Reverse Culture Shock and the Bum Gun
*I wrote this upon returning home from traveling last summer and recently found it on my computer.*
Culture shock. Everyone has heard the term, world traveler or agorophobe. When you travel to somewhere new and you are unaccustomed to the behaviors, lifestyle, and nuances of everyday life in a new location you’re sure to experience some surprises and discomfort.
But what about reverse culture shock. I like to use this term to refer to returning to your native land after being away for an extended period of time. And in my personal experience reverse culture shock has surprisingly been more powerful and persistent than dealing with that which is new.
I’m not dealing with anything new back here in the United States. After traveling around for 2.5 years there are a few new models of the iPhone out and people take Ubers instead of taxis. But overall life is the same as it ever was.
It is me who has changed, especially my perceptions. When I initially traveled to India I was astonished and a bit appalled at the expectation to use a squat toilet. ‘How unsophisticated is this society that they haven’t even adopted toilets?’ I thought. ‘And no toilet paper!?! Are you serious? I’m expected to wipe with my hand or spray my ass?‘ Talk about quite a shocking realization.
But then I became accustomed to using a squat toilet, and a bum gun. (The bum gun is the spray hose in the bathroom for cleaning. Depending on the pressure it can range from a slow trickle bum gun to a firehose power ass-blaster.) Walking through the airport at JFK in New York I went into the bathroom lined with stalls and equipped with porcelain toilets and an abundance of toilet paper and paper towels. I took care of my business and reached to the right, expectantly grabbing for the bum gun. It wasn’t there.
Instead of feeling a sense of comfort of having the amenities of a Western toilet I found myself shocked at the impracticality of it all. Surely toilet paper gets the job done and toilets are comfortable. Is it more hygenic to spray yourself with water for a few seconds or to take a thin strip of paper and wipe yourself multiple times? And how much paper do we waste each day, literally ‘flushing it down the toilet’? All of a sudden I was questioning some of the most basic aspects of life in western society that I had always taken for granted.
Why is it that we do the things we do? Is it because of indoctrination, the media, or because we just don’t know or care about alternatives? Sitting on a toilet is in no way superior to squatting to poo. In fact it is much healthier for the human body to use a squat toilet, replicating the natural way our ancestors engaged in elimination and aligning with how human anatomy works. Yet I implore you to think of one household or establishment that uses a squat toilet. If there is no porcelain with a handle somewhere in the room, then we don’t consider it a bathroom. How is it that something that has been shown to be superior for our health isn’t utilized anywhere? Instead it is considered uncivilized. The thought alone of using a squat toilet is literally enough reason to prevent some people from traveling to Asia.
The most shocking part about living in Asia was the poverty. People without shoes, without electricity, clean water, and three meals a day, let alone a new car or smart watch. It is impossible to experience this extreme poverty firsthand and not feel empathetic. These people had no possessions. Yet they were not tied down by any possessions that they feared losing and more often than not had smiles on their faces. They weren’t dependent on anything to make them feel happy other than the company of their neighbors.
Similarly one of the most shocking parts about returning to the West was the extreme excess. People flaunting their wealth, their shiny new rims and designer hand bags. A man sitting on a park bench with a supersized value meal, throwing half of his unfinished food in a trash bin and dozing off into a post feast coma. Meanwhile a panhandler on the street is being scorned by people passing by either too involved in their phones to notice or casting him degrading looks that seem to shout ‘Why don’t you get a job?” To see this materialism made me aware of the pervasive apathetic nature prevalent in western society. We seem to focus on the next gadget that is guaranteed to improve our lives, yet ignore our capacity to improve the lives of others.
The next time you find yourself yearning for the new iPhone to come out, think about that homeless man or woman yearning for a hot meal. You can’t make Apple release it any faster, but you can offer someone less fortunate a meal, a kind word, or a smile. And that will probably give you more satisfaction than anything material ever could.