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In the Midst of Reverse Culture Shock

Written By: mustikka on September 17, 2008 1 Comment

This time I was prepared. I knew a reverse culture shock would hit me like a rock but actually, it’s been more like both shocking and welcomed pebbles of recognition – yeah! THIS is where I’ve been living for the last 30 years.

I spent the last ten months at home – or more specifically, my home, Finland. After 30+ years in Berkeley, it was a culture shock, in many ways, but mostly a very pleasant one. Now, I’ve been back in Berkeley for a week after spending 10 days in an in-between land, Minnesota. I will reflect on the shocks – pleasant, neutral and a little less pleasant.


After an uneventful 8-hour-flight from Helsinki, a stormy night equals to an impossibility of getting to Minneapolis via Atlanta as my AirTran Airways (anyone heard of them?) ticket indicates. I start a three-hour tour of the Logan airport, hauling my luggage, trying to find an airline that could maybe get me to the Midwest. The biggest obstacle: people working at the airport with no answers. I had forgotten how bad the school system really must be. And I even wonder if we, ESL-teachers, could improve our act. I could not get answers to such simple questions as:

➢ Where could I find a public telephone?
➢ Where could I get change?
➢ Is there meat in the chow mein?
➢ What time will your counter open in the morning?

The answers varied from an apathetic shrug of shoulders, ‘I don know’s and ‘no idea’s to a blank look and an answer in an unidentifiable language (to me). It couldn’t be English because as an ESL-veteran, I can decipher most anything resembling English. And I do also know a few other languages. A Spanish-speaking janitor finally came to rescue, and I found the payphones. Unfortunately, I had only been able to get three dollars’ worth of change, and the first two (broken) ate it all up. I acquiesced, used miles saved to get me to Europe and back just to fly from Boston to Minneapolis the following morning – and spent the night at the Logan airport. As to be (almost) expected, the couches were designed NOT to make it possible for anyone to sleep; the dividing bars between seats didn’t go down nor come up. In the morning, at 4 AM, I decided to embrace my adopted homeland by visiting Dunkin Donuts – my first time ever – since nothing else was open.


My Finnish friend, Eija, had pointed it out already at the Logan airport. Her medium-size cappuccino was four times the size of that particular coffee drink in Europe. I didn’t know how to explain this. I referred to the Morgan Spurlock documentary, Super Size Me – what else to say. But by the time we reached Duluth, I had noticed it too. One lunch menu item we shared was plenty for both of us. The waitresses carrying the very large trays of very large margaritas were also very large. It looked a little sick. Even Lake Superior is too big. It doesn’t look like a lake – it looks like an ocean. And it’s not just the lake; it’s the houses too.
PS. My dear healthy and athletic Minnesotan friends – You know I’m NOT talking about you!!!

One of the students in the 6-day intensive course invited everyone over for a dinner party. She and her husband live on a house that is probably bigger than the entire small apartment building my friend, Eija, lives in. Eijas’s building houses 12 two-room apartments. Eija right away decided to invite our host and hostess over when they next visit Helsinki to show how some people – quite happily – live. Again, I was put in the role of the cultural expert to explain how the houses that size are heated in the harsh Duluth winter – and if ecology is on the agenda at all.

Now, back in Berkeley, after all the complaints of the large Minnesotans, what have I done? Yes . . . eaten – and eaten! There are few places I have visited that can beat the Bay Area when it comes to food. So far, in a week, I’ve had sushi twice, made a trip to East Oakland to my favorite taco truck, got Vietnamese sandwiches to go in Oakland Chinatown, had a Thai lunch, ordered a pizza from Arizmendis in Emeryville, picked vegetables, fruit and berries from our yard where my green-thumbed husband has worked miracles. I’ve also sneaked to my favorite farmers’ market as well as the old favorite, Monterey Market in Berkeley to pick up some fresh, oh-so-sweet, corn, beefsteak tomatoes, organic lettuce . . . mouth-watering peaches and plump, healthy blueberries. I spent an hour at Trader Joe’s, choosing wine very carefully. I’ve also been to Acme bakery to pick up a baguette and had a cup of Peets’ coffee. I haven’t made it to my favorite Korean market yet . . . nor the neighborhood Indian street food place . . . but I do have to watch out. This is the land of the fit and the health-conscious!


