Six weeks ago two polite young Japanese men boxed up our iMac, several large suitcases, a few cookbooks, my 18-year-old rice cooker, an Italian chopping board, one of my Japanese vegetable cleavers, our personal papers (or what was left of them: I hand-carried most of the important papers), a box full of shoes, and Carlos’s red toolbox.

Today two polite young Hispanic-American men delivered it all to our temporary apartment in Arlington, Virginia. This measly 400 pounds of stuff (designated “Unaccompanied Baggage” by the military) was flown to the U.S., whereas the rest of our household goods is in containers on a ship. The six containers aren’t due to arrive until October.

After I sent off my shoes and rice cooker and such, I said goodbye to my friends in Japan, checked out of the house, flew to Maine to see my grandmother, and arrived in the Washington, D.C. area three weeks ago. I’ve been reconnecting with friends and family (basically mooching meals), house hunting, and relearning the area (we lived here in 1996/97). My husband will arrive tomorrow; we haven’t seen each other in over 3 months. He is my essential household good and I can’t wait to pick him up at the airport.

After the moving men left the apartment, I pulled out my Japanese knife and felt how distant Japan had become and how much I miss being there. Long time ex-pats I knew in Japan warned me that I would have reverse culture shock when I returned to the U.S. after five years overseas. I had understood reverse culture shock to be things like horror at the size of the servings in restaurants or annoyance when I realized I can’t find decent rice anywhere. Indeed, many small details, too many to list here, make being back in the U.S. strange. I have to look up Japanese markets and plan a special trip because I need soy sauce and good rice and miso and other Japanese food staples. I look up Japanese restaurant ratings in the Washington, D.C. area, and make a mental note to try the most conservative sushi places, yet I have no desire to eat Japanese food right now. I know it will be disappointing, so I will wait until I need a fix.

I went house hunting and wondered at the bathrooms. I want my Japanese bathroom, with the toilet in a separate room, and a separate shower and very deep bathtub. At each house I try to figure if we can convert the bathroom to Japanese style, but all the old houses have a toilet jammed up against the shallow tub/shower and a tiny sink.

I marvel at the variety of restaurants and the variety of the people in them. One day I ate delicious lamb tacos at a non-chain Mexican place; score one for America, the land of Mexican food. Another day I went to Restaurant Eve in Alexandria and sat at the bar for lunch. I was served the best tomato bisque I have ever eaten in my entire life with a sandwich of spiced braised beef shoulder. A bit of heaven from the chef, a recent immigrant from Ireland. A few Chinese food deliveries bummed me out, but I know there’s better Chinese food out there. I’ve had a few nice glasses of wine, some good beer, but so far no sake. Sake may be a problem. I’ll report back.

I signed up for Zipcar and drove out to the suburbs to see my husband’s aunt and uncle. I was lost among the 66s and the 495s and the 123s. I am more comfortable on the Metro, getting off at various stops, walking neighborhoods. But the reality is we’re going to need a car. We’ll see how financially viable Zipcar is for long-term use.

People are talkative in America. I had forgotten that. The Brits and Japanese (my companions over the past five years) are similar in that they seldom spontaneously chat up strangers. One must be introduced. My fellow Americans are chatty chatty chatty. I sit at the Restaurant Eve bar and meet three other patrons and have a long discussion with the bartender about Michael Phelps, swimming, and the bartender’s training program for an upcoming marathon. I slide easily into these comfy chats on line in the supermarket, waiting for the Metro, with waiters and waitresses, with a family with a Weimaraner in Old Town, Alexandria. It’s all so familiar, and yet again and again I feel exhilarated at how exotic it is to talk to strangers.

Nothing really is all that unusual, and yet nothing feels familiar either. This is reverse culture shock: I feel strange in my own land. I know it is home, I’m happy to be here, but for now I feel like I am just visiting and observing the cultural norms of an exotic, self-assured, multi-cultural, and talkative tribe. Field reports to follow.

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