10 August 2015

why i cried while trying to buy almonds.

Ashley and I just returned to Mwanza after visiting the United States for the first time since we moved to Tanzania more than one and a half years ago. It was a wonderful trip seeing family and experiencing a taste of home sweet home once again.

But it was also pretty weird to be back.

Life in Tanzania is a 180 degree turn from life in the U.S. and we found our senses overwhelmed.

Living in Tanzania has afforded us new perspective on many things. As a result, we went back to the United States with different eyes compared to when we had left.

Here is a look at ten things I learned during our two-week trip to the United States that I otherwise would never have considered had Ashley and I not moved to Tanzania.

1. Suburban U.S.A is like Walt Disney World.

I cannot forget the feeling. Ashley and I had arrived in Lino Lakes, MN. It was our first day back in the United States and we were walking through the suburban neighborhood with the family. And it was seriously weird. Coming from Mwanza, Tanzania, everything about the area seemed too perfect. Every lawn was too green and freshly cut with the perfect diagonal pattern. Every bush, hedge and tree was perfectly pruned. Every house exterior was perfectly painted and clean. The streets were free of motor vehicles, free of trash, free of people - just free of any kind of clutter. It felt like I was suddenly living The Truman Show.

2. All of the people are inside.

This connects with the walk I mentioned in point #1 above. We didn't see any people. Not one. It was a ghost town. No other people walking on the street. No kids playing in the yard. Nothing. This was especially shocking coming from Mwanza where all of the locals are outside all of the time. Cooking? Do that outside. Washing the clothes? Once again outside. Chatting with neighbors? You bet. All of this contributes to a lot of visible and audible action (and chaos) all of the time. Not so in the U.S. Perhaps the kids are playing video games or gawking at their smartphones on the living room sofa. Or maybe everyone is just enjoying the air-conditioning. Speaking of which...

3. Surprisingly peaceful and quiet.

This likely ties back to point #2 above, but regardless, it was so refreshing to be surrounded by peace and quiet. For the first time in fo'eva we didn't have to put in our ear plugs at night. I recall one morning I sat out on the front porch in the shade reading a nice book with not a sound save for that of the perfect light breeze. It was amazing. Certainly there are busy, loud and chaotic places in the U.S., but compared to the shaghala baghala of Mwanza, suburban U.S.A is real retreat.

late afternoon sun over little jessie lake in deer river, minnesota.

4. Americans seriously overuse air-conditioning. 

Any visit to Minnesota includes one if not several stops at the local Super Target. (As a side note, the freshly baked Archer Farms chocolate chip muffins are amazing!) Ashley and I were wandering the aisles stocking up on some supplies to bring back to Tanzania, when my heart stopped beating and my toes froze off. Honestly I couldn't feel my face. We were both SO cold. Now I realize that living in Texas for five years and the tropics for another year and a half can make your blood thin out or something, but that store was just too cold. And it went on like that everywhere we went in the U.S. Absolutely freezing indoors.

5. Garbage bins are everywhere. 

On one hand you could say that in Mwanza, Tanzania garbage cans are also everywhere. Actually the entire city is kind of like a garbage can. Riding the bus and finish your soda? Chuck the bottle out the window while the bus screams down the road. Taking the trash out of your home? Just throw it on the ground, and if courteous, light it on fire. But not so in the U.S. It does not matter where you are walking and what you need to dispose of, there's a garbage can for that. Being so fresh and so clean is nice.

6. Too many options in stores.

I know that the word "America" is synonymous with consumerism, but I didn't realize how overwhelming it could be to look for shampoo or almonds until our recent return to the United States. Let's just say that in Mwanza finding what you want is a privilege, not a right. Finding multiple versions, styles, colors, sizes, price points, etc. of that thing you want is simply out of the question. Just buy it and run before it's out of stock for the next half century. Not so in the U.S. There are two entire aisles of just shampoo. An entire half aisle of almonds: original, roasted, roasted salted, roasted lightly salted, almonds with sea salt, resealable bags of almonds, resealable buckets of almonds, etc. It was nuts! Get it? Okay that joke made me sad. But you know what's sadder? Seeing me lying in the fetal position in the nuts and snacks aisle weeping because I don't know how to make a simple food selection anymore.

7. Lots of beautiful public spaces to enjoy the outdoors.

Most days while visiting the U.S. we'd wake up and go for a nice long walk with the family. (Or at least those members who wake before 11 AM!) And each day we'd explore an entirely new walking path. I cannot tell you how much we appreciated a proper, well-manicured public space for exercising, something completely absent from Mwanza. It's quite sad too given we live on gorgeous Lake Victoria, the world's second largest freshwater lake, yet we seldom get to see it because there are hardly any public access points and not a single path to walk even remotely close it. Oh, and while the lake would be nice to look it, don't even think about going for a swim - Lake Victoria is diseased.

sunset over fawn lake in naperville, illinois.

