Back in the U.S., expat discovers culture shock in reverse: Welcome to the land of zombies, ‘selfies’ and kale chips

Aug 12, 2014 | 0 comments

By Susan Schenck

Culture shock usually revolves around traveling to and through a country you’ve never visited before. So it’s a surprise to experience it in the culture to which you’re most accustomed.
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I took a bus to Guayaquil to catch my flight on Copa, which allows a second bag for free. At the airport, I was stunned to pay $3 for a bottle of water. At the Panama duty-free shops, I noted many new items— polyester Panama hats made in China, roll-up sun visors, neon-colored running shoes. And at the Croc store I was flabbergasted to see people paying $50-$70 for plastic shoes. Also in Panama, I had to pass through a second security check, used only on flights to the U.S.

In Orlando, I noted Amazon drones on the front cover of The Economist—what a changing world! The Immigration lines were much longer than I remembered, perhaps due to cutbacks. I had two hours to make my connection, which involved declaring my flaxseed crackers and beef jerky at the agriculture center, grabbing a train to another terminal, and going through security again. When not in line, I was breaking a sweat. Fortunately, I was one of the randomly selected “TSA Pre”: shorter lines and faster security checks. This was all new to me and I understand you can pay for this service for about $85 a year.

My first stop was Indiana, where I attended my 40th high-school reunion. So many of my classmates seemed stressed, especially about money. My sister, too, was going through a painful divorce.

The number of TV channels is overwhelming. When I lived in the States, 200 was the norm, but now you can get up to 5,000. And the remote is much more complicated. As I watched TV with my stepmother, I noted that the commercials were often more interesting than the degenerated sitcoms.

Last time I was in the States, vampires were all the rage. Now it’s zombies. I figure the Harry Potter kids have grown up and need a more sophisticated kind of fantasy.

chl vegas1I never know what will stir my emotions in the States. This time, tears welled up in my eyes on my first visit to a Starbuck’s. I noted that the coffee lids are more efficient. They also offer a reusable cup that gives you 10 cents off the coffee. “I got thirty uses out of it!” exclaimed the barista.

On a road trip to Illinois to see some old friends, my body felt like it was in a foreign country. I had to watch more than ever what I ate: Processed foods didn’t agree with me and I noticed that many of them contain at least a little MSG.

My next stop was Las Vegas—what happened in Vegas stays in Vegas.

Then it was off to San Diego. While the Midwest remains basically the same, the pace of change in California can be overwhelming to someone who’s lived in Cuenca four years. When I was last in California two years ago, it was a novelty to see a few electric cars. This time, the girlfriend I stayed with had one! And everyone now seems to have a Bluetooth gadget for hands-free talking on the phone.

After renewing my driver’s license, I rented a car. The clerk asked if I wanted GPS.

“I wouldn’t know how to use it,” I replied.

“Are you serious?” was the stunned clerk’s response.

I relied on my memory to get around. Even though I often forgot certain routes and had to take the long way around, I chalked it all up as driving practice. I don’t want to lose my highway-driving skills and the only chance I get is in the U.S. I’d forgotten how hard it is to find your car in a parking lot and had to look around for landmarks going and coming.

Last time I was in the U.S., I was shocked to see that Netflix had killed Blockbuster and Amazon had devastated bookstores. Now I learned that Air B’n’B is making a dent in the hotel business.

One of the hardest habits to break was in the bathroom. Two weeks into my stay, I found myself still tossing toilet paper into the trash can. At least I wasn’t looking for the place to check my bags when I entered a store. I also continued scrambling for exact change in stores. Indeed, change is abundant in the Old Country—in more ways than one.

Restaurants with names like “True Foods,” “Urban Plate,” and “Tender Greens” now cater to the health-savvy population with organic and GMO-free food, grass-fed and free-range beef, as well as coconut oil for cooking.

Next to catching up with my amigas, shopping was the biggest thrill.

