Reverse Culture Shock - USA Over Consumerism

August 22, 2011

Stuff and over consumerism in USA

Travel changes you, especially long term international travel. Coming home can be perhaps the worst cultural shock. Despite the world recession, the over consumerism of America is mind-blowing. In this photo, we are landing in New York City last year ( having not been home in two years) and this tiny little kiosk at Kennedy Airport had eight different kinds of M & M's! Wow.

It's not that we haven't experienced great luxury on our travels like high tea in London or shopping at Harrod's, the many hypermarkets in Europe or giant malls in Asia or expensive Sydney or Singapore or Bora Bora. We've seen lots of over-consumerism every where, but nobody does it quite like the U.S.A. I get dizzy at just seeing the endless choices in stores. On one hand so familiar ( and comforting not to be in a foreign language), yet also disorienting.

As we head back to the USA for our longest visit in 6 years to connect with family after losing loved ones while traveling, two Dads this past year, ( so staying for a few months this time instead of just 2 weeks as we did the last two times) I am reminded of my favorite, funny George Carlin set about "Stuff" and how much our perspective has changed on what is essential in life:

Just hearing everyone speak English everywhere is a big cultural shock as we often go years without hearing hardly any English except among ourselves. The bigness of everything..from the gigantic washer and dryer in our Santa Cruz beach rental to the several gallons huge Cosco mayonaise jar in my 83 year old mother's refrigerator ...shakes up our consciousness.

We have adapted to our minimalist, green travel lifestyle so own few things and are use to doing lots of walking, biking and using mass transit as well as drying our clothes outside like most Europeans and Asians. Like most Californians, we use to drive ridiculously short distances and pop clothes in the dryer out of habit,  despite over 300 days of sun etc. Now it seems absurd.

Re-reading one of my early posts about the differences between Europe and America makes me smile. I must say, I still agree with Rick Steve's quote:

"Crass materialism and a global perspective don’t mix.”

"Trying to be happy by accumulating possessions is like trying to satisfy hunger by taping sandwiches all over your body." George Carlin

One reason we left was to give our child a different global perspective, so I was pleased when she wrote this speech on her own in her Mandarin school at 10, to see some of it has sunk in. I wonder how the "new economy" will affect the USA and the world. How will it affect our kid's futures? I am an optimist and hope it leads us to better ways and sustainable living that enriches us all.


What do you think? Have you ever had reverse culture shock? As our homecoming approaches ( mid September) , these ae some of the things on my mind. I seem to have more questions than answers. On one hand I am happy Mozart gets to experience the joys of an American life, on another I worry about those influences and how one almost gets brainwashed into thinking one needs so many more things than what one really does.

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Kelly @LifeOptimist

Oh man, I get this all the time! Since my first big solo trip (to Yemen in '97) I realized how bad we are over here (I'm in Canada). Each trip I take reminds me how little I can happily live with and it helps keep me on the straight and narrow of living a materialistic life. I still consume a lot, but I try to stay conscious of it and I go through phases of clearing out all the junk I've accumulated. Thanks for the reminder! You're not the only one who sees it!

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Thanks Kelly, glad to hear your input! One of the things I love about our travel lifestyle is that it keeps us living with little and I find it easier to do outside of North America. ;)


We haven't even started traveling the world yet, and I am constantly amazed at all the junk in the stores. It's mindboggling. I was just thinking along these lines when I went to Rite Aid this morning to pick up a prescription. There was a large display island near the register that was loaded with so much junk and candy and all I could think of is, "90 percent of all the food in the stores is inedible". Imagine how much nicer the store could be if all the unhealthy stuff was replaced with real things that are healthy and essential.

I am saving up to give this a try in a couple years. I enjoy following your adventures for perspective and inspiration.

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Thanks for the kind words Lori! I have to agree with you whole heartedly about "90 percent of all the food in the stores is inedible".


I find I am always a little overwhelmed when I return from working in Greenland. Especially when that involves camping for an extended period of time. When your world is reduced to what you need to make simple food, be clothed against the elements and to sleep... and maybe a good book, it is always strange coming out of that. Especially if you have only been around a few other people for several weeks. It makes one a little ant-social. I call it the tundra madness :) but really I like how it makes me appreciate how little I need to be happy.

