Culture shocks: Back to life in the U.S.

Last Updated on June 3, 2023 by Ellen

I’m in my spouse’s hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, for a good part of this summer, and there are a few culture shocks as I return to the beat of American life on a semi-permanent basis after living abroad for 10 months.

Toilet Paper & Tap Water

Some things strike me as foreign, even though I’ve done them all my life – like where I put toilet paper. At the places I lived in Mexico, Belize and Guatemala, toilet paper goes in a wastebasket next to the toilet. So upon returning here, it felt odd to place the paper in the bowl the first several days I was here. I realize this is gross to anyone who is unfamiliar with how the majority of the world’s people use toilets outside the U.S.

Also, Americans take water for granted: the simple availability of water, and the relative ease of having clean drinking water. Of course, this isn’t the case for Flint, Michigan, with its toxic water from horrible infrastructure and rotten leadership, and it’s not the case for places under extreme drought. But, generally speaking, in Anytown, USA, you can turn on the tap and drink what you want, and let the water run and run and run – for as long as you want. This is not the case inmost of  Central America. Cooking and drinking water must be bottled, or treated. Some places have to truck in potable water, so you can’t take endless showers ladies, when it’s time to shave your legs.

Now that I’m back stateside, I find myself turning the shower water off while I lather up. That seems to have become a habit, which is a good thing.

Food portions & food accessibility

We went out to eat our first night here, and I ordered eggplant parmesan. I was shocked at the portion size – it was enough for three meals! Not to mention the soup or salad that came before the main dish. It cost about $9. That’s a deal when you consider an average meal – of one portion – is about $5 or $6 at our last stop in Mexico.

Also, there are so many supermarkets and delis and convenience stores and even gas stations and drug stores selling food. I’d forgotten how abundant, cheap (junk) food supplies are on virtually every corner in a city. (Not speaking of the nutritional value – just the availability.)

We went to the famous West Side Market on our second full day here to stock up on veggies and fruit.

Don’t you know? It seems a lot of this stuff at the market, and in supermarkets, come from Mexico! We sanitize everything in Mexico – veggies and fruits. But here, most Americans give it a simple rinse under the faucet and they’re good to start chomping.

Cars & Area Codes

Another oddity – my memory had to be jogged a few times for simple things I never used to need help remembering. For example, someone asked me what kind of car I used to drive before I went carless abroad. I knew it was a Honda, but I couldn’t, for the life of me, remember the model. The woman who asked ran down the list of Hondas, and that’s when I was able to remember – when she said ‘Honda Fit’.

Another time this week, I was in a drug store and the clerk asked if I had a club card to get points. I couldn’t remember, and that’s not odd in and of itself. But she suggested I put my phone number and area code into the electronic box on the counter to check. For the life of me, I could not remember what an area code was, and tried to put in a zip code before my old phone number. Of course, it didn’t take because it was too many numbers. I just could not remember what an “area code” was – and believed the area code was simply part of my old phone number.

Phone numbers – when you don’t really have one

Speaking of phones, I still don’t have a permanent phone number. We bought a cheap Mexican cell phone for calling family while we were in Chetumal, Mexico. Ironically, it still works here in the U.S. We don’t want expensive monthly contracts as slow, budget travelers, and SIM cards are cheap abroad, compared to most plans in the U.S. But, this cell phone was about $10 (it’s not a smart phone, but can receive and send texts to other Mexican phones, not U.S. phones), and for $6 a month, we get unlimited calls to and from the U.S., Canada and Mexico. When we travel again, we’ll start getting SIM cards in each country we stay.

Mostly, I use wifi-only based methods of communication. Messenger is a wonderful chat program, and I’m on it many times throughout the day. Skype calls work well for me. I don’t use FaceTime from Apple, because I’m in a love-hate relationship with Apple, and, not everyone in my life has an Apple. Also, in my experience so far, the quality of Skype calls are a little better than Facebook’s video calls. I find this odd, since Facebook is on a hard sell for more video use. Anyway, as long as I have wifi, I haven’t needed really a “phone” except for two times – when I wanted to set up WhatsApp, and when Yahoo! locked me out of my email account.

There are some apps that require a phone number to set up – such as WhatsApp, which is used by virtually everyone in Central America. I’ll set that up once I have a SIM card in our next country.

And, because I put my old phone number into Yahoo! as a security measure for my email account years ago, Yahoo! won’t let me back into my account, even though there is an option on account recover that says, “I don’t have access to this phone number.” It must not like that I’ve tried to log in from four different countries, the U.S. included. Goodbye once and for all, Yahoo!

Allergies & Absent Ocean Breezes

I am allergic to many things, including tree pollen. I’m sneezing a whole lot more, and I need to take a pill at least every other day to clear my sinuses, or I’m miserable. I haven’t needed to take allergy medication while living on the beach, which is where I was virtually the entire time I was gone.

Speaking of beaches, Lake Erie has a few, and they’ll do me just fine while I’m here.

Yet, the lake has no salt, therefore no ocean breezes, and it’s not the warm water of the Caribbean. On the Fourth of July, it was only 71 degrees! Plus, it’s murky at the bottom. However, on the bright side, the chilly, murky nature of the water will prep me for the Pacific – which is where we’ll be headed when we get moving again.

I like bodies of water, and feel at home near them. I’ve always lived near one – including Lake Erie for many years before this current phase of my life. However, I don’t have a love affair with Lake Erie, so I’m glad this is only a temporary arrangement.

Remaining purge & high heels

When I left the U.S. for Tulum last summer, I had either sold or given away almost every ‘thing’ I had. I did save a few sentimental things at my sister’s home, such as old family photos. The rest – mostly winter clothes – I kept in a few boxes at my husband’s Cleveland home. Now, that’s about to be gone. We’re going to rent this house, and there’s no place to store anything. Storage units won’t work because we’re not planning on coming back here to live for any extended time periods for the foreseeable future. Once we leave again, we will be gone for good – on a continuous travel adventure.

I will have flip flops, bathing suits, shorts, tanks, a few electronics and a Turkish towel, and that’s about it – all packed into a backpack. I’ve learned a lot about traveling light since last summer.

Here at the Cleveland house, my husband has a lot of stuff. He did unload a ton already – decades worth of junk – before he joined me in Tulum in December. The remaining purge may be more difficult for him, and I’ll do my best to ease him through it. He’s already a little cranky over things he’s gotten rid of that would come in handy – such as workout / weight gloves for me.

It’s not easy to say goodbye to ‘stuff’ when you’ve had that ‘stuff’ for most of your life. There is a level of comfort security: you know if you have ‘stuff’ you won’t be wanting or needing. Not having ‘stuff’ devolves, for some people, into a fear of having a want or need and not being able to meet it.

When Tedly joined me in Tulum this winter, he brought ‘stuff’ that we carried around Central America. We hardly used a lot of the ‘stuff’ – from a stapler (long story), to a Roku (never used) to extra clothes (never really needed).

I’ll go with this motto moving forward: if we haven’t used it in Mexico, Belize or Guatemala – we don’t need it.

All of that said, I still have a few moments of want and longing for ‘stuff’ – like my high heels! When we came back to Cleveland, I found the few high-heeled shoes I kept. It was actually difficult to walk in them. I’m physically active and try to keep fit, and I’ve worn high heels for much of my adult life, so feeling my leg muscles work in a weird, new way, was a surprise to me. I’ll have to practice teetering around in them before date night.

After that, when we set off again, this purge may be difficult for me, even though I don’t need heels on the beach or in the jungle…

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