Piles of fruit in Malindi, Kenya.

I’ve always scoffed at the concept of culture shock.

I go somewhere; there I am. Okay. I go back to the U.S. There I am. Great.

Depending on where you go, toilets smell worse or better. Water is more or less potable. People stare openly, or pretend not to. Buses leave on time, or they don’t. I could go on and on. Yes, everywhere is different–sometimes exceptionally so. Still, I maintain: What’s the big deal?

We may be creatures of habit, but we’re also highly adaptable. This is, in my opinion, one of humankind’s greatest assets.

Meetings and discussions to prepare for “reentry” (offered by any self-respecting study abroad program) struck me as mildly ridiculous. “You might be overwhelmed at the supermarket… blah, blah blah…”

How could anything top the embodied chaos that are foreign marketplaces? Food shopping in Kilifi replaces my exercise for the day as I lug bags of fresh produce through narrow, narrow lanes between food stalls. Attempting to haggle in my limited (though growing) Swahili, I am rewarded by an incomprehensible verbal assault from the usually serene, matronly mango vendor. Dust and flies and sweat hold court in a small room filled with giant sacks of grain.

Shopping, much to my delight, is an adventure in other parts of the world. And I’m supposed to be overwhelmed by an American supermarket?

Street food in Shanghai.

Now. Here I am in Southfield, Michigan to visit my grandmother. (Sorry to everyone everywhere else in the U.S., I’m here for four days and then I’m flying back to Kenya. I’ll catch you next time.) I arrived yesterday to the shoddy basement International Arrivals hall of Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport. I used a payphone to call my Uncle (When’s the last time I used a payphone?!) and, as has become our routine, we stopped at Plum Market to buy groceries on the way to my grandmother’s house, her fridge being very full of a very limited variety of foods.

Now. I will happily eat my own words if you would be so kind as to serve them to me, because I was, indeed, overwhelmed.

I thought I could get pretty much anything at Nakumatt or Tuskys–two Kenyan supermarkets boasting aisles of imported foods.

Market in Barcelona.

I was wrong.

This supermarket truly had everything

An entire aisle devoted to bottled juices, smoothies, kombucha and specialty water of dubious benefits.

Floor-to-ceiling (almost ceiling, anways) choices of canned beans and bagged chips.

Another whole aisle of cheese. Cheese! I missed cheese much more than I realized. As I stood frozen before the bright display of savory abundance, a man came over to ask if I needed help finding anything. I replied that I was simply overwhelmed by choice.

He smiled knowingly, but he didn’t know.

Produce three times larger than what I am now accustomed to teetered at eye level. Onions bigger than baseballs and elephant garlic of the same proportions. Fat eggplant and butternut squash, and apples to feed giants. And these were, supposedly, the organically grown foods!

How many brands of pasta could there be in one place? I grabbed the first pack in sight, worried that if I stopped to examine my options I would be standing there for an hour.

And let me not start about prices, because when you live someplace where just about everything seems to cost fifty cents or less, a dollar for a lime is obscene.

One-stop (one-person?) shopping in Nepal.

I love to go food shopping. I love to take my time selecting produce and comparing options. I love to wander through piles of promises–ingredients waiting to become meals–anywhere I go.

But yesterday, for the first time, I understood how a simple supermarket could be overwhelming–the lights too bright; the prices too high; the air too cool; the clientele too calm; the selection too bewilderingly massive.

I rushed through my list, knowing that if I took the time I wanted to look at everything I would be there until nightfall. Such an overabundance of everything! I was–almost, but not really–in shock.

I still feel culture shock is too strong to describe my experience. Shock is a sudden death or a push from behind. Shock leaves you paralyzed… I’m still functioning, breathing and standing on two feet. I’m just a few hairs shy of indifferent.

How about “culture pinch,” that slight twinge of strangeness we experience when we show up someplace new, or return somewhere that used to be familiar but now doesn’t quite fit. Or “culture” bewilderment,” when we’re just kind of confused, but dealing with it all the same. Or, better yet, “culture wonder,” when everything inspires a mild form of awe with few symptoms beyond wide eyes.

(Any other “culture shock” alternatives to offer? I’m all ears!)

I’m starting to think that all of those lectures on culture shock and “reentry” shock weren’t wrong; they were just exaggerated and alarmist. So extreme were the warnings that I could never take them seriously. This isn’t an illness we need to carefully monitor and shield against. It’s not a disease that will lay us up in bed for months. But it’s not entirely delusional, either.

I suspect that we (I) could learn a lot about ourselves (myself) by paying attention to when we feel uncomfortable, overwhelmed or bewildered, and why.

Food for thought.

Vermont summer blueberries. Now there’s another thing I miss.

More importantly though, cheese! So much cheese.