Culture shock in reverse

By Published On: August 27, 2007Categories: Living in Bolivia2 Comments on Culture shock in reverse

Going back to Britain for the first time in a year didn’t seem to be such a shock as the first time but even so there were some wierd things that I had to readjust to. Here are my top ten:

1. People. The sheer number of cars, people streaming into tube stations, crowding the pavements, packing into trains in London. It left me like a  kid in awe of a new toy. I guess Bolivia in the end is kind of small (the whole country has less than the population of London).

2. Adverts. There seem to be no limits to where they get – junk mail, on the tube, cramming the seemingly endless varieties of free papers street sellers try in shove into your hand at every opportunity, now even on little videos on buses. Bolivia’s streets are crammed by comparison with street stalls, its buses by bowler hats and colourful aguayos (striped cloth used to carry everything) and its papers this week with a punch-up in Parliament. You can probably guess which I prefer.

3. Putting toilet paper in toilets – rather than folding it up and putting it into a bin next to them. Now this was one change I quite enjoyed but more than 2 years of habits are hard to undo so if you are a friend who found used toilet paper in your paper bin or perhaps even a toiletries box, apologies.

4. Accents and Lingo. I had forgotten Britain had so many of them having only listened to North American English (and Spanish of course) for the last year. I got on one bus listening to a suited man saying in a very posh voice that the weather was rather inclement, than listened to a girl in a great sarf london accent next to me on her mobile phone bigging up a "siccck concert man, innit".

5. Clone streets. I guess it was all there before I left but it felt like all Britains must have a chip inside them that makes them shop in exactly the same chain stores. Street after street on my British tour looking exactly the same – Tesco’s, Orange phone shop, Next, M&S, Starbucks. It seemed anything original, quirky, different on the High Street was slowly being crushed and leaving Brits with no shopping options at all. Depressing…

6. As a counterpoint, cultural diversity. It seems a strange thing to notice when I live in an Andean village, but although I am greatly enriched by learning and enjoying a very rich culture here, Bolivia does not have the sheer diversity of peoples and cultures that London has. My best experience was going to my old church led by an Indian priest where we celebrated Jamaica’s independence day with dancing and fantastic food with about 30 nationalities.

7. Smoothies. Where did they come from? In my days, we were happy with concentrate or squeezed juice if you were feeling flush. And how many flavours do you really need?

8. Not asking strangers how they are. I forgot that it’s not normal to go into shops and ask the assistants how their day has been. Chatting to people next to you on the Tube is also not considered very normal unless it is after closing hour on Friday night.

9. Gadgets. I didn’t have a mobile phone for the first two weeks and was treated like a freak. I then had to relearn how to text (I have yet to receive or send one in Bolivia) and decided not even to explore the photo, video, music options on my phone because it did my head in.

10. Celebrities. In Bolivia, we only have one – Evo and his jumper – so magazines like Heat would have a hard time existing. I tried to see how many faces I could recognise on the one in a friend’s bathroom and managed Jade Goody from Big Brother and J-Lo. Two out of 300. Am I doomed never to reconnect with western civilisation?



  1. Nick August 28, 2007 at 12:48 pm - Reply

    I can quite understand the culture shock. Even coming from the NL (or before that from west Wales) I found London a strange city to reconnect to (and I was born and raised there for 20 years).
    we came across cloned streets 15 years ago on a nationwide environmental tour.Every town had the same shops with the same offers and the same clone shopgirls. The only exceptions we found were the eastern parts of Suffolk and Norfolk, west Cornwall, Northumberland and West Wales. Probably many of these bastions have fallen since then. The sad truth is many people in those regions really want that shit to feel part of western consumer culture.
    As for the prepondance of adverising -it’s a form of pollution, one that preys on peoples’ lack of self esteem and insecurities and should be taxed according to the Polluter Pays Principle.
    Welcome to the future – but its not the only possible future. Enjoy your stay back in in Babylon, with its many temptations and pleaures- and please work to ensure that the part of the world where you work is able to build its defences agianst this mind numbing, soul and planet destroying uniformity.

  2. Jim October 4, 2007 at 12:22 am - Reply

    I have always found reverse culture shock to be much worse than the initial culture shock going to a new place. I suppose that’s because it was the culture in which I was raised — the sea in which I swam. It was in every way what I considered “normal”. Going back after adjusting to a new culture required viewing what had been “normal” with new eyes.
    For me, the worst reverse culture shock was going back to the States just before Christmas and making the mistake of going to one of the giant malls and watching the mass of shoppers rushing around buying massive amounts of stuff to give to people who really didn’t need any of it.
    When one has gotten used to a place which lacks most luxuries and has people working desperately hard to make $25 for their monthly aquiler, watching these people throwing away untold amounts of money on unneeded and many times unwanted trinkets just blew my mind. I wandered around the mall in a daze just trying to absorb the insanity of it all.
    On the other hand, I do also identify with your sixth point. I was delighted to reconnect with the African-American community. In Bolivia, one can have connections with people from Chaco, Trinidad, etc. but I don’t think there is nothing really like the openness, raw artistic talent and humor that is found in the African-American community in the U.S.

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