Even though my bags were half-filled before I even arrived due to all my online ordering, I hit all my old haunts for hours—sometimes I bought only one item. It’s always a shock to see what new items are at Whole Foods and the malls. Cold yerba mate is popular, and even the Ecuadorian guayusa tea is now hitting the U.S. Potato chips now come in Heinz ketchup flavor. Food prices have skyrocketed, and one friend spends $1,200 a month on healthful eating—much more than my whole cost of living in Cuenca!

Going to Costco lets you know what’s now mainstream. Last time it was coconut oil and pink Himalayan salt; this time I noted that chia seeds, hemp seeds, and thick Greek yogurt were all the rage. In other stores, kale chips, coconut water, and sprouted quinoa are ubiquitous. I noted bizarre new flavors of chocolate bars, including beef jerky. Whole Foods serves free water infused with ginger, lemons, greens, and other vegetables. It was the first time I’d seen also an international-cuisine bar, specialty-salad bar, and olive bar at Whole Foods, in addition to the usual hot-food and salad bars.

“Organic” is now as common as “natural” used to be. One of my friends told me that whenever she’s with her granddaughters and they ask her for a soda or some item, they protest, “But Granny, it’s organic!”

“Gluten-free” is also everywhere. I went to a Fourth of July potluck in which only one item wasn’t gluten-free. Even Betty Crocker has gluten-free cake mixes.

“Bullet-proof coffee” is also popular: Blend a tablespoon or so of coconut butter (with its medium-chain triglycerides) in your morning coffee to burn fat all day. It also helps you skip breakfast and perform the newly touted “intermittent fasting.”

Every time I purchase something, I consider not only the price, but also the weight. At Costco, I bought a pillow with a cool gel that helps you sleep. It was a successful $25 and four-pound experiment: It’s easier to get back to sleep now when I wake up in the middle of the night.

Bookstores were harder than ever to find, and I realized that every time I purchased a book on Amazon, I helped close those bookstores. Still, as the time to go home drew near and it was too late to order from Amazon, I found myself supporting these stores and paying full price.

A new buzz line from clerks is, “Sorry for the wait.” I heard this often, even when there was only one person ahead of me. Another new one is, “Have a good rest of your day.”

In a suburb of San Diego, I paid ten cents for a paper back. Apparently, Solano Beach banned plastic bags, and stores are charging ten cents for paper.

I bought a bottle of kombucha, a fermented tea, but when I asked the clerk to open it, since it wasn’t a twist-off, he said, “Sorry, we don’t have a license for open containers.” I had to go back and buy a twist-off, wondering if I’d get into trouble for drinking kombucha while driving.

Speaking of alcohol, it’s now a snack option at movie theaters. Some theaters have also replaced the usual seats with big La-Z-Boy-style chairs. One even has waiters that serve dinner.

Polyamory is gaining momentum. A friend regaled me with stories about appearing on Showtime’s series, “Polyamory: Married and Dating,” about having several lovers at once.

I also learned a new word: “selfie.” It means a photo taken by one of the people in the photo. There is even a new song about that.

One of the shocks that can’t be escaped is the mounting tension in the U.S. I saw more panhandlers at the entrance to a few malls than I’d see in a year in Cuenca. At my final stop, back in Orlando, one of my oldest girlfriends, who wouldn’t step on an ant, was now buying guns and ammo and target-shooting for “when everything crashes.” She’s even growing her own grapes to make her own wine in prep for the “impending chaos.”

My entire trip was one big long commercial for Cuenca. People who had known me for up to 50 years all remarked that I was happier than they’d ever seen me. I heard many variations on the theme of “Ecuador suits you well.”

One friend, however, asked me, “But doesn’t it get old living in a foreign country?”

“Not at all,” I replied, “To me, this—the United States of America—is a foreign country!”

Susan Schenck is the author of several books, including Expats in Cuenca: The Magic & The Madness and The Quilotoa Loop: Ecuador’s Hidden Treasure. She also gives raw food classes and catering and can be contacted at

Photo captions: A Whole Foods Market: The health food fads keep coming; The Las Vagas Strip: What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. 


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