Culture Shock Circa 1983: They Have Phones Without Cords in America!

Culture shock is a topic every expat is familiar with. You get it when you go abroad, and then, surprisingly, you get it again when coming back. Sometimes the latter hits you even harder.

The thing with culture shock is, you usually get over it pretty quickly. So that if you fail to actually tell people about it while it’s happening, you might totally forget you ever had it. Which is why keeping a diary is so great. Going back and reading over what you were culture-shocked about in 1983 is an entire culture shock experience onto itself.

Yes, 1983.

I may not have told you this yet, but my first expat experience came when I was sixteen years old. I was plucked from a tranquil and progressive Southern German town (think Birkenstock, beards, and John Lennon glasses) and dropped into the deepest Mississippi (think Confederate flag, pickup trucks, and y’all) to live with people I’d never met before for an entire year.

I was in awe from the moment I arrived.

From Europe Into the Future

To understand this, you need to know that America, as everyone else in the world calls it, was every teenager’s dream in late 1970s Euorope. Back then, we didn’t vacation in Disneyworld. We didn’t fly on airplanes. We only got to see American movies about a hundred years later and then dubbed into high German, which you will have to trust me when I say is absolutely godawful once you know the real thing. There were virtually no American fast food chains, beyond a few McDonald’s in the big cities. Levy’s jeans were unaffordable. Going to America, you were absolutely certain, would mean that you’d get to rub elbows with Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman while walking down Sunset Boulevard. Never mind that by 1980 no actual American even remembered Gregory Peck or his awesome sex appeal in Roman Holiday, because, well, only Germans apparently were still watching 1950s movies at that time. Come to think of it, maybe it was just me.

You might wonder if I can be trusted to remember my culture shock experience from thirty years ago with any accuracy, but rest assured that you’ll get it straight from the horse’s mouth: I have in my possession a treasure I now consider more dear to me than most anything else on my bookshelf – a binder, 2 inches thick, packed with hand-written letters between me and my parents from my entire exchange-student year, painstakingly hole-punched and chronologically filed away by my mother, who always had a passion for family history. I look at these letters now and not only send praise to my mother’s memory for her foresight, but feel wistful that letter-writing is a disappearing art form. What will my children look back on one day? Surely not their collective text messages and Instagram statuses. 

Back to the Past Through the Glory of Handwritten Letters

It is with the help of this binder full of letters that I can share with you my unedited impressions of America during those first few steamy August weeks of 1983, translated from German:

August 15, 1983: “Our house has four columns in the front that make it look like a Greek temple… There is a gigantic TV in the playroom, about four times as big as our TV. How to work all the video games is something I will have to learn… Everyone is very relaxed here; the priest came yesterday and brought crabs which we all ate for dinner.”

exchange student in the USA
A house with columns, you guys!

If that isn’t culture shock. I mean, it all sounds very normal reading it now, but to my 16-year old self in 1983 it all seemed very alien. The luxury of living in an entire house, one with Greek columns no less, when I’d grown up in a first-floor flat where our entire family of five shared one single toilet. And the giant TV. My parents had only caved and gotten a TV two years earlier. I had spent fourteen years of my life without any TV screen at all, and now there were three to choose from, one of them taking up the whole wall of one room, or so it seemed. And the fact that I felt I needed to mention the priest dropping in for a crab feast just shows you how much more uptight and reserved our German family life was by comparison. You saw the priest only at church (and up close only through lattice at confession), but never in a million years would he have been invited into our home.

It was definitely the American gadgetry and abundance that seem to have shocked and awed me the most.

August 18, 1983: “Every car here has air conditioning… Also, their car has a little gadget that beeps when there is a radar trap nearby so that you can slow down until you’ve passed the police car and won’t be caught…There is a funny telephone here, it doesn’t have a cord but an antenna on the  handset, so that you can carry it with you wherever you go…There are at least ten different kinds of cereal for breakfast… For lunch they typically eat hamburgers or something similar; when you are in town, it can go very fast: you drive your car past a speaker, say what you want, drive a bit farther, pick up your food, then drive into a parking space and eat it. I’ve never seen a McDonald’s like that in Germany. Here, they even have banks that work like that.”

Air conditioning! A house phone not attached to the wall! Drive-through banks! You’d think I came from North Korea or something, the way I was going on and on about such mundane stuff, but that’s how it was. America was otherworldly to me.

Dynasty, Anyone?

Some of my cultural confusion seemed to have arisen from a time lag in my favorite TV series.

August 30, 1983: “Last Wednesday I watched Dynasty for the first time and it was very confusing. Fallon and Jeff are divorced and Jeff remarried. Then there is a baby, I assume it’s Fallon’s, because its name is Blake. A young man named Steven also lives in the house and also has a baby. I’m not sure if he is married to Fallon or not, but he is together with her a lot. You never hear anything about the real Steven. By the way, the other Steven is Alexis’s son, and then there is another son whose name I’ve forgotten. Alexis is a big opponent of Blake’s now. And the stupid Blaisdel family seems to have actually died off!”

The stuff that filled up my head as a 16-year old… I am having severe culture shock right now just being confronted with my old teenage self. When I now go off to look for a suitable picture of me to add to this blog post, I’ll probably have to gag.

exchange student in the USA
Okay I didn’t quite gag, but only because that picture of me is actually from 1986 when I returned for a visit, not from 1983.

The Horror of Hairy Armpits

In typical 16-year old girl fashion, I seem to have simply shared everything with my mother. There was a long sequence in one of the letters where I divulged how I had learned to shave my legs and armpits so as to better blend in “because apparently all the girls in school are doing it”. I think in this instance there must have been culture shock in both directions: Me embarking on a crash-course on how to get rid of all that excess hair without serious injury, and my host mother being confronted with the reality that there existed a species of female humans roaming the Earth with hairy legs and armpits. I’m very grateful to this day that she swallowed what I imagine can only have been alarm, if not disgust, and tackled the problem in her typical practical manner by buying me a Gilette razor (which, if you must know, caused endless consternation after my return to Germany, where it henceforth occupied the shower caddy in our shared family bathroom – “But why must the girl have a razor like a man?”)

I’ll spare you the picture of me shaving my legs for the first time.

I went on, once properly groomed and no longer squealing with delight when pulling up to a drive-through window, to have the year of my life. I watched and I copied and I acquired a Southern accent so fast that my parents hardly recognized me when I was returned to them a year later, and like five years older. I survived all subsequent experiences of culture shock, one of which involved a wooden paddle, the high school principal, and my bare bum. Okay, not bare, I give you that, but shocking it was all the same.

How that came to pass, I’ll tell you in a future installment of “Dear God Let’s Not Go Back to the 80s.”

In the meantime, maybe you’ll tell me some of your own culture shock?

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