Jeanne @soultravelers3

That makes perfect sense to me E! I think it is a wonderful thing to learn just how little one needs to be happy. ;)


I remember after traveling for a year, coming home and trying not to get sucked back in to that whole feeling that I must have something. It's no surprise that America is the way it is - overweight kids, foreclosures etc - the advertising for items here is relentless. Yes, you don't need to buy them but it's insidious! It's tough to balance giving our child a great childhood because we can with teaching them that money doesn't come off the trees and we can't always get what we want! :)

Molly Hyde-Caroom

I will never forget returning to the States after living in Japan for 3 years (we now live in Germany). Everything seemed overwhelming but the choices were the most incredible of all! One day, it took me about a half an hour trying to find a loaf of bread! We had one we liked (organic with all natural ingredients) but I could not find it. I knew it was there because my husband had bought it before. There were so many choices of everything and so much of everything! We definitely experienced the reverse culture shock and I wasn't really expecting it since we were returning "home".
I, too, love your blog and take note of where you go and what you've done. We can't wait to see more of this wonderful world!


Hi Jeanne,
Believe it or not, this looks like the snack aisle in the Carrefour Market in Hangzhou. In Shanghai and Hangzhou, they have the same amount of choices but buy less and walk and bicycle more.
The United States has so many choices but it is up to the individual to control those urges, curb that immediate gratification.
I am sure I will be surprised not to have to hang my clothes outside (and thus wear wrinkled clothes)and use a dryer. I do like that I have to turn off the water heater and all of the electricity in the house before I leave for the day. Happy Traveling, have fun. God Bless the USA!


OMG Have I ever! Two years ago when I set foot in LAX, between the crowds, the high food prices, US politics on TVs all over the airport, and the security people scanning my bags three times because I could not get it right (I was very disoriented), I was in shock. Your right -- nobody does consumerism like the Americans.

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Anne, I so agree with you! We are staying longer this time, so I do have those same fears of getting "sucked in" and can relate so much to your quandary with your child!

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Aw, thanks Molly for your kind words about our blog! I must say I cracked up when I read your comments about the choices as I can so relate! ;)


Very interesting to hear your perspective Jeanne...
Take care

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Catherine that is funny...we run into Carrfour hypermarkets all over France and Europe ( plus similar ones in Asia). As much choice as there is almost everywhere today, I still say that nothing is quite like the USA when it comes to over consumerism, waste and endless choices.

( Sadly, it is also this kind of bad, processed food that is getting the world fatter and less healthy and unsustainable living that must be curbed if we want a healthy planet for our kids).

One sees a ton of choices at all big airports, but this one just had MORE. ;) It's not a hypermarket..just a tiny kiosk...yet a ton of choices.

The sad things about dryers is how much electricity they waste. I've come to really enjoy hanging clothes outside and the fresh smell that gives them. I love the naturalness about it and the slow living charm.

I love a life that has a lot more walking and biking in it as well as time in nature too. ;) I suppose I am old fashion in loving simple things and not a fast food, fast paced life.

God bless America indeed!

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Marlana - ;) thanks! The food prices are really shocking to us because we don't go back often so get to see the inflation at all the old things we use to buy.

After living in Asia as long as you have I can imagine how shocking the prices must be! ;)


THANK YOU FOR THIS. I couldn't agree more. Because we were on a pretty strict budget here in Thailand, and the lack of intense marketing here ( compared to LA, where we lived before), we buy so much less. And when we do, we buy handmade or local. I seriously am ashamed at myself as to how much I felt I 'had' to buy when we lived in the US. I moved from France to America when I was 19, and loved LA, but I quickly picked up the shopaholic meme that perpetuates LA's society. I now marvel at how many pairs of jeans I have. It is sad. But the must-shop meme is so intense in South Korea and even here in Phuket. I blame globalization.

Laura Pardo

Reverse culture shock for sure! We just returned from a 10 month family trip through Europe. I am so disorientated, especially on our California freeways. We have a website too, and seem to have similar taste in templates! Gotta love Macs. I will be keeping up with your site and travels...

Jeanne soultravelers3

Glad you found us Laura and looks like you had a lovely trip! The good news is whether it is culture shock or reverse culture shock, we soon adjust. ;)

Terri Nakamura

Thanks for sending me the link to this blog post.

I've never been away long enough to experience reverse culture shock, so it's hard to imagine!

The important thing is the gift of perspective you've given your child. Following your travels, I don't think it will be possible to view life in quite the same way.

Glad you made it back safely.



Jeanne @soultravelers3

Thanks Terri, I bet it is hard to imagine and kind of strange, huh? Even dollars and American money looks very strange to us, almost like play money because we have been away from it for so long.

We almost never meet Americans, so my daughter thought it was so cool that everyone spoke "American" ...which is quite different than the Queens English that we usually here. It's very odd to here everyone speaking English as we often go years without hearing it at all. ;)

We really have given our daughter a great gift on perspective and how different "normal" looks in different places. ;)

Hugs back!

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