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PrevIndexNext  Culture Shock Sun, 4 Feb 2001

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I’ve been back in England for almost a couple of months now and it’s not what I expected. You might think I’d know what to expect, having lived here for all my life apart from the thirteen months I spent in Houston (or rather its outer orbiting satellite suburb of Clear Lake). The last time I was back in Blighty was last summer, when I spent a blissful two months staying with friends, working, going out and genuinely walking around London with a smile on my face. It was then so wonderful to be back that my return has been something of an anticlimax.

When I moved out to Texas to study I expected to suffer some kind of culture shock. I wasn’t sure how culture shock manifested itself but I’d heard the phrase often enough to assume it was a real phenomenon. I seemed largely immune however. This isn’t to say it was an easy ride — being suddenly stuck out in isolating and characterless suburbs with no friends was a truly dispiriting experience and it didn’t get any easier over the following year. This didn’t seem to quite fit the descriptor “culture shock” though.

To my surprise, especially after last summer’s joyous return to these shores, I’ve now experienced real culture shock back in my native country. Given that I spent much of my final five month stint in Clear Lake looking forward to flying home this has been unsettling to say the least. The first week back, just before Christmas, I passed in something of a daze. I frequently travelled into London from my parents’ house in Essex in an effort to keep myself busy and my mind off anything important like finding a job. But the happy London of the previous summer had disappeared with the long summer days and now the tiny streets, glowering crowds and dark skies were simply horrific. I rushed from home to destination with my head down and my ears plugged into a hastily compiled tape of music that reminded me of Houston.

Although things have become easier over the last couple of months (I’ve thoroughly enjoyed recent daytrips to London) I still don’t feel at home. I certainly didn’t expect to miss the far off place I spent more than a year yearning to escape. It’s certainly overdramatic to state it this way, but the experience of being back is possibly similar to those of people returning to civvy street from the army or prison. Life in Clear Lake was a comfortable routine of occasional classes, solitary trips into the city and endless hours alone in my apartment. The routine I developed while waiting to return has now vanished and I must slot back into a world that’s carrying on regardless of what I’ve been doing. The fact that no one here shared any of my experiences makes it harder still. There’s no one with whom to talk it over, it’s just “good to have you back Phil, what are you going to do now?”

I was tempted to list here all the little sensations and activities I miss, but what’s the point? However eloquently I describe the fragrant evening breeze blowing in through the open doors of the suburban swimming pool, it’s not going to evoke a fraction of the feeling in you that it does me. I’ll keep such sensations to myself, rather than cast them out there leaving me feeling empty, with nothing personal left.

If you’re looking for a more literal experience of culture shock, I’ve got that too. Before I went away American objects seemed like a seamless part of British culture. US blockbusters, coffee shops, TV shows, bands, it all simply slotted in among the native stuff to make up modern British life. Having lived among it in its homeland though, US culture suddenly seems strangely incongruous here. While we mostly accept it as normal I now see it much as we’d view cultural imperialism in any other foreign country. We might think it amusing/horrifying to see a McDonald’s opening in China, or poor African kids crowded round a TV watching Hollywood stars. How unfortunate that these people are reduced to importing such things! But now a poster for The Grinch on the side of a London double-decker bus, or a new series of Friends on Channel 4, seems exactly the same to me. While once these were an inevitable aspect of British life they now seem as incongruous as the Chinese McDonalds.

Conversely, this perspective also heightens how parochial local media truly is. While the previous melange of American and British media was a seamless blend I can’t help seeing home-grown stars as the tiniest of pinpricks in the global firmament. Think of how you’d view a Norwegian game show host or an Italian soap star. You know these people are nothing on a global scale, their antics are utterly insignificant to your life. But you might have to think twice to notice that, say, Bob Monkhouse or Nasty Nick are equally insignficant. This isn’t to say all US stars are global of course; Regis or Survivor’s Richard aren’t exactly hot news over here.

While much of US television is awful I desperately miss its reassuring regularity and leaving all my favourite series part-way through was a truly wrenching experience (when there are few alternatives it’s worryingly easy for the TV to become a friend). While most of those series are also screened in the UK there’s such a delay that in many cases I’m sent back to Fall 1999, when I first arrived in Houston, only heightening the feeling that this whole experience has been nothing more than an excessively elaborate dream.

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