Double Culture Shock

Robert McKeon Aloe
Dec 13, 2018 · 7 min read

I lived in Texas for a number of years, and I didn’t consider too much what culture meant. I didn’t think there was much culture in Texas at least in some grand conception that was easy to perceive. Little did I know, my understanding of what is culture would completely change in a matter of two years as I experienced culture shock both to a new culture and to the culture I had grown up in.

In the fall of 1999, I was in high school debate, living in Katy in Texas, and loving it. My freshman year of high school sucked in many ways, but I felt I was really hitting my stride during my sophomore year. I found my niche in debate, had friends, and had a blooming romance.

Usually, my debate tournaments would run late, and my mom would pick me up in the early morning hours after we got back from some other school. It was 2am along a particular portion of Highland Knolls Drive right before Mason Road. Mom told me we were moving to Paris. I don’t think she was thrilled about it. I was crushed.

To give some back story, this wasn’t the first time I heard of this possibility. My father worked at Schlumberger, and they asked him a few times before if he’d like to move to Paris. Even this time was brought up a few weeks prior to me and my siblings. The difference was that he was told it would end his climb of the corporate ladder if he didn’t work over there for a bit.

I also want to point out that I didn’t particularly like Texas culture. I was living in the suburbs of a more liberal city (Houston), but there were a few occasions I was told I was going to hell for not being the right Christian. We were Catholic, and we were not in the majority. I felt a lot of the paying lip service but behaving differently, and I had a tough time reconciling the two.

So it wasn’t that I wanted to stay, but I didn’t want to go. I was scared of change. I was scared to go to somewhere else where I would have to get used to everyone again. I had moved quite a bit by this time already. I had been in five elementary schools and two middle schools, and more recently, half my friends were moved to a new high school. I didn’t handle change well, and I wanted stability more than anything.

Culture Shock in Paris circa 2000

We moved to Paris in the summer of 2000 after my brother had graduated high school. It was a weird place for me at first. I didn’t speak the language, didn’t know where was a safe place to go, didn’t dress like the Europeans, didn’t have any friends, and suddenly, I could drink alcohol. Nothing on TV was in English, the power was a different rating, and their DVD’s didn’t work in my DVD player. Oh the humanity!

I was also in a city. I never lived in a big city nevertheless one as large as Paris. I had lived in the suburbs mostly, and I hated the suburbs. I felt a monotony, but not in the city. I didn’t know how to cross the street with lots of traffic or handle lots of people. It was a big jump culturally.

I went to the International School of Paris, and I really had a good time. I started to feel okay, and I was surrounded by people who had moved as frequently as I had. I made some really close friendships, and I got to see the Eiffel Tower everyday because our school was across the river.

When we went back for Christmas that year, I was quite obnoxious. I was so grateful to be home and have all the American amenities. I pissed off my dad within two days as I complained about Paris by talking about my love to be home incessantly. Little did I know that home was changing, and I was not changing with it.

After my first year in Paris, I fell in love hard. I didn’t want to fall in love, but I fell in love with Paris, and to this day, I think about Paris everyday. I really embraced living there. I loved the city, going around the city, the museums, the people, the cafes, the metros, the escargot, the espresso.

Culture Shock at Home circa 2002

I graduated high school, and I wasn’t planning on going to university in England. I regretted it then, but I came back to the States nevertheless. I went to university, and home wasn’t the same. I had a weird feeling, but it kept feeling like I woke up in the wrong country.

The backstory is a combination of growing up, a change in perspective, and a national wound. As I became more aware of American culture, it was hard to ignore what was so messed up. It was easier to see after being gone for a while. The ideals I had learned in school had to meet reality, and they did when I returned home.

The other bit was American culture vs European. In Paris, a car was utilititarian. Jobs were utilitarian. Nobody cared what car you drove or what job you had. People didn’t discuss their jobs. While in America, your job is so much of your identity that it is hard to have a conversation without talking about your job. The news was not used as entertainment but actual news. It felt like over there, they just gave you the facts, and often times that was boring relative to the 24/7 news cycle here.

A national wound occurred while I was gone. I visited Houston in August of 2001, and I flew back one week before 9/11. It was truly an event witnessed by the majority of America if not the world, so the reaction was so emotional, more so than previous tragedies.

Almost everyone saw the second plane hit live, and if they didn’t see it live, they certainly saw the replay enough to feel like they saw it live. Most people also saw the buildings come down. That day, it felt like time stood still as we watched tragedy unfold, and it was also the day that greatly caused our culture to shift.

I left the US at the end of Clinton where there was a lot of peace in the world, and now there was this war. When the US invaded Afghanistan, a bunch of my dad’s friends in Paris stopped talking to us simply because we were American. There were bomb threats to the embassy, and we were told to be more careful in the city, but I wasn’t much paying attention to what was going on.

Not even 9 months into being home, we went to war with Iraq. I remember seeing the lead up to that, thinking I was dreaming. I had a hard time adjusting. There was the same level of intolerance I had felt abroad, and I’m white. I’m white and male and from an upper-middle class background. I should feel tolerated as part of my privileges, but I didn’t because I felt like a stranger in my own home.

Minor Culture Shock in California circa 2014

Over the next decade, I adjusted to the new America plus coming to accept this is reality. I moved to California in 2014, and I experienced a little bit of culture shock here too. I was miles away from families, I went from 60 days of sun to 300 days of sun, no longer had to deal with 5 months of winter, and I could go to the beach whenever I wanted to. I also learned how to conserve water due to an extreme drought. Earthquakes were just normal.

I have to accept reality as it is not how I want it to be.

California wasn’t like 2000 and 2002, but I did notice feeling out of sorts. Now it feels weird going back to the Midwest, mostly because of weather, but then also because political thinking is so different. Whatever the case, I have to do the same thing I did back then which was to continue to strive to accept reality as it is and not having a misperception. That is not to say I can’t do anything to improve my life or the lives of others, but I have to accept I am who I am where I am today.

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