Why Culture Shock Is a Hangover Worth Having

I was sitting on the edge of my bed at some unknown hour of the night in disbelief that I’d have to get up soon and go to work, to an office with air conditioning and a non-stop power supply, seamless high-speed internet, lots of English-speaking white people, and women who wore pants and skirts and sleeveless tops (oh my!).

Even though I was one of them, it seemed so unreal, so impossible. Only hours before I had been on the other side of the world, my sweat-drenched body wrapped in 9+ yards of modesty fabric in the 110 degree heat with no air conditioning and no power to even run a fan. How could a couple of flights spent watching movies on tiny screens and eating ambiguous airplane food change the very definition of my world?

Well it did, and that’s the power of culture shock. Or in this case, reverse culture shock.

That's me, appropriately attired for hiking the Himalayas
That’s me, appropriately attired for hiking the Himalayas

In May of 2011 I had just come home to the U.S. from a 10-day reunion trip to Pakistan, the home where I was born and raised. The trip had been like a slow motion rewind of my childhood on a fuzzy VHS tape. Nostalgic and bittersweet and just a little surreal, full of reunions with people and places I had relegated to the dusty attic of my memory long ago.

These reunions, heavy with dust and sweat and smiles and tears, lay like wet blankets on my consciousness as I went back to my American job and tried to communicate without sounding drunk on jet lag. I could feel my body and brain buzzing in an other-worldly state. I wasn’t really there and I wasn’t really anywhere else either. Nothing in that sterile office environment seemed recognizable through the veil. All I could do was smile and keep working until the shock wore off and I readjusted to the numbness once again.

Maybe you know this buzz of culture shock. It’s kind of like a hangover. You tell yourself never again, but you know you will. That thrill of travel, of crossing worlds, is unbearably intoxicating and once you’ve tasted it, you can’t live without it, however severe the shock of the aftermath. Maybe you even do it for the culture shock, for that zing! of feeling alive, like someone slapping you in the face and shouting, “Wake up!”

I don’t even think you have to be a traveler to know this feeling. Maybe you experience it when you become a parent or change careers or even see a movie that somehow shakes your world. They all do similar things to us. They flip a switch. They say, “BAM, here are some new eyeballs, put ’em on and take a look around. The world isn’t so small after all.”

And just like that, in a fog of terror and uncertainty, heartache or joy, you see life from a new perspective, and it intoxicates you. In that fog of “Where the flippity flop am I because I’m not even sure my feet are on the ground and I don’t even know if there is a ground!” you become deliriously high.

And that’s what I call life.

As the culture shock faded, I morphed back into that dressed-up American corporate person, with the memories tucked away and the passport locked up until the next vacation when I could afford to use it again. The sterility of what is perceived as normal or safe or comfortable is hard to fight. I mourned my return to it as I stared at the pictures on my cubicle walls and dreamed of the next escape, the next bewildered fog of jet lag, the next shock of the culture jumper.

The reason culture shock is so wonderfully addicting is because it tells us we’re alive. When we’re not in shock, it’s too easy to snooze through our routines and take a little nap through life, unconscious and disconnected. But I want the shock. I need it. It’s how I remember I’m not a machine, not a blue-collar uniform or a white-collar suit, but that I’m human, still human. Aren’t we all?

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