Each time I return to the US, I lurch into culture shock. How intrinsically different Americans are from Europeans, even when you take into account the rapidly advancing symbols and realities of globalization. Every long-term expat can relate to this syndrome. It’s one of the reasons professional “guns for hire” cite that moving from one job (and country) to another is the way they prefer to spend their lives. Sure, there may be downsides, but they’re adamant the advantages outweigh the negatives.
Crossing the Atlantic to Washington during a recent trip, I was seated next to a family who was returning from numerous years of being stationed in Asia. The State Department requires employees posted abroad to return to the US every few years for indoctrination and further studies.
You’d think the couple’s two teen-age daughters would be thrilled over their homecoming and attending the same high school as their cousins and “old” friends. Quite the contrary. Susan said, “I’d rather be going on class-sponsored weekend field trips to different parts of Asia. Hong Kong isn’t Vienna, Va. and vice versa.” The family sat on the plane conjuring up thoughts about where their next assignment would take them, hoping their last posting would be one they’d remember for the remainder of their lives. After listening to the places they’d lived, I wouldn’t consider any of them “hard-ship” posts. But, I say this after having lived in France for the past 18 years. Before we made that initial move, I would have most likely been more than intimidated.
Would the daughters apply for the Foreign Service? Neither was sure. But, they were certain that travel would always be a part of their lives, jobs and personas.
Many sociologists have a premise. Once a person passes the seven-year-mark abroad, chances are they won’t return home for good. (Is this akin to the seven-year itch?) They’ll go for vacations; Americans abroad often send their children to grandparents or camp in the US for summer breaks. But, they’ll view the US from a foreigner’s perspective. This is true even if they live in an American compound in the foreign country in question and speak exclusively English at home.
What’s here today will inevitably be different tomorrow – with the exception (we hope) of some of the incredible archeological treasures found throughout the world. Even they are at risk, in places such as Cambodia where the invasion of tourists is generating pollution, among other things. Global warming (or climate change) has become a priority – and we’re not talking next generation.
There’s been scientific proof that if you speak more than one language, you’re less likely to contract Alzheimer’s. That’s an incentive for the foreign language challenged to become bi (multi) lingual to keep their minds more agile – to the very end.
Whenever I return to the States, I inevitably am overcome by certain impressions contrasted to my life in France. Amazingly enough, they keep changing.
• I drive more in a week here than I do in France in a year.
• People are so consumption oriented. How many shopping centers are needed to service relatively confined communities?
• Even though conversations focus on the cost of gas, I haven’t noticed second-hand car sales lots flooded with SUVs.
• Every time I drive into the garage of the apartment building where I stay, I’m amazed at the number of this year’s models and makes of expensive cars sitting in waiting. Do Americans only lease cars or do they trade up every year or two? When I lived in Provence, a Citroen sitting in the car dealership in France where our current one was purchased, and I pondered making the leap after eight years, the dealer told me I was nuts to contemplate the transaction. The car is worth only 3-4 thousand euros and was in nearly perfect condition. If he’s into selling, he’s not in the right business. But, his philosophy is ever so French. There’s no need for conspicuous consumption, and don’t fix it if it isn’t broken.
And you know what – you may agree or disagree with people who were born or live on French soil. But, when it comes to not flaunting wealth, they have the right idea.
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