Culture Shock (Part 2): 20 More Culture Shocks upon Reaching Home

I started this list yesterday, but have thought of about 20 more elements of culture shock I’ve felt while visiting London and the States during the holidays.  Continued below:

  1. Service at restaurants is TOO FAST. Restaurant service in Africa can be inconceivably slow and comically inept, but in America it’s the opposite problem.  Seriously, when the main course comes out as soon as you’ve finished the appetizer, you don’t have any time to digest the previous course or have a conversation, so you leave over-stuffed and under-satisfied.  You sit down and before you’ve even opened the menu, the waiter is already there asking if you know what you want or if you need “a few more minutes.”  Um, I haven’t opened the menu yet.  Seriously waiters, give us a bit of time to ourselves to eat and enjoy!
  2. Doors being closed doesn’t mean the store is closed. It just means it’s cold or hot outside.  In Uganda, the weather is perfect all the time so there’s no space heating or cooling—and hence no need for businesses to close their doors.  If the store is open, the door is open.  In the US, I sometimes walk up to a store and, finding the door closed, start to turn away, only to remember that I need only to open it.
  3. ROADS! Smooth, wide, well-planned and well-marked, and with mostly non-crazy drivers, Western roads make it easy to drive anywhere without constant anxiety about getting run off the road by a bigger car or having to dodge a pedestrian darting into your path.  The exceptions are 5 lane superhighways with 40 mph wind gusts; while preferable to a 1-lane highway driving into oncoming traffic, it’s almost as terrifying encountering high winds while driving at 70 mph.
  4. The floor for quality in the West is so high. You can find anything in Africa, from a 5-star luxury safari lodge to a $4 a night shack with a pit latrine; there’s a long way to go from the top to the bottom.  The difference in the West isn’t so much that the ceiling for quality is massively more luxurious, but that the lowest quality you can get is still pretty good.  KFC isn’t exactly considered a luxury restaurant, but consider that any KFC in America has an enclosed environment, modern kitchen, central heating and cooling, and flush toilets.  In the West that’s the floor, but Uganda’s four KFCs are yuppie destinations.
  5. Self-reliance is overrated. When I told my granddad that a business partner in East Africa wanted to invest in a house in the US but needed a trusted person to collect the rent, I was shocked to learn that there are actual companies that do this for you in America—and you can generally even trust them with your cash!  In the West, no matter what your need, there’s probably a business or government agency willing to do that for you.  And if somebody does you wrong, there’s a legal system that can back you up; no need for mob justice.  In Africa, you’ve got to almost entirely fend for yourself in life and in business.
  6. The internet is fast, it’s cheap, and it’s everywhere. 3G coverage in Africa—at least in East Africa—is surprisingly good, but it’s still only in the main towns, and it’s still not that fast.  Moreover, data bundles are expensive and never truly unlimited, so you constantly have to think about your data usage.  Being back in America, it’s simply amazing to be able to do what you want on the internet—streaming movies, syncing files, downloading updates—without having to think about it.
  7. You can do anything on your smartphone. As a result of the above, there’s more you can do with your smartphone every time I come back Stateside.  During this current trip, I paid for Starbucks with my phone and ordered an Uber (is that what you say?) for the first time.  That said, Africa is not that far behind—smartphone use is on the rise, and there’s no telling what may be possible five years from now.
  8. Dishwashers.  You’d think they are a pure convenience, and on days the maid doesn’t come this is definitely true: doing the dishes by hand (especially when you don’t have a disposal and have to pick bits of soggy soapy food fragments out of the drain) is one of life’s small annoyances.  But on days the maid comes, having a dishwasher suddenly seems more troublesome: you’d have to rinse off the dishes and even take them out of the dishwasher yourself.  SO MUCH WORK!
  9. The lack of boda bodas. You mean I can’t just walk outside and find a moto taxi willing and ready to take me where I want to go, cutting through any amount of traffic, for $3 or less?  One of the things that’s LESS convenient in the West.
  10. Rigid schedules. Another thing that’s less convenient Stateside, I’m always shocked that I can’t call someone a few hours before arriving in town and see them the next day.  “I know you just flew 2,000 miles, but I’m booked for the next week!  Maybe next time?”  Americans just don’t have much free time on their hands these days.
