PEOPLE WHO VOYAGE to other parts of the world speak often of culture shock; that is, feeling disoriented and ill at ease due to exposure to alien culture. When they return after time away, they speak of reverse culture-shock — the perhaps even more unsettling feeling of being alien in one’s own native culture after having gotten used to a foreign one.
I am currently experiencing something similar. I have just returned from four months in the woods — for three months, I planted trees with 50 other people in the forests and clear-cuts of northern Alberta, and for one month, I paddled down the Yukon River with one other person. Both the Yukon Territory and northern Alberta are remote and sparsely populated, and because it is people who create culture, these places can be said to be somewhat devoid of it. Upon returning to civilization, then, I am not dealing with reverse culture-shock — I am dealing with reverse culture-void shock.
I’ve had many friends who spend large chunks of their time in the world’s desolate places — as researchers in the Arctic, as wilderness medics, as bush pilots — and this phenomenon is one we all experience (and seemingly never tire of talking about). Here are five signs of the catchy-sounding RC-VS.
1. Difficulties with personal appearance
This is perhaps initially the most striking aspect of returning to civilization. For four months, I wore this outfit: very torn polypro leggings, a flannel shirt that had belonged to my father in the ’70s, a fleece that had seen better decades, wool socks, and massive steel-toed work boots. I woke up every morning at six and put it on. It got washed rarely. I got washed rarely. Most people got washed even more rarely than I got washed. On Fancy Dress Night, I put on a faded and hole-ridden skirt and attempted to brush out my hair, and the boys mentioned how nice I looked.
After four months of this, I visited my parents at their home in Washington, D.C. I received a lecture about appearance, scruffiness, and dirtiness, as well as the merits of clothing without holes in it. It was quite mean. It was also correct. Hot showers are nice, and I am not in the woods anymore.
2. Difficulties with personal expression
There is no pretense in the bush. My job is one with serious responsibilities and an inflexible hierarchy, but workplace niceties are notably absent — telling it like it is is the order of the day. My foreman, a man with superhuman organizational skills and a degree in Human Resources, clearly entirely at ease in the civilized workplace, sometimes held bleary-eyed morning meetings that went somewhere along the lines of: “I am not fucking dealing with your bullshit if you fuck up your tree-quality today.” Guillaume, a sharp-tongued tattooed Quebecois, would regularly provide us with French-accented updates on the distressing state of his bowels. (Despite or perhaps because of this, he was very much beloved by all of us.) My planting partner and I would get into intense philosophical debates in the middle of the forest with virtually no preamble.
There were people who screamed inconceivable vulgarities in the middle of the forest all day; there were genius physicists who would voice out loud their inner monologue for hours on end; both of these were seen as lovable quirks. Later, when I was paddling with one other person down the desolately beautiful Yukon River, I noticed I had gotten into the habit of voicing half-sentence non-sequiturs aloud, involuntarily. Back in Montreal, making small talk at the parties of acquaintances is proving a bit of a challenge.
In the bush, the books we traded amongst each other and the conversations we had and the guitars we plucked at night were our source of culture. I got to know my truck driver’s half-broken iPod to the point where I could probably recite the artist list in my sleep. In the Yukon, for lack of anything else to read, I read Tolkien’s Two Towers and the Dawson City tourist guide twice, cover to cover.
Now, back in civilization, I find the sensory stimuli overwhelming. There is the pervasive presence of the internet — if I so choose, I can scroll Beyoncé’s Twitter for hours on end, vacant-eyed. There are inhumanly beautiful airbrushed faces everywhere, advertising the pressing need for a new watch / shoes/ lace panty set. Via the Metro’s HD screens, I am updated on Brad and Angelina, on the Jersey Shore, on the doings of British soccer players. As a result, I am having a hard time having linear thoughts.
4. Absence of physical pressures
Sometimes in the bush, it snows in June and you get a stomach virus and ten boys watch you projectile vomit out the door of a two-tonne truck (and then comment on the colour of your vomit). Sometimes it is 35 degrees centigrade outside and difficult to move. In the bush, we think of food solely as fuel — I carry ziplock bags of bacon in my back pocket and eat them when I’m feeling protein-deficient. In the Yukon, we ate something called Knorr Sidekicks ($1.43 MSG-laden pasta goodness) every night, and debating over flavours (Honey Garlic or Singapore Curry?) was a daily ritual. In the bush, we are almost always in some way slightly (or very) uncomfortable, or sore, or wet.
Despite all of this, this is not an especially difficult or extreme experience — I am no Amundsen, and I had been largely sedentary in the month preceding departure to the bush. Ordinary people adapt with ease to life outside the controlled environment of Western civilization, as well they should — after all, people dealt with the rawness of their environment for millennia, and in most of the world, they still do.
Back in Montreal, I am very much enjoying my down quilt and hardwood floors, espresso, the cheap Vietnamese chicken sandwiches down the street, and the fact that I have no need for physical exertion if I don’t choose to physically exert myself. However, I’m also experiencing the attendant greater sensitivity to discomfort — I now notice if I’m a bit cold, a bit hungry, or a bit tired. In other words, just as quickly as I adapted to the bush, I am regressing to comfortable softness.
5. The inability to pee wherever and whenever one wants
A much-discussed phenomenon among the girls on my crew, this is a surprisingly major drawback to returning to civilization.