It happened in the egg section at Wal-mart. I surveyed the numerous options of eggs (small? medium? large? different brands? organic?) and felt the panic in my stomach rising. In Uganda, there was only one choice when buying eggs. I was now faced with about 15. I repeatedly asked myself, “what’s the normal American choice to make? Just make the normal choice…but what’s the normal choice?”.
On another trip to the grocery store, the cashier asked me if I wanted something in a bag. I raised my eyebrows and looked away. A few awkwardly silent seconds later, the cashier asked me the question again. I then realized that I had answered the Ugandan way, not the American one.
A couple nights before the 4th of July, I was at home and started hearing these popping noises outside. I was immediately transported back to my home in Uganda, wondering if I was hearing tear gas guns and rifles. My heart started beating faster as I tried to assess what was happening outside my window. Living in a home without bars on the doors and windows had been hard enough to adjust to. Even after figuring out that it was the neighbors setting off fireworks, I wasn’t able to calm down.
During a visit at my church’s youth group, I was about 10 handshakes in when I thought, “huh, I bet shaking hands isn’t the most common way to greet American teenagers” but I couldn’t think of what else to do.
After eating at an Asian restaurant, I discovered that one of the workers was from Indonesia. His accent was thick and without meaning to, I started talking with a Ugandan accent. Apparently talking to someone with any kind of accent brings it out. I was mortified.
It’s reverse culture shock. Though I had experienced it in a small way in coming back from short term missions trips (I have a whole theory on the differences of short term reverse culture shock and long term but that’s for another day), I had never experienced it in this way. One of my first weeks back, a missionary couple from my church was heading back to the field. In a prayer, my pastor mentioned how they had experienced a time of having the comforts of American life. I smiled from my pew knowing that; in fact, it was harder for them to come back to America than to go back to their African home. I guess it’s easy for people to assume that American life is easy and that life in Africa is difficult and thus, it’s easier for missionaries to be back in the States. Though there are definitely parts of American life that are great (two words: Air. Conditioning. Ok, two more: Fast. Internet.) I’ve wrestled with the “why”. America IS my home. This is the country that I was born and raised in. This is the culture that I know…right? However, when I moved to Uganda, I expected it to be different. I expected to have to adjust. I expected nothing to be “normal”. Coming back to America, I expected to be normal. After two years of not fitting into a culture, I expected to be able to fit in. Being gone from the States for two years, I had lost what it meant to live a “normal” American life and make “normal” American choices. Making those decisions, even as small as buying eggs, stressed me out and often, I panicked.
I'm now living in a third culture. I have my American culture and my Ugandan culture but with both of those mashing together, it creates this third culture: an American-Ugandan mix. No matter how long I live in Uganda, I’ll never fully fit in (my skin color alone will make sure of that). The longer I live away from the States, the less that it will feel like home. From this point on, neither culture will be completely home.
I have no doubt that I'll be able to add many more awkward stories to my third culture resume. For your entertainment, of course.