The 5 Weirdest Side Effects of Moving to a New Country
A year and a half ago, I moved from San Francisco to Australia, knowing almost nothing about the country other than what I'd learned from reading Cracked (so just a montage of ways I was going to die). After braving the Australian Outback and letting all of those giant poisonous spiders know who's boss (them, very much), I recently returned home. With some distance from my experiences abroad, I was able to reflect on the process of acclimating to the new culture, and I have some words of wisdom to share for any prospective emigrants out there. Spoiler alert: It's all bad.
You Will Hate Everything and Everyone There at First
When I stepped off the plane in Sydney, my only emotions were excitement and needing to pee (I'm not super clear on what emotions are). After the pleasant discovery that Australia had indoor plumbing (they're just like us!), I unpacked my bags, updated my current city on Facebook, and went out to experience everything. Look at those weird giant Cretaceous birds right in the middle of the city! Hey, that building looks like a sailboat! What a beautiful country, with such- I'm sorry, does this burger have a slice of beet on it? And I must have misheard you, I thought you said this can of Coke was $4.50. What, I have to go pay at the front, even though this is a goddamn restaurant and you are here to serve me?? OK, which one of the buttons on my new Australia-issued cellphone tells you and this whole place to fuck right off forever? One of the bottom ones?
I know most of the top ones just order Vegemite.
It's crazy how quickly it happens; you'll flip from the honeymoon phase, where you end up whimsically throwing your big floppy hat into the air several times a day, to the kind of bitterness usually only experienced by IHOP waitresses and the kid who played Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace. This is a real, studied phenomenon called culture shock, which includes "feelings of helplessness [and] irritability, and fears of being cheated, contaminated, injured, or disregarded" (and stems from the jarring realization that a lot of the things we think of as "the way things are" are actually just cultural constructs.
We're not just talking about the big things, like being far away from your family and being surrounded by accents that sound completely ridiculous to even the most well-trained American ear. It's the tiny differences, from the aesthetics of road signs to the words they use to order coffee, that really get you. Before a move, you mentally prepare yourself to handle the stress of saying goodbye to your family, but you don't prepare yourself to live in a world where the vegetation, architecture, animals, and smells are completely different. At any time of day or night, absolutely everything you see seems designed to remind you that things are different and you don't belong there.
This is Australia's "jeans and a T-shirt."
The weirdest part is that even though I knew about culture shock, even though I was aware that the emotions I was feeling were irrational and temporary, I still hated everything so, so much. The birds were pretty, but much too loud. Their commercials were all so low budget and silly. (For real, Coke Zero ad execs: "Tastes a Lot Like Coke ... No Joke" is the best slogan you could come up with, you bush-league mouth-breathing embarrassments of advertising professionals?) And don't even get me started on the trees -- I shouldn't have to explain that a tree is something straight and bushy and, if I had to put a word to it, tree-shaped, and not this haphazard Dr. Seuss bullshit, but I still did explain that to everyone who made eye contact with me.
I refuse to call these Christmas trees.
There's another side to that coin; as your conception of reality is roughly and carelessly dismantled like a toddler playing Jenga, you'll find that ...
You'll Miss Stuff You Never Even Cared About
I like to think of myself as a fairly flexible person; for example, when I found out that crispy M&Ms were being discontinued, I didn't make good on my promise to "burn Big M&M to the ground if my demands are not met within 24 hours." I figured this adaptability would serve me well in Australia, where I could roll with whatever upside-down, spider-covered punches came my way. But for a few weeks, I honestly thought I would have to leave Australia because the timing of the pedestrian crossing lights was so much better in the U.S. This isn't an exaggeration; free health care and no gun crime were cool, I guess, but for a while I couldn't imagine raising a family in a country where you had to wait through a full light cycle to get permission to cross the street.
True story. They made me wait a full light cycle to cross the street. Me. An American!
This is Australia's Wounded Knee.
When I wasn't protest-jaywalking, I sought out every remnant of my old culture I could find. I ate at the world's most pathetic excuse for a taco truck over and over, never admitting defeat. I had been so excited to get out of the U.S. before the presidential election season kicked into full swing, but found myself almost immediately trying to convince bartenders to change the channel to CNN from whatever backcountry nonsense sport they were watching. I started calling rugby and Aussie rules football "backcountry nonsense sports," even though I had (and still have) no idea what they are, other than that the people who play them have accents.
It's just another weird side effect of culture shock; you mistake "familiar" for "superior." There are things that you're so completely used to, things that have been a part of your reality since birth, that you start assuming are a fundamental part of the way the world works. You'll get exhausted from having to rebuild your entire framework from scratch and subsequently desperately long for that brand of toaster strudels you used to get that were pretty good, or the kind of toilet that flushes with a handle instead of this bullshit button.
