Saturday, 26 September 2009

The original article as submitted

Reverse culture shock

by Chris Gelken

The first in a series of personal articles tracking my alleged metamorphosis from a liberal with socialist tendencies; to a conservative nationalist with a hint of xenophobia.

It had been 23 years since I had set foot in my homeland. Twenty-three years that had seen me circle the globe a couple of times, cross the Equator more times than I can remember, and visit more than 40 countries and territories. But never once in that time did my nomadic path take me back to Britain. Great Britain. England. My home.

After expressing surprise at the length of time I had been away, the inevitable question people asked was, “Don’t you miss it?”

“Yes, of course.” A pause. “Well, not so much that you’d really notice.”

The truth was, in some ways I had actually forgotten what there was to miss. I was soon going to be reminded, but in a completely unexpected and unpleasant way.

It wasn’t that I didn’t expect to experience some changes. I had frequently been away from Britain before this 23-year absence. There was the Army, followed by various freelance gigs in Europe. A year and a half in New Zealand, followed by brief visits to Mexico, and the United States. But at some point, and for various lengths of time, I’d always find my way home.

Thinking about it now, though, 23 years would seem rather odd to most people.

Britain was comfortable. It wasn’t a daily live by your wits challenge. No language barrier, no culture gap, and plenty of familiar comfort food. Lose your job? Pick up the dole. Get sick? Go to the doctor; no concerns about medical insurance. No money, nowhere to live? Head down to Social Security, they’ll fix you up.

Nothing grand, you understand, all pretty subsistence level and basic for the most part. But in Britain; no one goes hungry or without a roof over their head.

But I digress. That’s part of the story for another day.

The immigration officer at Heathrow’s Terminal Three met me with smile and a cheerful, “Hello, how was your flight?”

There was a perceptible accent there. Perhaps it was from somewhere in England’s midland counties. I couldn’t immediately place it. But it was immeasurably pleasant to be finally asked for my documents in an accent of English that I could identify with. I was finally home.

There was another, and at the time, totally unremarkable aspect to my homecoming. I say “unremarkable” because that is exactly how it was. Of course I noticed, I am conditioned to “notice” things. That’s my job. But the only reaction I remember feeling was a spontaneous comparison to a previous encounter at an immigration counter a few years earlier.

I mention it only because it has - or at least may have in the perception of some readers - a bearing on what happens later. And the person I have allegedly become.

The last time, as I remembered, that I had come face-to-face with an immigration official wearing a traditional Muslim hejab was at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini Airport. And the reception there had been a rather unwelcoming demand, delivered in a tone that was obviously used to giving orders, and of being obeyed. “Passport!” Significantly, there was no “Please.”

My return to Britain wasn’t really a planned affair. A few weeks previously I’d received the devastating news that one of my brothers was seriously ill. It was terminal, and time was short.

My wife and I made the necessary arrangements and flew back to Britain from our home in Beijing. We’d hoped to spend a few weeks with my brother and his family, but as things turned out, we were about half a day too late.

Another story for another day.

Fast-forward two weeks, to the evening before my wife and I headed back to China. Catching up with old friends and former colleagues in London’s West End. That too didn’t turn out quite as I’d expected.

Clutching my lapel and dragging my face close enough to smell the beer and cigarettes on his breath, a friend hissed, “You’ve changed! You’re no bloody socialist or f***** liberal. You know what you are don’t you?”

“No,” I said, surprised at the vehemence in his voice, “but I am sure you are going to tell me.”

He let go of my jacket with enough emphasis to make it feel like a push. “I don’t know you anymore.”

Walking unsteadily back toward the bar he said over his shoulder, “You’re a bloody raging nationalist with a chip on your shoulder. You should be careful.”

In times gone by we had sat long into the night sharing a bottle and resolving all the world’s ills. Sure, we’d often differ, but never significantly enough to resort to hostility or name-calling.

I was different. I won’t deny it. Circumstances had seen to that. But I hadn’t changed in myself, not fundamentally. At that moment I just didn’t have the words to express what I was feeling, what I was going through. I was in shock.

Culture shock. Or more accurately, reverse culture shock.

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