I have been in Asia since 2010. Aside from a brief jaunt in Australia, I have been back and forth across the continent, from Burma to Bali to Bangkok (again and again), though mostly just here in Vientiane.
I have not, however, been back to the US in the past two years. Not for any particular reason, but more because I haven’t had a particular reason I need to go, and friends and family are scattered across the country. Last month I finally decided it was time for a visit back to my home country…it had been too long since seeing people, and even though it’s the same as my other two-week quarterly breaks here, “summer vacation” just seemed like the right time to visit.
In just thirteen days in the US, I went from Virginia, to NYC, to Boston and Providence, to New Jersey, before beginning the long haul back to the Asian continent (2 hour flight + 13 hour flight with no personal TVs?!? + 6 hour flight + overnight in Bangkok + 1 hour flight).
So after 2 years away, what did “America” look like to me?
* Diverse. Wow, people of so many races, ethnicities, and nationalities all over the place! True, Laos is home to many ethnic groups and quite a diverse population, but it was nothing like being in New York City. The subway was like a menagerie of humanity–advertisements in Spanish, foreign tourists looking at maps of Manhattan, and so many Americans, but all of different backgrounds. It’s not like in Laos where when someone looks strikingly different you know they are a foreigner. You can’t make assumptions about anyone’s background in the US.
* While I’m describing people, I’ll say it: I was struck by the number of people that were overweight. Coming from an area where most women (and some men) are at least 2 sizes smaller than me, if not a lot more, I was amazed about the stereotypically supersized Americans. Maybe it has something to do with the massive amounts of food I was served! Or other new American innovations in the last 2 years, like triple-stuffed Oreos, and Dorito-shelled Taco Bell tacos. Just a theory…
* The internet was fast! You can click on videos and they stream instantly. When I play a video usually I click pause and then open a new window to do stuff while it loads. Not in the US, with its super speeds! Luckily I wasn’t there long enough to really get spoiled by this.
* The roads are wide, empty, and oh-so-smooth. Cars drive FAST.
* People who are stationed in places to help you actually help. And know the answers to your questions. (Train stations, malls, etc.)
* You can pay everywhere, for everything, with a credit or debit card. In a taxi cab, in a convenience store, at a vending machine, when buying something that only costs $ 0.98. Credit cards all the way.
* There are a lot of rules. You have to show ID to buy alcohol. You have to come to a complete stop at stop signs. You have to look for real parking spaces even if they are hard to find and totally inconvenient. I could go on.
I realize these are all very superficial observations, but those are the types of things that were most surprising. As disappointing as it might be, I wasn’t struck by any deeper sense of reverse culture shock. As soon as I got in the car and rode down Route 29 in Charlottesville, heading south from the airport, it felt like I had never left. It seems that no matter how long you spend away from a place you know well, it always feels like no time has passed when you return. Of course there are things that have changed–new roads, old places that have been paved over–but most things are the same.
In contrast the rate of change here is so rapid, that the city seemed a bit different after only two weeks away–new buildings have arisen from dust, new shiny billboards and scaffolding hide the skeletons and massive development projects, and traffic and bureaucracy already seem to have increased in anticipation of the major international conference being held here this fall (more about this in a later post). After two weeks I probably noticed a similar number of new things in Vientiane as after two years in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Although I have been slacking on blogging for the past two months, it’s back. To keep up with the racing pace of change here I’ll be trying to pick up the pace online as well…look for posts to come on development, Hillary, teaching, and more! I’m still posting daily photos too, so check them out.