Walmart is Terrifying! – Notes on Reverse Culture Shock

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: A Series of Posts our Family's Repatriation ExperienceHere’s another post written during the first few weeks of our return to the US in the fall of 2014.

One of the things that scares me the most about returning to America after four years in Germany is the dreadful reverse culture shock. It’s nasty, sometimes hard to identify, and manifests itself differently in each person.

The last time I went through reverse culture shock, it wasn’t so bad. I was in my early twenties and had spent the better part of a year in Russia. I was single, and I only experienced a few weeks of floundering before I had to buck up and finish my last semester of university. I’m sure it was worse than I remember, but I moved on quickly.

This time around I have four other people to think about besides myself and none of them has the slightest idea of what lies ahead.

So far, Charlie hasn’t noticed a thing except that there is an abundance of snacks here ranging from slightly salty to serious sugar high. He hasn’t met one he didn’t like. Obviously, he’ll be fine.

Bravo is distracted by all the big-kid Lego he now owns. We had been saving the transition from Duplo to Lego to hype as a major perk of moving to America. Now that we’ve made the switch, he likely thinks we’re on a continuous Lego shopping trip which is a win in his book. He’ll also be fine.

Alpha is not happy with all the homeschooling we are doing (to catch up on taking a few months off to pack and move). He thinks it strange when I refer to everyday items and places using German names (Spielplatz instead of “playground”). German is NOT cool in his book. But other than that, he appears to be fine.

Perhaps things with these three boys will get worse when we actually settle somewhere and they have to integrate into school, church, sports, clubs, neighborhood friends, etc.

Update, September 2015: No ill effects other than disdain for speaking German in the US. Apparently, Germany never happened in their minds except when random memories pop up. They don’t express any emotions at these memories; only facts are stated.

As for Doc Sci and I… oh sure, we smile and share a box of Cheez-Its, but inside? We are freaking out.

I strive to play the good American. I hop in my car, drive the one mile to Walmart, and do my best to “pick up a few things.”

At the superstore, I go inside for milk, cookies (because, you know, the Oreo aisle), and a piece of poster board.

Several hours later, I emerge.. My bags are laden with three kinds of cookies, two peanut butter candy bars, hummus, pita chips, four boxes of cereal, one piece of poster board, and the latest anti-aging moisturizer because this move is giving me wrinkles… but, no milk.

Crappity crap. Cookies without milk.

I’m too terrified to go back in that freaky big box again, so I just leave and go home minus milk for the cookie smorgasbord.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Walmart is Terrifying! And Other Notes on Reverse Culture Shock

Walmart.. once you go in, you may never get out. Photo

I found this article browsing through an old issue of Cooking Light that just happens to be a perfect picture of the American grocery store experience.

Spend two hours in a big supermarket, not shopping, just studying the food and customers, trying to take every bit of it in, trying to receive fresh clues about an everyday activity.

 

Ninety minutes in, you may find yourself having an out-of-body experience, as if wandering the aisles with Timothy Leary’s ghost. Such is the hallucinatory effect when you open your mind to all the brands, claims, data, memes, and pop culture icons that crowd shelves and packages, hooting and hollering for attention.

 

There are as many as 40,000 products in a supermarket, just one of which, if you stop to study it, is a cereal that offers nine health-related bits of information on the front of the box and 134 bits of information about nutrition and ingredients overall.

 

Now that you’re in the cereal aisle, walk its length. There are 28 paces of product, five shelves high: a staggering number of variations on the single theme of something crunchy to pour milk over.

 

Of 137 cereal products, about 93 look to be sugary. But there are also sugar-free cereals, low-added-sugar products, “natural” products, and products containing urgent amounts of fiber… (full text here)

If I could sum up our current state in one word, it would be overload.

For someone who is used to shopping at a grocery store that is approximately the size of two, three-bedroom American homes put together, the sheer size of Walmart is the first hurdle.