From hell's heart I stab at thee.
Eventually, this misplaced nostalgia will coalesce to the point that ...
You Will Get Super Patriotic
I've never been a patriotic person. On the Fourth of July I'd get drunk and accidentally set my cousin's tree on fire with black-market fireworks like our forefathers probably wanted, but beyond that, I didn't really see the point of patriotism. Likewise, now that I'm back in America and with a generous prescription from Dr. Hindsight, I'm absolutely bewildered by how patriotic I got while abroad.
I'm starting to regret all those tattoos.
And that's the thing: I got PATRIOTIC. Like, animated-gif-of-a-bald-eagle-crying patriotic. There were some ways in which America was obviously superior to Australia; for example, they don't have Netflix or Hulu Down Under, which, in addition to forcing me to buy TV shows on DVD like some kind of medieval farmer, meant that I had to interact with humans a lot more, which isn't really in my wheelhouse. But there were a lot of dumb things I suddenly would have defended to the death: aerosol cans of cheese, Honey Boo Boo, the endless frozen food section at Safeway.
America, to me, is like a sibling: You don't have a ton in common and you keep hoping they'll grow out of this libertarian phase soon, but if someone else makes a joke at their expense, get ready for a good neck-punching, because no one's allowed to make fun of them except for you. And boy, does everyone have some jokes about us. Each one feels like a personal insult, and against your rational judgment, you'll leap to America's defense, because if we as a nation weren't there to answer the question "Can we deep fry and speed eat this?" who would?
Lead, follow, or get out of the way, France.
I felt a sudden affinity for all things American, solely to spite the people who made fun of it. And with this new affection for all the weird, beautiful, horrifying elements of American culture comes an affection for its people, too; namely ...
Every Other Immigrant You Meet Feels Like a Soulmate
The older you get, the harder it is to make friends. In kindergarten, you run up to a kid, shove him, and yell "Tag!" and now you're inseparable. When I moved to Australia at age 24, I realized I had no idea how to make friends outside of a formalized institutional structure like college. Do people find friends through work? Sometimes, probably, but everyone at my job was married with kids and had at best a passing familiarity with the Indiana Jones oeuvre, so I really had nothing in common with them. I would sooner get a tattoo of Donald Trump's face over my own face than join a dodgeball league, and I figured out pretty quickly that the tag thing doesn't work anymore, so I was pretty stumped as to how you're supposed to meet people after graduation.
No ... but close.
There was one major, glorious exception to this problem, though: Every time I met another American, we became the kind of insta-friends usually only seen at day care and closing time at a bar. Unfortunately, the friendship was usually short-lived, because once you're done yelling about In-N-Out and college basketball, you realize you have nothing else in common. But, for a few sweet, innocent minutes, you're just two kids bonding over your matching Ninja Turtles lunch boxes, and you can't wait to ask your mom if she can come over for dinner.
"You hate the DMV too? Ohmigod."
Although I had no idea that any of these specific side effects of moving abroad were coming, I knew there would be some growing pains as I adjusted to a new country. Moving back to America was the biggest surprise of all, though, because ...
All These Things Will Happen in Reverse if You Move Home
When I decided to move back to California, I was really looking forward to slipping back into a culture that felt comfortable and familiar, like a dog-hair-covered Snuggie. As much as I'd grown to love Australia, there were so many things I missed about America (they were mostly burrito-related), and besides, at least this would be a smooth transition, not like the last one. This time would be easy. Right?
Nope. I got every single symptom on this list, except backward. I found myself absolutely enraged that America still had pennies and paper $1 bills, and I currently have a pile of Australian coins on my dresser as a form of personal rebellion ("hero" is a strong word, but I can't think of a more applicable term). Every Australian I meet gets treated to an animated rant about the Sydney train system and Tim Tams. I'm almost certainly going to get hit by a car while crossing the street because I have no idea what side they're supposed to drive on, and when I finally do accidentally step in front of a bus, it's going to be America's fault for driving on the stupid side of the road. I realize, intellectually, that it doesn't matter which side of the road people drive on, as long as they all agree to one or the other, but that knowledge does nothing to address my burning outrage that you guys are doing it wrong.
One day you'll all see. ONE DAY.
It makes even less sense now than it did the first time around, because Australia isn't even my country. I just borrowed it for a while. But if I learned anything from going through culture shock once before, trying to rationalize your way out of it will only make it worse. I just need to wait this out. In the meantime, if anyone needs me, I'll be spray painting "Australia Rulez" onto this freeway overpass.
Alli Reed lives in Los Angeles, where she's still desperately trying to find the Australia-themed bar she knows must exist. You can follow her on Twitter if you want.