8. Americans like big cars.

There are plenty of trucks in Tanzania. It's pretty much necessary to have a high clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle to safely pass all roads during all times of year. But why are there so many enormous 4X4 trucks and SUVs in the United States where nearly every mile of road is paved and easily passable? I mean I suppose some people actually have to haul stuff, but I don't know. I suppose it's not limited to Texas - everything is just bigger in the United States.

9. You don't have to urinate on the side of the road.

Much like garbage cans, public restrooms are everywhere in the U.S., and thanks be to God for that! In Mwanza, there are basically none. If you are out and about, your only option is to sneak into one of the nicer hotels to use their facilities. Otherwise, you can do what I do and hold it, or you can do as the Tanzanians do and urinate wherever you please. Now this is mostly men, but I have seen women squat down and wrap a fabric around their body for privacy. When in Rome...

10. I am invisible. 

I got a taste of this during our trip to Europe earlier this summer, and it was honestly delightful. In Tanzania, Ashley and I really stand out wherever we go, and this means we get lots of staring and yelling from locals, and it can really wear you out. But in the United States, no one even cares I am there. While that may sound sad, for me it was the best thing. I relished the ability to walk outside and down the street without anyone staring or yelling at me. It brought about a lot of peace I needed and the chance to recharge before heading back to Tanzania.

For those of you who have also spent considerable time outside of the United States, let me know in the comments section below if you have anything to add to the list.


  1. Having just returned from a visit to the US (after about the same time), I find your comments are very relate-able. Not sure what more I would add except that it is very disorienting being back home after so long and it's important for the people around us to realize that reverse culture-shock is real!

    1. Thanks Hady! It was one of those experiences where it was so nice yet so strange all at the same time. Everything was on one hand so familiar, yet on the other very out of the ordinary.

  2. Fun list! Number 1 made my jaw drop... because that is exactly how a Hungarian student of mine described the U.S. He would go to the U.S. for trainings for his work (for HP) and enjoyed visiting the amusement parks here. And as we were chatting about amusement parks, out of nowhere he bluntly stated, "This is how all of the U.S. is for me." And when I looked confused, he went on, "Shiny, colorful, everything bright and perfect. Just like at the amusement park - everything in the U.S. looks like this." And then it occurred to me that Eastern Europe had always seemed kind of, well, drab to me, and I thought, "So this is the flip-side."

    The problem comes in when the bright/clean/new look becomes mandatory. So, any historic building that doesn't look bright/clean/new, and seems like too much trouble to make that way, gets torn down. Cities (especially suburbs) are zoned such that everything must have a certain amount of landscaped green space, often with lists of recommended plants, and must fit into a certain size. If your lawn or your car aren't bright/clean/new, you get letters from the HOA and looks from your neighbors. If your clothing isn't bright/clean/new, you're socially marginalized in school. And if YOU don't look bright/clean/new, well, find a good surgeon.

    Anyway.... to add to the list: People are friendly here. This is more coming back from Europe maybe than from Africa. But strangers strike up conversations, and the customer is king in businesses. This is something to be proud of, I think, although again, I have no idea how Africa is.

    Another thing, this more negative: people really toss money around here. Even people who aren't doing well financially are just conditioned by life here to be more careless with money, it seems to me. When you get a bill somewhere, you're not supposed to scrutinize it too much. Just swipe the card, everything's cool. I was once at a pizza party and people weren't sure how to divide up the bill, and someone just said, "How about everyone just puts in $20?" And everyone was like "Yeah, that works," and starts tossing in $20 bills. And I'm thinking to myself, the breakdown based on the total can't be more than $12 per person, including tax and tip. But hey, just go along. Keep things smooth.

    1. That's really interesting that your Hungarian friend described the U.S. the same way. I had certainly never looked at it like that before. Tanzania is a very relational society so stopping to chat with complete strangers is normal and expected. However, in contrast, the customer is not king in Tanzania. In fact most of the time it seems that the customer is a bother to the seller, which does not make any sense to me. Others have said this, including locals, so I'm not the only who has noticed it. I often talk about this in the business seminars I facilitate with the young mothers I work with.

  3. I lived near Arusha TZ for almost two years and I can relate to most of this. The UK is not quite as super shiny as the US but I do remember bring baffled by the supermarket choices and the wide well maintained roads on a list home for Christmas.

    I don't miss being so conspicuous - having "Mzungu!" Shouted at you when you go shopping at the markets (I used to call "Mwafrika!" back which bat least got a giggle) but I do miss having the long greetings when talking to people and friendly no passers by.

    1. I've done the "Mwafrika" shout myself many times. Never seems to make me feel any better about being called "Mzungu." I feel the same way about the greetings - Tanzania is such a relational society and it's really beautiful to see how happy they are to talk with another person. When we were back in the United States we commented on how everyone is just in their own world or most likely on their smartphones not talking to anyone else.


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