Of culture shock and the space-time continuum

I have, of late, felt that it might be a good idea for the George Bush International Airport to post that immortal line of Dante’s above the entry way to the customs and immigration hallway through which all arriving international passengers must pass: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

I do not mean that the U.S. is hell (though some of our cultural and political practices seem increasingly geared toward making it so for many, and the George Bush International Airport itself has to be something akin to the 9th circle). I mean that crossing borders, legally or otherwise, is sometimes a dark and dangerous business and is always among the most difficult things we strange beasts do with our precious little time on the planet.

I may be hyperbolic, but I think hopelessness seems an apt description of what one feels as the shock of reentry into one’s homeland sets in, and perhaps, what one feels on crossing the border into a foreign land. This comes, I think, less from the change in environment, language, cuisine, etc. and more from the remarkable way that whatever you left, or whatever you’re coming back to, is lost forever (in the former case) or wholly changed (in the latter). This is the nature of time in general. You can’t be the same person from year to year–even from day to day. Your cells have shifted, died, mutated–to say nothing of your personality, your perspective, your age. Places are like us. They just can’t stay the same.

So now that I’ve been back here in the U.S. for a good three weeks, I’m still a little dazed.  Struggling through the purgatory of culture shock has me occasionally blurting out Spanglish words, standing  awe-struck in the aisles of the grocery stores to stare at the outstanding array of fantastically designed potato chip bags, and struggling to remember how to ease off the clutch in my car. I’m feelin’ a little longing for that other place and, well, a little hopeless. That Buenos Aires I left–it’s gone forever. Time and space can be real assholes that way.

To cope with the culture shock, though, and the existential ennui brought on by homeward travel, I luckily have Flamin’ Hot Cheetos cheese puffs. And my car for long coastal drives. And when things get really rough, Spanglish. And, of course, summer. But don’t think I’m not filling up my maté gourd regularly. Or that I’ve ceased to long for all things lost. I just do it in a very American way.  Perhaps a little addendum to Dante would work for the Houston airport: “Abandon all hope ye who enter, but don’t worry too much, we’ve got thrilling snack foods and freeways galore!”

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