Reverse culture shock: identifying home

Back when I used to blog more regularly, I would write a lot about identity. Although I haven’t written about it much lately, the inner conflict is still there. Being in the States these past two months have served to remind me that I’ve still got a long way to go to figure out this whole AmeriKenyan, wife, Christian thing.

There’s no place like home

One of the most repeated comments I heard from friends and family was, “I bet being back here is a real culture shock for you.”

My response was generally, “Yeah, after nearly two years in Kenya, I’ve found a new normal. Life in the States no longer feels normal to me.”

Which country to call home was the first of my conundrums. I wanted to call Salina home because it’s my hometown. It’s where I’ve lived the majority of my life, yet my current home is in Kitale with my husband. A friend of mine called some friends over for a small gathering while I was in town, and I even caught myself saying, “We say it like this, but you guys say it like that.”

My friend was like, “Oh, so now we’re you guys?”

I didn’t even realize I had spoken that way until she pointed it out. It was so natural for me to speak as though my identity were more Kenyan than American. When did that happen?

No matter how proud I am of my American identity, life in the States has become quite foreign to me, and I really surprised myself with the number of times I experienced culture shock throughout the past few months. I know some of you have been interested in hearing this list, so here goes.

Disclaimer: Please note that my culture shock is mostly in relation to where I currently live in Western Kenya. Life in Nairobi offers a lot more amenities than where we stay, so not all of my observations apply to the whole of Kenya.

Strange things are happening to me…

Water

  • We normally drink beverages without ice here. The first time I drank a cold glass of soda in the States, my teeth hurt so bad! I don’t know how I used to manage that before.
  • We use bottled or boiled water for everything in our home, so it was odd to brush my teeth in the sink without having to get water from a jug first.
  • The first time I cooked chapati for my brother’s family, I put the water for the dough in the microwave to get it warm. Totally standard routine, except I totally forgot that in America sinks spit out cold and hot water so you can adjust it to whatever temperature you need. Most sinks around here only issue cold water, so we’re forced to either boil water and let it cool or nuke it if we want it warm.

Food

  • I was blessed to be able to attend two weddings and a birthday party while I was in the States, so I ate my fair share of cake. In America you get whole slices of cake. I’ve been to a large number of weddings, birthdays, and various events here in Kenya, and they always chop the cake up into bite size pieces for someone to bring around on a tray. I’ve seen some people scoop a handful off the tray, but you typically get one mouthful and call it good.
  • Now Kenyans generally speaking aren’t fans of sweets. They use a ton of sugar in their tea, but in their pastries and baked goods, not so much. When I first arrived in the States, I really didn’t have cravings for sweets or fatty, greasy foods like I thought I would. In fact, I was very turned off by them. But the good old advertisements on TV did their job and enticed me to try a little bit of this and that (my sister-in-law was no help either), and it didn’t take long before I was back into eating junk food. Even so, Ray was surprised to see that I came back with only one small bag of candy. He expected me to have a suitcase designated just for sweets. When I first moved here, that probably would have been the case, but not so much anymore.
  • One thing I really did miss was the fact that in America you eat yogurt with a spoon because it’s oh so thick. You drink yogurt here. I still take it all the same, but I had missed using a spoon.

Transportation

  • A friend of mine lent me her car the entire two months I was in town, and it was so nice to drive again. We don’t have a vehicle here so we ride on the back of motorbikes and in matatus, which I don’t mind at all, but it really limits what you can do and where you can go. Having a car gave me the opportunity to go where I pleased, when I pleased, and I had really missed that.
  • Some of you already saw my Facebook post from day one about my confusion on which side was the right side of the road for my brother to be driving on. Thankfully there were only two or three other moments while I was driving that I found myself confused about how and where to turn, but no one was endangered or injured by my confusion, so we’ll just leave it at that.
  • In Kitale everything is pretty much closed up by 10pm. Everything. It’s also not really safe to go out after dark (Ray literally walked out of a duka one night as some thugs walked in and killed a security guard). It was so nice to just decide with my sister-in-law to go for a walk at night or to go to Walmart at 1am just because we could.

Technology

  • The first week I really had to keep reminding myself that I didn’t need to worry about the electricity going off unexpectedly. I kept telling myself, “Oh, you better plug in your phone in case the electricity goes off.” Nope. It never did. Even one night when there was a thunderstorm, I rushed to plug in my laptop because I just knew that rain means hakuna stima (no electricity). Didn’t happen then either.
  • WiFi is everywhere. It’s very difficult for us to get WiFi outside of our home here, but whether I went to McDonald’s or a restaurant or even church, there was WiFi.
  • A friend of mine invited my sister-in-law, her daughters, and myself over for a girls night. I asked her for directions and she was like, “I can just send you the address and you can use GPS.” I had totally forgotten about GPS! It doesn’t really work here unless you want to spend an extra couple hours taking the historic route to learn where there used to be roads.

Just for Fun

Okay, this last one isn’t a culture shock as much as it is a point of amusement for me. Coming to America this time, I discovered that there are some trends emerging among women with children that are in reality expensive knock offs of what women in third world countries do.

Baby wearing? Most women here, especially outside of Nairobi, use lessos (large scarves) and tie their babies on their back and go everywhere with them. They even work in their shambas (gardens) with their babies strapped to them.

Cloth diapers? Yep, they do that too. Pampers (the general term for diapers here) are too expensive for most people in villages, so they use napkins (cloth diapers) with plastic cover-ups.

I don’t understand how people can spend hundreds of dollars on a glorified lesso or napkin, but I’m going to chalk it up to culture.

Finally, she digresses

Yeah, so now I’m back and trying to relearn normal. I’m really happy to be home again and to continue with life instead of feeling like it’s on pause, it was crazy being without Ray for so long, but I’m still extremely grateful for the opportunity I had to spend time with friends and family and to get the health care that I needed. It’s still a balancing act, trying to juggle life in both places, but I’m getting there, pole pole (slowly by slowly).

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4 Replies to “Reverse culture shock: identifying home”

  1. Michaela

    I just realized that while you were here for two months I was gone for almost half of it in Ecuador! I’m sad to have missed seeing you. When I first got back from Ecuador I almost put toilet paper in the trashcan! Do you do that in Kenya? I’ve also experienced the water difference and very sketchy Wifi. It’s crazy the little things that cause big adjustments.
    I’m glad you made it back home safe and thanks for the post!

    Reply
    • S'ambrosia

      Toilet paper in that trash can? Haha! I’ve never heard of that. Why do they do that? It would have been great to see you and your family again, but we’ll have to make sure that we meet up next time!

      Reply
  2. Michaela

    The drains there are so narrow that toilet paper would clog them up. At first it’s weird and then you get used to it. 😉
    Yes, we would love to see you too!

    Reply

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