Reverse Culture Shock- On returning to the U.S. from Spain

Two things happened to me recently in Madrid where I immediately thought, I thought that only happens in the movies.

1. A bus splashed a large quantity of water here on Gran Via all over my legs and I became soaked and freezing.

2. I showed a 25 year-old British girl my apartment, so I could get my deposit back and move out. One minute after leaving my apartment, she texted a series of 5 texts to me in quick succession, obviously intending to text her friend:

“That was a strange experience.”

“He was a nice guy but super negative.”

“Large room but no sunlight”

“He was basically like I’m glad to be leaving here and these roommates are so loud.”

“He ended up asking me for coffee.”

Within 30 seconds, she blocked me on WhatsApp. I recoiled mentally from the gut punch. This inadvertent disclosure was satisfying though. It was a counter-punch to all the paranoid suspicions I have about people talking behind my back. Finally, someone had just told me directly what they thought of me. Well-mannered people don’ t normally say impolite things like that. They say it behind your back, like refined, upstanding citizens.

I am back on Long Island, New York, now staying at my parent’s house while I let my foot heal and rest. My brother brought his new girlfriend over the other night on his way back from some audition out on Long Island. I wasn’t in the most sociable mood, as I am now just an unemployed person staying at my parent’s house and I’m not proud of it. I feel like I’ve lost my mojo. I’m no longer the cool expat or the world traveler that knows Spanish. My brother and his new girlfriend danced an elegant waltz of parents-meeting-girlfriend-for-first-time. I was the hapless bystander, or the rubber-necker on the highway. I felt small and inconsequential as Joe’s objective was principally leaving a good first impression on my parents.

The new couples’ moves were executed perfectly and my parents said all the right things, besides the two cringeworthy comments from my mom. Only two is actually a relatively tame night for my mom though. Joe’s new girlfriend, Jessica, had a veteran composure and rolled with every punch while remaining cool and collected throughout. Somehow Joe had grabbed the low hanging conversational fruit of a deer that had been roaming on the loose in New York City a few years ago.

“Deblasio (the mayor) of New York City was like, we’re going to have the deer killed because those are the rules and it’s too dangerous. But Cuomo (the governor) was like, no way, that’s my goddamn deer, because you know how they hate each other.” Joe said.

I nodded along and did my best to maintain an interested look.

My anxiety was mounting with every passing minute that I didn’t open my mouth at the dinner table. My jaw became heavier with each elapsing second.

Joe looked my way, “Pete used to have an obsession with roadkill.” He said.

“Great transition Joe. Haha” Jessica said.

“Yeah, when I was 10 years old.” I said.

I became red-faced and blushed and didn’t have the energy to muster any more of a witty retort or defuse his obviously lighthearted jab meant to pull me into the conversation and back down from whatever planet my mind had went to.

It occurred to me 5 minutes later to say Wow, Joe, the stand up comedian, you’re such a great conversationalist, that’s the best you could do to transition over to bring the socially awkward one at the table into the conversation? I am never able to think of a smart comeback at the time. I always think of it later, when I have replayed the situation many times in my head and fantasized about the retort like a desperate loser.

I had only been back for 2 days back and was still recovering from jet lag.

Joe’s nervousness gradually increased throughout the conversation and he was more on edge than he usually is, owing to the obvious evaluation under way of this potential new girlfriend. It gave me some satisfaction to let him squirm and not come into the conversation when he gave me the telepathic cue of You can talk now, I’m trying to show my girlfriend I have a normal family here.

“Well, I have a funny story about Gino’s. We ordered about 40 large pies when Joe was in college and we had his team over here one night.” I listened to my Dad’s story I had heard 20 times before with a practiced expression of intrigue. I felt sluggish. I wasn’t functioning at full capacity, like I had been knifed and was bleeding out under my shirt like Russell Crowe in Gladiator.

I tuned out the loud chatter of the table and my socializing control center went dormant. I tend to do this when I feel overshadowed or overmatched by other people’s confidence in conversations. I thought: I don’t have any identity back home in New York, when I am still in close proximity to my family. I can’t continually recreate myself and test this new self with foreign people every day. I’m back in the same limiting atmosphere of the familiar that I have known my whole life. I need to start plotting my exit to move to San Diego or somewhere next once my foot heals.

We moved to the living room and my mom peppered Joe’s prospective mate with questions. I was suddenly very concerned with tending to the fire as I may as well have been a fly on the wall in this conversation. I decided to just keep my mouth shut after a certain point because I was clearly not the focal point of the night. I retreated into the safe haven of my mind, my old love/hate, hot/cold mistress, that I have fortified like a tornado shelter under a house in Kansas. I listened to them talk and tried to map out what these two were like when I am not around. I noticed how her ambition and singleness of purpose was what complimented Joe’s jolly, yet hardworking demeanor. I thought about my old girlfriend, while I prodded at the smoking embers in the fire. My brother’s new girlfriend’s presence seemed to illuminate the dark crevasse in the back of my mind that I had been ignoring for so long. I thought of the girl I used to date and how I regret saying those mean things to her. I tell myself I won’t be able to find another one like her, but I know this is just my short-sighted scarcity mindset. I redoubled my efforts at focusing on the conversation, but no one was even looking my way at that point.

When I’m around my family I tend to slink reluctantly into the role of the shy guy, and I occasionally have an angry outburst due to the fact that I can never get a word in. This is mainly due to the fact that my sister has the conversational ability to run a nightly talk show, my brother is constantly practicing for his on-stage routine and my mom could be cast in Real Housewives of Long Island. I have become used to letting my brother and sister take the conversational reigns when I am around them. So after an hour in their presence I usually retreat into my head and reminisce about our upbringing and the various ways my dad’s anger and innate feelings of adequacy have warped his life outlook and in turn warped his 3 children’s outlooks. By the outside world’s standards, yes my brother and sister are much better adjusted than I am, but we are all equally affected by the dysfunction of our parents growing up.

I think if I had brought a girlfriend home, Joe would have been engaged her with questions and cracked jokes for the whole night. Sometimes I use this introvert label as an excuse to be a lazy dick, and other times I actually do get overwhelmed and can’t get up the energy for the chatter. The thing is that the line is blurry and sometimes I really just need the solitude to get my head straight.

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