I think we could learn a lot from simply settling back and squatting once in a while.
Hi Cate:) Fresh is best – yes we’re very lucky we can get fresh food!
Great story Annabel. :) …I remember questioning recommended retail prices after months travelling and haggling. When you get used to negotiating a price with the vendor it then seems odd to come back to the western world and have that taken away! …And squatting. Haha! So much more comfortable than standing for ages. So many rules in our world!
It’s amazing how we feel the same after living in a third world country and returning to a developed country. What I loved was how my teenage sons were grateful for a glass of fresh milk when we got back. They showed more enthusiasm for that than a new video game. No squatting though.
Wonderful story Annabel!
You have only to step off the plane in Perth and the experience begins! One is greeted (so to speak) by stern-faced officials looking with suspicion at everyone as they come out the door (designed to weed out the drug smugglers and illegal immigrants I suppose). The tunnel leads straight through to the Duty Free shop (welcome back to mass marketing and consumerism!) then down to immigration and customs where you are accosted and barked at by more stern-faced officials who are experts at intimidation and making you feel very unwelcome home.
The best remedy is to head home and start planning the next journey!
Great read. Although nothing like your experience, it happened to me when I came to live in Canada. Definitely too much stuff to choose from…
Wow – never had that much of a culture shock! I went to England when I was 18 for two months. My culture shock was getting used to the heat again after being cold for so long :)
I like the idea of squatting when waiting! Especially in long shopping lines, but I can see how much your Mum was not keen on the idea!
My mum used to squat and peel her potatoes in the floor whenever she was pregnant, helped her get ready for birth, she used to say. And since she claims that labour wasn’t as painful as toothache, maybe there was something in that!
I know that feeling in the supermarket, I used to think: “Who on earth needs all these types of YOGHURT!!’ Still overwhelmed by yoghurt (most of which isn’t even yoghurt… so I make my own.
Oh squatting is ideal for expecting mums;) Your mum was a smart lady.
” … analysis paralysis!”
What a story! How sad that good healthy food is so hard to come by in rural Zimbabwe and undoubtedly many places in this world. I have experienced reverse culture shock but nothing like yours. Probably the closest is the story my mother told about going to a supermarket in Mexico City in 1946 after spending the previous four years in war-torn England. She said that when she saw the wealth of food there (nothing as much as today’s overabundance), all she could do was weep after years of extreme rationing, shortages, and alternatives (powdered eggs and milk). Like you, she was at a loss to buy anything except, I believe, fresh fruit.
I was having an online conversation with another blogger about the idea: Is too much choice a “bad” thing for us. The supermarket is a great example of this, it literally is information overload to our senses, especially the cereal isle.
I’m totally in awe with you travelling experience Annabel. As much as I’d like to travel, I find it very hard to leave my business alone. It’s like I’m tied up to it. And maybe, just maybe, if I can go to places far from my where I’ve been used to, I’d experience the same reverse culture shock. Actually, I’m thrilled by the thought of it.
A great story. I had not thought of it as reverse culture shock but I can see what you mean. It happened to me after teaching in Papua/ New Guinea for 7 years and then returning to Australia.
After living in China for 7 years, I thought I may have experienced reverse culture shock but 18 after being back, it never happened. For me I think it’s the fact that in China I spent most of my time in front of a computer and in NZ I spend most of my time in front of a computer.
However, moving back has made me appreciate living in the West. I’m still like a kid in candy store.
In Asia I never mastered the squat where I could actually rest on my heals. :(
Great to see you here:) You never mastered the squat after all those years in Asia?! You’ll have to go back;)
Ah how funny, Annabel! Reverse culture shock really does make us do what people at home might call ‘crazy’ things. Like the time I found myself following a guy in a Jewish cap because I was craving some diversity in the very Anglo area in which I was living. After about 10 steps, I realised that he was just having a bad hair day, and had no Jewish cap on at all. I stopped and wondered “What was I doing???” – and realized that because although I’m not Jewish, I had just come from living in a Jewish area in Mexico and maybe I was missing seeing things I had seen abroad? Ahhhh….. thanks for sharing your reverse culture shock experience. :)
Lol, that’s funny Andrea. I know that feeling! Where we live in Australia is very white, middle class. We love it if we spot someone different and try not to stare:)
I’ve never been to Africa but I have experiences some culture shock coming back from both Egypt and Bolivia.
Love this article! “who gets to make a choice aout laundry soup?” I asked upon my return. “who gets to eat all this?” asked my nephew’s wife when she first arrived from the outback of Russia and someone in the family thought it would be fun to show her Harrods food court. But above all, I miss people just stopping in for a meal not matter how meager.
Spot on! As a veteran expat reverse culture shock has often reared its head, and now I realise that although I’m a citizen of the world, there is a tribe to which I belong … of travellers and nomads who just tend to do things differently – and sometimes have eccentric moments, like squatting in a supermarket! Great post.
You’d think the differences between the Netherlands and the USA wouldn’t be that great, but oh my, they are. I remember being stateside once when my children were little and I was going to buy them some crayons. After standing in the store being totally overwhelmed by the different brands, sorts, boxes and amounts (to name just a few), I decided they’d just have to make do with the pencil I had and left empty handed.
Give me ‘less’ any day! Cuts down on my stress, time making mindless decisions and junk collecting in my house!
Thanks for your post!
We love this blog post. As expats growing up overseas -mostly in Asia, we can totally relate. If you want to help teenagers who are experiencing reverse culture shock you should check out our mentoring program.
Thanks so much for sharing this story!
Just want you to know that squatting is one of the best shapes you can cultivate while in this human body. Cultures where people squat do not suffer many of the ills that chair sitting cultures experience – back pain, digestive problems, arthritis, loss of mobility, varicose veins, difficult childbirth.
Our new website is dedicated spreading the message of the benefits of getting off of chairs and squatting as often as possible. Squat on!!!
You could not be more “squat on” with this post! When I spent a summer in Africa, my thighs and calves were more toned than they’ve ever been before. Thanks for a great read!
So great to read this. After Nepal I experienced reverse culture shock as soon as I got in the cab and saw the clean water being sprayed via sprinkler onto grass…I couldn’t believe I had just come from a place where adults and children walk miles for water to a community spigot with a jar on their heads. I was a bit of a mess for 3 days and the awareness of excess of home and particularly the packaging has never completely left me. x