  11. North Americans and Europeans are getting ripped off for everything except Apple products. GBP 1500 a month for a 2 bedroom apartment?  $5 for a Greek yogurt?  $40 for a “fair trade” basket that costs $4.50 at the craft market in Kampala?  Prices in the West are criminally high.  The only thing that seems to be really reversed, ironically enough, is Apple, where high prices in America are trumped only by the exorbitant markups n Africa: a $650 iPhone 6 in the US costs $1,200 in Kampala.
  12. Americans, especially, getting ripped off for health care. I bought a package of pills in Uganda for $4.80 that would have cost $90 in the USA.  A consultation at the “expensive” expat clinic in Kampala is $20-30, and a blood test is $15.  Insurance companies, trust me, you have a lot more room to negotiate rates with health care providers.
  13. Tip and taxes not included. It’s bad enough to suffer the sticker shock of paying $5.50 for a beer that would have cost $1.80 in Africa.  Then you face the sinking feeling of realizing you have to add in 8% tax AND another 15-20% for tip.  Tax and the waiter’s wages should just be included up front.
  14. Still, it’s nice not having to always negotiate. Sometimes though, even when the price is high, it’s just nicer to not have to spend effort bargaining over a few dollars or wondering if you are getting the “fair” price.  The price is what it is, so take it or leave it.
  15. It’s amazing.  Once on a previous trip to the States, I asked someone where I could find a particular item in town (I can no longer remember what it was).  His (somewhat incredulous) reply was, “dude, just get it on Amazon!”  In Africa, you have to know where to look for good quality at good prices.  In Kampala, for example, there’s a particular part of town you go for print shops (Nasser Road), a part of town that sells computers (a section of Kampala Road), even a part of town that sells popcorn machines (not kidding—it’s in Katwe).  In America, everything is just on Amazon—and it’s delivered to your door.
  16. Jimmy Fallon is hosting the Tonight Show. What???
  17. Credit cards. You can pay with credit card anywhere these days, even mom and pop shops.  Cards are not only convenient and safe—you don’t have to carry a wad of cash everywhere—a surprising amount of modern convenience depends on them.  Just one example: no hassle warranties.  When my Kindle stopped working, Amazon sent me another one under warranty before I’d returned the broken one.  How could they trust me that my Kindle was really faulty?  Simple: if I didn’t return the broken one, they would just charge my credit card for the one they’d sent me.
  18. Checking the weather before going outside.  Or put another way, WINTER!  In Africa you never need to check the weather, because the only variables are rain and sun.  Just go with a jacket, and you’ll be fine.  But the first step off the plane in the UK or US in December, and you know you’re in a different place.  The air is cold and brisk, and the days are short, which confuses your sense of what time it is, especially after long periods indoors.
  19. Things are just so EASY in the West. Paying without cash.  Drinking tap water.  Home delivery from Amazon.  The endless variety at the supermarket.  Contactless payments on the Tube.  The list goes on and on, and is expanding all the time.  Sometimes I get overwhelmed by just how easy it is here to do or get anything you can think of, wherever you are, whenever you want.
  20. And if we let it get destroyed, it will take centuries to rebuild. Every trip back to the States I make, there’s something new and different.  And usually that new and different thing depends on something else that came before it.  Uber couldn’t exist without the smartphone.  Amazon couldn’t exist without a system of addresses that tell drivers where to deliver packages, or without credit cards that enable remote payments—which in turn rely on a system of laws and a history of trust that reassure vendors that they will actually get paid.  And all these things are dependent on accumulated knowledge stored in books and universities and training programs, and passed down informally by older generations to be added upon by younger.  They’re dependent on accumulated capital: the stock of resources that’s reinvested to produce more.  And they’re dependent on accumulated trust between members of society: that we should all play by the same rules, and that governments despite their flaws are generally looking out for our interests.  None of these things are just here.  They’re not inevitable.  They were built and accumulated, over decades and centuries, and if we ever were to lose them, it would take decades and centuries to build them back.

What culture shocks do you have when you return home?


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