Culture Shock


Hoarding: Buried Alive. This is a new reality television series I just saw advertised on TLC (don’t get me started on how much TV I’ve seen in the last 6 days after almost six years without any).

Here’s a “sneak peek”:

Yup. It’s about people who have a serious problem hoarding loads, piles, mountains of….crap….in their houses. To the point that it interferes in their lives, erodes their personal relationships, classifies them as a new brand of freak – like the cat ladies of consumerism.

Here’s another clip about a hoarder’s “seperation anxiety”, but first consider this bit of wisdom from the Xenophone’s Guide to the Americans:

The dark side of American cheerfulness is the undercurrent of insecurity and depression that drives much of the country’s commerce and nearly all of it’s psychiatry. Underneath their grins, Americans are deeply fearful, pessimistic and unhappy. They’re afraid that after working so hard, someone -whether the government through taxes or a thief through force – will take the things they value away from them. [emphasis mine]

Now keep that in mind while you watch this:

Where else but in the U.S. could there be an epidemic of people burying themselves in all the useless crap they’ve bought and don’t need?

Side note: this reminds me of a chapter in Italo Calvino’s poetic book about imaginary metropolises, Invisible Cities. In one such imagined place, called Leonia, the citizenry buy everything new everyday, and create a wall around itself with its ever-growing supply of garbage.

When I saw this Hoarding commercial, the subject itself, and our implicit promotion of that subject by making into a show, seemed like a poetic statement about this nation and it’s values. Not only the obsession with possession striking, but the irrational and crippling fear, and these individuals’ seeming helplessness in the face of a very easily solved problem.

I mean really, just throw it away. Give it away. Sell it. Recycle it. Donate it.

Only a sickness propogated on a mass, societal level could lead people to such irrational behaviour.

We’ve made possession the certerpiece of life to the point that some people feel that any loss of possession is actually damaging to their quality of life, when really they’re just drowning themselves.

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Culture shock has most certainly been a part of this, my first, full week back in the U.S.. Six years away can’t take the American (Californian if you want to be picky) out of me, but it can certainly make my compatriots seem curious, weird, and sometimes downright freakish. There have been moments of “man, I am never going to feel right ever again” in the last few days.

I’d love to get my hands on a copy of a Bill Bryson book I read many years ago, I’m A Stranger Here Myself. The title says it all – he wrote it upon returning to the States after 20 years of living in Britain. I feel he would understand.

However, I couldn’t find that particular book before coming back. What I did find was a fairly good substitute. On the bar at J&J’s Books and Coffee, for the bargain basement price of €1.50 and weighing in at a baggage-allowance-friendly 64 pages I found, as if by divine intention, Xenophone’s Guide to the Americans.

I have since discovered that this is a whole series – and they are full of wisdom. I find them a comfort in decoding my own, long-estranged people.

I find the cover illustration, with Statue of Liberty, McDonald’s and money, to be an apt representation of what might strike a foreigner (or native stranger) about the United States at first glance. Most of my instances of cultural disconnect have been in response to their/our consumerism, obsession with spending, and our distinct idea of patriotism.

An excerpt from the foreword of this satirically wise pamphlet:

Americans are like children: noisy, curious, unable to keep a secret, not given to subtlety, and prone to misbehave in public. Once one accepts the Americans’ basically adolescent nature, the rest of their culture falls into place, and what at first seemed thoughtless and silly appears charming and energetic.

And so begins this very politically incorrect and often prfoundly truthful, yet concise, examination of the American soul. I think I will be using it as a constant guide in transitional phase 🙂