Every night I make sure to sit down by the TV at 8 PM. I’ve always been nuts about the Olympics because of the noble idea behind it all: integrating cultures. Well, it hardly seems like there are more than one or two cultures represented in these Olympics. Night after night we watch either American or Chinese gymnasts – and American swimmers. Oh, yeah, I almost forgot the beach volleyball matches. How about all the other sports? I have to go to a Finnish online paper to find out how we Finns are doing. Yes! A surprise this morning: a gold medal in women’s trap shooting. But I don’t give up easily when it comes to international co-operation. Maybe tonight? Some track & field – or maybe sailing? Let’s see!

I ride my bike from West Berkeley to Laney College, located by the Oakland Chinatown.
Besides being good exercise to counterbalance the Korean meal I’m planning, it’s a cultural bike ride. I start out in West Berkeley, passing artists’ lofts and studios, continue through Emeryville on a bike and walking path that follows in the middles of new condos with rooftop patios and large balconies. Then it’s a quick reality check when I hit a particular part of Oakland on San Pablo Avenue. There are motels, liquor stores, a couple of churches with people lining up for free meals, trash, beaten-up cars, shopping-cart-pushing folks and finally, before downtown Oakland, a social services office with even longer lines. Such shocking differences between the haves and the have-nots! Remember – I’m returning from Scandinavia where a peddler on the street is a newsworthy sight.

Downtown Oakland shines in the early afternoon light, boasting proud redevelopment. Then it’s through Chinatown to Laney. The street signs are first in Chinese, then in English. There are restaurants galore. Chinese markets almost beg me to stop, but I continue and admire the large group of older Asians bending in unison in their Tai Chi -practice in a park. OK. Now I see the hotdog man by Laney College, a place of hope and opportunity for so many students from all around the world. It’s a Community College that welcomes almost anyone either for free or for a very low tuition. I think of the Jyväskylä University I spent last year at. Yes, it’s getting very international and multicultural, but when I sat in the library café, I’d mostly see blond ponytails and colorful designer shoulder bags. Jyväskylä University is still mainly white and European. At Laney, I greet an Ethiopian student, listen to a young Vietnamese man probably advising his dad and eavesdrop on the two Hispanic women in the elevator. The multiculturalism and multilingualism at Laney College invite me in with such a positive force, I wonder if I have become a true Californian!


California has welcomed me with beautiful, sunny days. When leaving Laney on bike, I momentarily forget that it is indeed Friday, and being the foodie I am, have to turn around to ride to my favorite Farmers’ Market. The produce is as varied and colorful as the vendors. An old man’s playing Blues and the young Swiss, selling ‘designer’ cheeses, picks up his Mandolin to join in. An Asian woman offers me a slice of a ripe, sweet peach that I devour. I stop to talk to two Afghanis who invite me to taste all they have to offer. They produce little pieces of flat bread, topped with different spreads in such fast pace I can’t keep up. I decide on the dinner: Afghani food!

The warmth of the people is contagious. It must be the sunny climate. In Finland I often felt ‘too enthusiastic’ but here I’m OK. Even people at work welcomed me with hugs and kisses, telling me how much they had missed my presence. And of course, that really made me feel good to be back. The day is definitely topped by a handsome, polite older Indian man, most likely a Sikh, in a tall, white turban. I taste the samosas he’s selling and nod with an appreciative smile. He stops, looks at me and slowly announces, your eyes . . . your eyes . . . is beautiful. I respond, thank you, thank you very much. And at that moment I know I have returned to my California skin. As a true Finn, I would have said, my eyes, oh, no, no, just very ordinary. Maybe I should start calling California home, too.

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One Response to “In the Midst of Reverse Culture Shock”

  1. daveski on: 19 September 2008 at 11:04 pm

    I really relate to your observations… I remember watching the Olympics half in the U.S. and half in Germany and being AMAZED at how different the coverage was!

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