As an anthropologist, I’m intellectually familiar with and fully comprehend the concept of reverse culture shock. As a person experiencing it, I just want to crawl into bed with the covers over my head and hide from the world for a while until it subsides or we return to Cuba.
My first real experience feeling bewildered by coming home hit me full on when returning from my first trip to Moscow in 1998. After a mere 9 weeks, landing at JFK was one of the most surreal experiences of my life up to that point. E V E R Y T H I N G felt unfamiliar and odd. Whilst my body was firmly planted in New York and eventually back amongst my things and in my flat in Connecticut, my mind persistently resisted leaving behind my surroundings and new-found friends in Moscow. Any time a question was asked, my response came in Russian (unsurprising perhaps since I hadn’t heard English for the last 3 weeks of that particular trip). Everything which at one time had been automatic in my US-based life became awkward and … difficult.
The unfamiliarity and disconnect subsided, replaced not necessarily by normalcy but passive acceptance that I was cognitively straddling two worlds. When I moved to Moscow the following year for what I assumed was a brief 6-month to 1-year teaching gig, I experienced culture shock upon my return to Russia, largely because I was on my own rather than sheltered and taken care of by a host family; the shock was somehow less pronounced. I continued to straddle my Moscow-based and other life in the US, but the divergence and cognitive dissonance between those worlds seemed less traumatic and … well… shocking.
17 a few years and insert two different worlds and that oddly and unsettling familiar feeling of reverse culture shock has returned. Whilst two different countries feature as home (Finland rather than the US) and home away from home (Cuba vs Moscow), the experience and feelings differ very little.
We returned from our epic journey to the land of rum, cigars, 1950s cars and chanchullo 3 weeks ago today and I’m still experiencing the worst sort of disconnect from life and missing Cuba and, more importantly, Cubans desperately. Finland, which is a relatively comfortable and easy place to live and has become home to us, feels wrong. It is too quiet. There are too many products and options and things from which to choose. And, it’s too clean and organised. Weird, right? (First World Problems, anyone?)
We knew before we left for the airport that our return to ‘civilisation’ and the ‘real world’ would be a slap in the face. How could it not be when we had such an amazing 6 weeks in Fidel’s Cuba? But from the moment we landed in Amsterdam and the experience of navigating Schiphol, once a favourite place for me, to returning to our flat and our life here, I cannot shake that sense that something is misplaced and off about my situation. Or more precisely where I am situated. My surroundings, including my beloved workspace, are somehow not quite right. I wake up each morning utterly confused, having dreamt about various goings on in Helsinki, but all situated and populated by those familiar faces from Cuba we left behind. In some cases, the actual stage is Cuba, but the events and people are all from our life in Finland. It’s maddening really.
This past weekend, the sense of longing for Cuba was so strong that after writing about chicharritas in the morning, I went on a quest to find green plantains and black beans so that we could at least eat Cuban food again, even if it wasn’t prepared by our favourite home cooks.
Perhaps it’s that the weather simply sucks this time of year in Helsinki, particularly this year. Perhaps we’re just missing our friends and family ‘over there’. That’s natural. Perhaps we simply haven’t ever really connected to Finland in the way that we should to properly ‘return’ to it. I know my toes will never prefer being stuffed into boots for 6 months to freely wiggling in the seaside air and burying themselves in the white sand beaches of Cayo Blanco.
For now and until this maddening mental state passes, I shall endeavour to be patient and ride out the reverse culture shock. I have great friends here, I love my students and teaching, I’m surrounded by brilliant colleagues and Finland possesses so many conveniences and a vast array of fresh produce that we truly missed when we were in Cuba. And, we have the internet once again. More importantly, my Cuban is here.
Eventually, my head will catch up with the rest of my body and realise that we are here in Finland. But, my heart remains in Cuba. For now…