26 October 2014

The Two-Year Culture Shock

I was in the United States recently, after not being there for two years. It was funny, in fact, because the first place in the United States that I visited was Buffalo, where I spent 7 years while I was in graduate school. I spent just 5 days, yet somehow, it was a memorable experience, partly because I felt like I experienced culture shock.

See, I was in Buffalo for a conference. And I also visited my friends and met up with people I used to hang out. While I was there, I ate in restaurants, went to downtown Buffalo, and overall spent plenty of quality time with my friends and the city. And I find myself swinging back and forth between thinking that I am glad to be back, to thinking that I am glad that I live in Berlin and not in Buffalo anymore.

For example, when we were in restaurants, the servers were very friendly. In fact, they put European restaurant customer service to shame! But then I promptly remembered that this has something to do with the tipping culture. Americans tip a lot, while Europeans just round up. Hence, there is more incentive to give good service, because otherwise, you won't get good tips. And so it made me think, what would be better, a system that doesn't encourage good service, but then the servers actually make good money? Or a system where the servers are pretty much slaves, and they have to fawn over the customers so that they get good tips?

Another thing that made me think was when I went downtown and took public transportation. The public transportation system in Buffalo is a joke. The public transportation system effectively acts like a social barrier, with working class people taking it, while the middle class have their cars. It is so different from Berlin, where everyone pretty much takes the public transport. So if you take the bus, it doesn't mean you're poor. But in Buffalo, sometimes, I felt scared taking the public transportation system. I took the subway, and there was a group of loud teenagers posturing with each other. And I took the bus after that, and there was a woman with three kids and she kept shouting at them. I am not saying that Berlin doesn't have "weird" people in the metro, but Buffalo seems to have a high concentration of them. That is because the rest have their cars, because seriously, if you have a high concentration of these types of people in the metro, you probably will be scared and get your own car too. And yes, the only reason I didn't have a car during the 7 years I was in Buffalo was because I was a poor graduate student.

Anyway, I have to say that overall, I still enjoyed my visit. It was great to see the environment, the surroundings, the things that have been familiar to me for 7 years. And most importantly, my friends. It felt like it was just yesterday, that I was here, walking the leafy walkways of the campus. Little things changed, yet most things stayed the same. Who knows when I will be back there again.


  1. It's kind of cool that you lived in very different places around the world and that you are able to look back and compare without making it a competition, i.e. "A is way better than B", etc. Some expats do this, either nothing compares to "home" or "home" is awful compared to new place. You are more... thoughtful. You can appreciate the differences but you know what place is right for you.

    1. Zhu,

      I think the competition model has just so many flaws in it, that I stopped engaging in it. Plenty of people still ask me which of the places I have lived in is the best, and I refuse to answer that, because there are just so many things to consider, and I would run out of time thinking about them in order to come up with a good answer. Each and every place simply has good and bad things going for it.