Re-entry Lobotomy: Retraining My Brain

March 11, 2010 31 Comments »

As I drove the car slowly down the road getting used to all of its high-tech gadgets I noticed a truck pulled over on the side of the road. There was no one coming in the oncoming lane, so I swung out to provide the truck ample room as I passed it. For one brief second, my brain told my hand to look for the horn and give a little beep letting the truck know I was passing. Just a friendly gesture so that he didn’t pull out in front of me. In that split second, I thought about the horn, started searching for where it was, and then realized where I was. I was in America; people don’t use their horns to say, “Hey, I’m going around you, just wanted to let you know I’m here.” Instead, the horn would‘ve scared the person in the truck and left them wondering why I was such an asshole for beeping my horn at them when they had done nothing wrong.

I’ve been back in the US for 4 months and each week I still go through some sort of episode like this – where I forget where I am disgusted by television, or dumbfounded in a grocery store. The fact is that even though I only lived in Vietnam for a year, I’ve really been out of a traditional existence in the US for over 3 ½ years. It’s as if I’ve had a lobotomy; American culture is foreign. The images and sounds rattle around in my head trying to find a compartment it belongs in, but the compartment is gone – it packed up and left to make room for chopsticks, motorbikes, and ladies in pointed hats selling produce on the streets.

Since arriving back in the US, I’ve been keeping track of the areas that tend to put me on the brink of mental breakdown. When I encounter these areas, my brain can’t even fathom or understand what I’m seeing/hearing.

This one or this one…or this one? Choices

America – the land of choice. I love my freedom to choose, but when it comes to re-entry, it is overwhelming to the point of paralyzing. Take one step into the wide aisles of an American grocery store and you may be lost for a while; in a sea of choices. In Asia, I was simply happy if I could find a bag of tortilla chips. In America there’s half an aisle dedicated to tortilla chips; corn, white corn, organically grown corn, bite size, restaurant size, scoopable size – is this really necessary? There are 3 different kinds of ground beef, 8 kinds of salsa, 10 kinds of milk, and at least 25 yogurt flavors. Low fat, lite, lactose-free, gluten-free, 80% lean, no fat, no msg, – less is more when it comes to labeling. I wish we could adopt a less is more when it comes to our choices too…but that would be very un-American and would never work in this land of abundance.


I barely watched television for the last 3 ½ years. It was nice to know that I could live without it. When I arrived back I was watching a football game with my parents when the broadcast was interrupted for a special news report. Tiger Woods had been in a car accident. I thought – who cares? Then I was basically forced to watch Tiger Woods’ demise over the next days, weeks, and months to come. He became the most reported news story everywhere you looked. I imagined the news outlets to be piranhas that had been starving for the last month – it was a Tiger Woods feeding frenzy. I guess it’s really the people who are the piranhas though…Americans love this stuff; they can’t get enough. My reaction was still – who cares? Well, apparently Americans care – and so would have I a few years back.

I also noticed talk shows have all morphed into game shows in some way. It’s as if Donahue mated with Price is Right. I mean really, who wouldn’t love Ellen or Oprah – they give away thousands of dollars on their shows to audience members or people who’ve written them letters? Wow – if I could do that on my blog I’m pretty damn sure everyone would love me. Instead, I have to actually work to get people to like me based on my writing, charm, and social skills!

The Speed of America:

Everything here has to be fast. I was in a public restroom at a bookstore and found myself laughing at the hand dryer – the Xcelerator. It dries your hands super fast with a powerful blast of air. I guess you need to dry your hands super fast so that you can keep moving and shopping; slowing down is death in America. Even the mundane things in our lives are supposed to be fast. No wonder why we are all burned out.

One thing I have had a hard time getting used to is the speed of cars. They aren’t necessarily any faster than when I left America, but they are infinitely faster than cars in Vietnam. In Saigon, the average speed of a car or motorbike was about 20 mph. My brain got used to seeing a car or motorbike in the distance and calculating the time I had to maneuver in front of them and still be safe. However, after being nearly run over a few times as I was crossing the street in NYC I realized that I needed to re-train my brain on the speed of American traffic. I’ve been beeped at more than once as I stepped out to cross the street thinking I had enough time to cross, but clearly didn’t as the car was hurdling toward me at 40 mph!

Much to my friend’s disapproval, I still haven’t set up my voicemail in the US because I don’t really understand the need for it any longer. Sure, when I arrived in Vietnam I thought it was strange that no one had voicemail, but eventually that became the norm and now I see no reason for it either. If you want to leave a message, then text me…simple.

These were just some of the things that made my brain hurt upon re-entry – if you want to know how to deal with them then consider reading Lisa Lubin’s list of Re-entry Dos and Don’ts over at Briefcase to Backpack.

However even though these things give me a headache, I have to admit, my favorite thing about leaving America is this re-entry stage upon coming back. There’s no better way to see and understand your culture than by leaving it for a while. Coming back you see the familiar as exotic and the exotic as familiar.

Leave a comment and share your re-entry lobotomy experiences! What things ‘stand out’ to you when you arrive home? How long does it take you to get over the re-entry lobotomy?

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