Coming Home After 27 Months Around The World

Signs welcoming me home
Signs welcoming me home
I’ve been in Wisconsin now for several weeks. I had expected to have some sort of difficulty adjusting to live back in the US, but the truth is, I’ve managed to take everything in stride.

When i got off the bus from Chicago my mom, my aunts, nieces, nephews and even my 88 year old grandmother were waiting for me at the bus station with signs saying “welcome home”. It was more than I had expected, which honestly was nothing. I wasn’t really sure how to react because in the space of a few seconds I went from not having seen my family in years to having them all around me.

My niece Courtney went through a large growth spurt while I was away and looks totally different. My grandmother had a health scare the previous month and I was glad to be able to see her again. My parents seem the same as they ever were.

I’ve been trying to figure out why I didn’t suffer from any reverse culture shock, and I’ve narrowed it down to a few things:

  • I’ve gotten used to change. I’ve been moving around so much, have been to so many places, and experienced so many different cultures that coming back to the place I was from was just another change I was able to adapt to.
  • My previous stops lessened the impact. Prior to arriving in Wisconsin I spent about two weeks in the US in New York San Diego and Chicago. Prior to that I was in the UK, and the several months before that I was in Europe. That allowed for a much easier transition than if I had flown to the US directly from the Middle East or East Asia.
  • The notion of reverse culture shock is seriously over blown. Like riding a bicycle, it isn’t that hard to adjust to something you’ve done before.

This post is one that many people have been waiting for me to make since I’ve arrived home, and honestly, I’ve had a difficult time trying to figure out what to say. “I’ve had no problem adjusting” really isn’t exciting and doesn’t make for an interesting story. This has been the primary cause of the lack of posts on my site since I’ve been back in the US. I didn’t want to post anything until I got this article out the door.

As I’ve been in Appleton putting off writing this post, I began to see my hometown with a brand new set of eyes. While this is the city I was born and raised, I haven’t really lived here in over 15 years. This is the longest stretch I’ve spent in the area since I graduated from college.

I was at a restaurant working on my photos with my laptop and the waitress was looking at my photos and asked me what I was doing. I gave her the 10 second version of the story about how I traveled around the world, and she asked me something rather unexpected: “what would you take photos of in Wisconsin?”. I had to think about it for a moment. I know this area like the back of my hand, but unlike anyplace I visit, I had to honestly think about what I would try photograph if I was trying to capture the essence of Wisconsin.

This started the process of trying to look at my hometown in the same way I looked at places around world that I visited. There are a significant number of people who live inside of Angkor in Cambodia. Their home is next to some of the most fantastic ruins in the world. To them it isn’t a big deal. It is something they have seen every day of their life. I began to realize just how exotic the mundane parts of life in Wisconsin would be to people from somewhere else.

My dad and my brother are both big into hunting and fishing. Staple foods at my parents house are venison, walleye, bratwurst and white bass. In August now, it is common to find sweet corn being sold at the side of the road for $3 a dozen. At a gas station near an Indian Casino I purchased a big bag of cheese curds for a similar amount.

These foods were things I never once ate anywhere else in the world. In fact, other than a package of Johnsonville brats I saw in Taipei (because I went out of my way to look for them) I didn’t even see any of those foods anywhere else. In fact, I rarely see these things for sale anywhere in the United States outside of the Upper Midwest. (note: the venison and fish aren’t sold in stores. You have to get that yourself.) The devotion for the Packers is something I have only seen one other place in the world: the devotion New Zealand has for the All Blacks.

I was also reminded of the times I spent in the Pacific describing to the locals, people who have never in the life seen snow, how ice fishing works, or the time I explained to someone in Vietnam the concept of the snowmobile. I jumped at the chance to eat spring rolls in Saigon, and the locals shrugged their shoulders. As Jerry Seinfeld once said, “What do they call Chinese food in China? …Food.”

What I’ve learned from my time back in Wisconsin is that everything is exotic and nothing is exotic. What is normal to one person is bizarre and fantastic to another.

Traveling around the world just helps you realize it.

22 thoughts on “Coming Home After 27 Months Around The World”

  1. Welcome back – besides reverse culture shock, another experience i had was physical shock e.g. I returned from a temperate part of the world – Sweden to a tropical part – sunny Singapore.. i couldnt adapt to the weather and temperature!

  2. When I started reading your blog a month or two ago, I didn’t even realize you were from Appleton – I grew up (and currently live) in Cedarburg! Small world.
    My family and I have been talking about the same question – what is Wisconsin? – so we could make an introductory video for a family reunion. Other items on our list off the top of my head: deep fried everything, beer, mostly flat land, cows (including large cow statues), farms, john deer, harleys.

  3. I know just what you mean about trying to find one’s own hometown exotic after being away for a while. I lived in China for a year, and didn’t have a hard time adjusting when I returned to the US. And I was happy to find that although my US audience (who had eagerly read my newsletters about China) was gone, a Chinese friend of mine is happy to hear about the mundane details of my life back home.

  4. Hey Gary,
    Hello from an old friend. Remember me from our days at Sacred Heart? My sister sent me a message about your lecture in Appleton and I found your blog. Been catching up on some of your travels. All I can say is Impressive.
    Drop me a line when you get a chance and we’ll catch up.
    Greg Bird

  5. Hey Gary. Indeed we all have undiscovered treasure in our backyard. In my work with the tourism industry the core lesson from your journey is the single most important item for those in the biz to understand. What is special and unique about your location? Sometimes, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, we need to go a long long way to discover there is no place like home and indeed there is treasure in our own backyard.