The second is the vast amount of choice. My German neighborhood Aldi stocked four kinds of chips. FOUR. How do you pick between the 6,902 varieties here? Either you are required to take the time to read every.single.label to check for hidden chemicals and unwanted ingredients or you are forced to not care.

And speaking of reading labels, I had forgotten how long ingredient lists are in the US. Friday night dinners in our house are usually fun, lazy cooking kid-friendly affairs.

In Germany, I would often pick up frozen chicken strips and oven-bake fries to serve with a quick salad. The chicken strips were composed of chicken (as in actual pieces, not that weird pink puree), flour, spices, salt, and maybe some broth. Less than 8 ingredients and nothing I couldn’t pronounce, even auf Deutsch.

And those fries? Potatoes, sunflower oil, salt. Nothing hydrogenated or hydrolyzed.

Short, straightforward ingredient lists are scarce in a vast majority of American food products. Here’s another snippet from the Cooking Light article I quoted above…

Keep walking and watching—all aisles… Sugar, fat, and salt, the three sirens of the American diet, still seem front-loaded in so many products.

 

A “light” 3-ounce snack pack intended for one child contains 77 ingredients, 17 grams of fat, 7 grams of saturated fat, 1 gram of trans fat, and 620 milligrams of sodium.

 

Mark Bittman, crusading New York Times columnist and cookbook author, would say that a lot of this food is not even “real,” inasmuch as he finds it not “recognizable by appearance or flavor as what it was when it started.”

 

Little cans of propellent-powered cheese spread insist that they are, however, “made of real cheese!” (full text here)

Thankfully, it’s not all bad news. I’ve been encouraged to see so many American brands rolling out product lines with a “simple” theme featuring fewer ingredients and no artificial chemicals. It’s just so dang difficult to find them in the sea of 40,000 products all vying for your attention and money.

So, while my kids are loving the free-flowing Goldfish crackers and I’m enjoying a cold glass of dark chocolate almond milk, I have to admit I’m straddling the line… the line that separates the “food is better for you Germany” from “but choice is what makes America awesome.”

I miss my little Aldi with it’s limited choice. Though, if I dig down deep, I have to admit I don’t miss it enough to say it was better or that I wish I could go back to shopping there every week.

Yes, there’s still a teeny part of me – my residual “Americanness” – that enjoys a smattering of choice and the convenience of being able to get almost any product at nearly any time, day or night. But this unmitigated freedom and overabundance of choice leaves me exhausted.

What I really crave is the simplicity that comes out of choosing from only a few products that are truly made well.

I know it’s only a matter of time before I fully jump the fence on to the American side – joining Costco and buying my toilet paper in 100-roll packs. But, for now, we’re stuck in the overwhelmed stage of culture shock… eating our way out one Cheez-It at a time.

Since writing this post, I have (ahem) joined Costco. The plethora of choice still paralyzes me at times, such as when I visit a new restaurant that offers too many options on the menu. I still find myself lost at Walmart and end up leaving with things I don’t need and without the things I do.

So, what do you think about the abundance of choice in the US? Love it? Hate it? Do you get overwhelmed with too many options or frustrated with too few?Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

5 thoughts on “Walmart is Terrifying! – Notes on Reverse Culture Shock

  1. I hate it when I am there and miss it when I am gone. Just the ease at which you can find what one needs in the states makes me miss costco and target and such. I love that there are so many organic options in California (Whole Foods Market was my jam!), here in Thailand it is incredibly hard to find organic and non-GMO is almost impossible. But I do what I can…
    I do love costco though… All those yummy things in bulk, and the organic section they have is awesome!

    • Is the food in Thailand often GMO? I discovered that most of the zucchini in the US is GMO, but in Europe it is not. Yes, Costco really does have awesome prices for organic, and especially organic produce. It’s definitely why I bit the bullet🙂. I agree that you wish you have it when you’re not in the US, but when you get here, it’s just TOO MUCH choice.

  2. Pingback: Expats Move Home: Is Getting Groceries Easier in America? | Thrifty Travel Mama

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