By moving back to the USA, I’m entitled to feel culture shock and reverse culture shock. Having lived there for the best part of the past 20 years, I feel that I have started to understand some aspects of American life, but I hesitate to go further than that. The Greater Washington metropolitan area is not normal America. With its heavy base of national political and military activity, it is truly peculiar. With a capital set in an administrative area that has no national representative in the Senate or Congress, that peculiarity becomes even stranger. But, I am not going into the constitutional morass.
By living abroad for most of the time since 2003, I have become used to life outside the USA, for good and bad reasons: many things happen at a slower pace. Now that I come back to the American life, I see things done very differently and often quicker, and my memories of life before brings back thoughts of how things that seem to be the same are very different, depending on where they are.
What really shocks me will be evident over time, not just in one day. But here are a few aspects.
American life is built largely on can do quickly notions: people are accustomed to instant gratification. That helps a lot when you need to get things done in a short time. For example, we arrived back in the US on the afternoon of Friday, July 30. We had rented a car for five days and wanted to look for a car to buy. We had a 9am Saturday morning appointment in Silver Spring, MD, followed by two others in DC several hours later. By noon, we had agreed on the car during our first appointment, and cancelled the other visits. We arranged preliminary finance with our credit union over the phone: they told us the rate and payments over several time frames, and would need to confirm details once the sale was set. We arranged insurance for the car over the phone, while chomping on turkey and salad sandwiches provided by our sales consultant. My wife needed to collect her mother from the airport at about 2.30pm, but before that needed to pick up her daughter (who had come to meet us at our house as a surprise on Friday evening) from a metro station in DC, so that she could see her grandmother. So, she left me at the car dealer and headed out in the rental car. Meanwhile, I waited while a minor problem with the car (horn) needed to be fixed. For my inconvenience, I was given a $40 voucher for lunch at Cheesecake Factory. In the end, I was told to head home, around 3.30pm, and the car would be delivered to me by day’s end–which it was. So, car shopping completed within 9 hours (and it could have been done in under 4).
My wife did all she needed to, including taking her daughter to a bus station to head back to NYC, with time to spare having a coffee with her family in a Starbucks.
When we had arrived in Barbados three and a half-year ago, though my wife had an official car, we decided that another car would help to deal with running around for school and so forth, and tried to buy a car. It had taken several days to find something, part of which entailed the actual availability on the island (‘It’s still on the water’ became a dreaded phrase). Then, nothing could be done for days as finance was arranged, the vehicle prepared and other administrative processes dealt with.
When we lived in Guinea we did not need to buy a car: an official one came with my post and we decided that could serve all needs. But, I know that nothing like buying a car could have been completed in Guinea a day using normal procedures, and certainly not without going to see at least one other organization than that selling the vehicle.
We wont get into issues like cost, remembering that other countries charge duties on vehicles which Americans would deem sinful.
We have to get used to taking for granted the sort of convenience we experienced on Saturday. Shocking.