Culture shock sucks, especially because you never see it coming. There are things that you expect, like not knowing the latest music fad or who’s dating whom in Hollywood. But culture shock isn’t about petty ignorance of pop culture; it’s about the little day-to-day experiences that completely derail you. My first experience with culture shock happened in the salad dressing aisle of a grocery store.
I grew up with wet markets, where meat is freshly slaughtered in the morning and hung up for sale, where you can point to the chicken pecking at the ground and return ten minutes later for the parts you wanted. I grew up where a grocery store was squeezed between two apartment buildings with fruit baskets spilling out onto the sidewalk clouded in the overpowering smell of gasoline and cigarette smoke. I grew up understanding that some lucky weeks there would be ranch dressing and other weeks we would have to make vinaigrette.
I hadn’t been in an American grocery store since I was six years old, I never remembered them because when I was little I was too preoccupied with the decision of sitting in the cart or walking beside it like a grown up. So when I first stepped into an American grocery store the only thing I could think was, don’t get lost. It was like a museum for food except you could touch everything; there were even free samples!
I couldn’t believe that this much food could actually exist in one place. I volunteered to steer the cart, too terrified to stray from the obligation. I gaped at everything, the bright fluorescent lights, the squeaky clean floors, the sprinkler systems and open refrigerated shelves, and that was just the fruit and vegetable section. After passing through aisles and aisles of boxed this and frozen that my mom asked if I would go back and get some ranch dressing.
I tried to keep my head down, not wanting to understand what could possibly fill this many shelves. It wasn’t until I looked up wanting to find one single bottle of Ranch Dressing, and instead I was standing before an immense wall of salad dressing. There were too many to choose from: fat free, gluten free, lite, no additives, organic, only natural flavors, all natural flavors, no fillers… And that was just one of the brands. What did it all mean? Wasn’t ranch just ranch?
Culture shock isn’t about what you don’t know, it about what you don’t want to see. I never wanted to understand that being in the land of plenty meant being in the land of grossly too much.