  6. Gary, You may think this funny — but Wisconsin is one of the states that Patrick and I have always wanted to go to. Years ago, we saw a FoodTV special on the cheeses of Wisconsin including tours of the cheesemakers’ locations, and finding fresh cheese curds, and since then, we have always talked about heading up there. So, for us, Wisconsin is “unique” and “foreign.”

    I think it is completely true that everything and nothing are exotic, all at the same time. I have lived in the Southeast most of my life and am amazed by the things I find in the South that I have never seen elsewhere — from fried pickles (delicious) to acres and acres of cotton fields to people who are unfailingly polite and sweet. These are the things I know I am going to miss about my home.

  7. What an adventure and stories you can share with your family and hometown friends! Will you be going back on the road?

    I see where you’re coming from. People from all over the world come to visit the Golden Gate Bridge, but it is just another bridge to me as well as to those who commute on it everyday.

  8. Hey Gary – thanks for your article on Appleton and Wisconsin.

    No matter how many places I visit or live since leaving Appleton at 17, I still think it has a unique subculture (who doesn’t love the cheese curds & venison? ya, yu betcha!).

    I think it’s interesting that you don’t have any signs of reverse culture shock. But you’re right – you had frequent culture changes and the time you spent in Europe & the US before getting back home.

    When I left the US for a year, I had major culture shock when I returned. Spending a year in one place immersed in culture & language had a different effect. When I came back to Appleton, I was thinking in another language (Dutch) and for a few days had to translate everything back into English to talk with family & friends. I couldn’t eat a lot of foods because they were too spicy or sweet and I was used to bland (there’s a reason why there are few Dutch restaurants in the US!). For months, I broke up my day with morning & afternoon tea just because I was so used to the rhythm of how it fit in the day. I stood out because I wore different clothes & had a different hair style than what was normal back home. Within a few months all the remants of the other culture were gone and I was back to being a “cheesehead” from Appleton.

    Glad to hear you’ll be on the road again soon and look forward to reading more of your adventures!

  9. The “what would you take a picture of in (insert hometown here)” is a good question to ask… I’ve hosted some CouchSurfers (and I’m hosting a few more), and I must see I feel ashamed whenever I can’t answer a question about my own city, or if I have no idea what they should see. It’s also sad that I only got to visit and look at one of the more touristy places in Manila after being dragged there by a CS guest.

    Which only means I should take time to explore my own backyard. :-)

    • Manila? The most obvious place is Intramuros. I took some great photos of there of some of the churches. If I get back to Manila I’m going to visit Batan and Corregidor, which I didn’t get to when I was there last time.

      • Yeah, Intramuros was the “touristy place” I was talking about… I refer my CS guests there all the time, then feel ashamed when I couldn’t tell them what the place was like, or how to get there… and even more so when I have to tell them I’d never been there!

        Thankfully, one of my CS guests dragged me there, but it was at night, and it was weird getting lost there at night not knowing where to go. I’m already planning to explore the place with one of my friends who’s going to take me walking on the wall. :-)

  10. Greetings, fellow Wisconsinite! My hometown is Theresa, about one hour south of Appleton. I have been teaching overseas for 10 years now, with my current position in India. I can relate perfectly to your reflections on being excited about photographing places around the world which we perceive as exotic, while our own places/state where grew up is taken for granted and we don’t really its charm. Now that you have been back from a long absence, it will be easier for you to see Wisconsin with fresh eyes – a perfect opportunity to do some photography and highlight some of its beauty and quaintness. I look forward to seeing your always aesthetic photos, this time capturing a bit of my home state. Good luck!

    • Melissa is spot on. I retired from Wisconsin to the deep South. And I am reasonably well (world) travelled. Homecomings to Wisconsin excite and inspire me. You don’t appreciate intrinsic beauty until you take a step back.

  11. I love that the waitress asked what you’d photograph in Wisconsin. I too tend not to look at “home” through fresh eyes (I’m from the Midwest as well). Thank you for sharing.

    As for reverse culture shock, I think the most serious symptoms occur to those who chronically carry on about how crazy-awesome the rest of the world is… they seem to under value their own culture.

    I’ll go deep fry some cheese curds now ;)

    • I firmly believe that the fried cheese curd and the cheddarwurst are Wisconsin’s contribution to the world.

  12. gary – you’re right in that there is something to learn and look at everywhere. (our corn is $1.50 at the amish stand down the road). and reverse culture shock is, i think, missing where you’ve just been. no? great post.

  13. Hi Gary,

    I have been on the road for 6 weeks now and have been traveling across Scandinavia and the baltics. I can now completely relate to some of your post about blogging and traveling together. I am planning to serialise some of my travels when I am back. You are an inspiration. Keep those posts coming :)

  14. Thanks for posting this Gary. It’s a testament to the fact that even the most seemingly mundane parts of life should be celebrated. Nothing is trivial.

  15. Looks like you found a way to write this post in the end, and I enjoyed reading it and learning a little more about your roots here in the US.

    Here comes a Stumble. :)

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