Reentry shock on the tongue

I recently arrived back in the US after having spent three years and six months outside of it (with a couple four-day weekend exceptions that were whirlwinds of task accomplishment). Bolivia became home for us, and we adjusted our expectations, tastes, and preferences accordingly. What culture shock we experienced to adapt to our life there, we now face in the inverse at our return.

This is termed “reentry shock” by those who have studied relocation among expatriates who live abroad and then return to their “home” locales. Intuitively, everyone expects that reentry ought to be easier because we’re familiar with the “old” place, but at least in my experience, this is the more difficult change.

It mostly has to do with expectations. Arriving in Bolivia, I had made an effort to come with an open mind and set aside as many prior assumptions as I could manage to consciously do, and this helped me encounter this new place on its own terms. It’s a much harder mental game to do that here.

Take, for example, the simple act of going to a grocery store. In Bolivia I knew my three local groceries and market quite well; I could find the goods I needed with ease, had a good grasp of what would be seasonally available, and if need be could easily improvise a menu on the spot. Three days back in the US, we visited the blandly-named Pick ‘N Save and made the mistake of not bringing a list. Even in a relatively average, suburban US grocery store, we faced such an overwhelming variety of new options in an unfamiliar format; and trying to keep a reasonable budget, my mind simply shut down and refused to cooperate. I couldn’t come up with a single simple meal idea without a surprising amount of stress attending the process.

How does one set aside expectations for a place that was once intimately familiar? It’s a daunting task. My years away changed me, and returning to the familiar is often jarring because it all seems so much of the same (which of course is probably a mistake of not looking past aesthetic continuity to see deeper into a community’s life).

And in the context of a blog written about beer and homebrewing, I certainly have changed. When I left for Bolivia I probably had brewed maybe 15 times in total, and truly knew very little about beer in general. I’m still no expert, but I’ve read a lot in three years. I still have tasted very little beer on a grand scale. My taste buds are still very novice.

So returning the US and its beer scene, which is undoubtedly thriving and approaching some kind of zenith, I have found it a very shocking experience. Even just wading through and trying to pick something off the make your own six pack racks inspires if not exactly awe, then perhaps another overwhelming feeling as I try to absorb all the possible options and sort them internally according to preference. What even is my preference? What even are the expiration dates? Where was this brewed? Have I ever tried something in this style?

I should probably just ride over to these places and spend an hour looking around so as not to delay my wife or whoever is unlucky enough to be there with me.

All things considered in my life, beer is quite trivial, but it’s an area where reentry shock very clearly expresses itself. Leaving Santa Cruz, where an IPA has only become commercially available in the past couple months, and arriving to the US where a middling grocery store rack features five kinds of session IPAs feels all too much like trying to drink out of a fire hydrant.

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