The Culture Shock is Free at Walmart for Returning Americans

“What is it like when your American friends visit you? Are you totally overwhelmed with culture shock?” Our Swedish neighbor asked one night at dinner.

“No, the culture shock doesn’t happen when friends and family visit because we’re still in Sweden. They are only a tiny piece of America in an ocean of what’s familiar. The culture shock happens in Walmart. Always at Walmart,” we explained.

To Americans who have never lived overseas, Walmart is a massively oversized store featuring shrieking children in the toy section and questionable fashion choices from strangers.

To us, Walmart is the scene in the movie where the ceiling grows and the main character suddenly feels very small in a panic.

We know how Alice in Wonderland feels after she drinks the “Drink me” potion and shrinks down to a fraction of her usual size. That’s how we feel in Walmart.

The products loom over us and the aisles stretch into a disappearing horizon.

Walmart is both terrifying and fascinating all at once.

“I thought it was a bag of dog food, but it was a bag of cookies! Cookies! Who needs cookies in a bag that large?!” My husband finds us with tales from the Walmart jungle. “Seriously, it’s a 10 lb. bag of cookies!”

“Calvin, pick up that jar of peanut butter and put it next to your head. Which is bigger? Oh my god, the peanut butter jar is bigger than your head! That’s incredible!”

We were overcome by all of the food in bulk sizes and at the ridiculous cheapness of it all. Who needs a gallon jug of Ranch dressing for $10.24? Who needs that?

We know how Alice in Wonderland feels after she drinks the “Drink me” potion and shrinks down to a fraction of her usual size. That’s how we feel in Walmart.

Probably the worst moment at Walmart was when the kids asked if they could buy something with the American coins we had in a Ziploc bag.

When we moved to Sweden, running to the bank to turn in all of my USD wasn’t at the top of my to-do list. We moved with about three pounds of useless coinage and lugged it all back to America on this visit with the intent to be rid of it at last.

“You two can split this change and buy whatever you want with it,” I told the kids. Delighted, they sorted all of the coins into piles and we counted them up.

They each had an $8 budget for their Walmart purchases. (We had $16 ($16!) in coins. Do you know how heavy $16 in coins feels?)

It turns out, that Walmart had a lot of options for $8 and that caused a bit of anxiety with my son. “But I could get one of these or two of these…” He was paralyzed in the toy aisle.

Analysis paralysis should be Walmart’s tagline. The overwhelming number of options paralyzes you with decisions.

Too many options. I didn’t need 150 types of deodorant or antiperspirant but yet, there I was, analyzing the contents of five products when all I wanted was one that smelled nice and prevented sweat stains.

I saw the panicked look on my son’s face and did the old parenting trick I learned from my mother when I was his age. I took both of his options and placed them behind my back.

“Pick one,” I said.
“That one,” he pointed to my right hand. I revealed his choice and his face fell.
“Ok then, take this one.”

I offered him the toy in my left hand and he smiled. With that done, we headed to the check-out aisle.

Both kids wanted to process their purchases separately and feel like adults.

Why not? We never let them go shopping with “real money” in Sweden because we have no cash there, only cards, and it’s not really empowering to have their mother whisper the PIN code in their ears as they check out.

Paying with a bag full of coins did not make for a fast transaction. I saw the cashier’s mouth set tightly as she clenched her jaw. She would have to manually count out $8 in coins to process the kids’ purchases.

We had already counted everything and handed her the exact amount, but she had to double check.

After what felt like an eternity of coin counting, the kids’ toys were paid for and I placed the items that my husband and I were purchasing on the conveyor belt.

While checking out, I looked through my wallet and noticed that I only had large USD bills left.

Internally cursing, I knew that this cashier would realize that I could’ve saved her a ton of time by A) processing the kids’ toys together, instead of in separate transactions, and B) using my lovely $50 instead of the $16 in coins she had just counted by hand.

With a large smile, I handed her the only bill I had in USD because we don’t have anything smaller because we never pay in cash ANYWHERE.

“Thank you SOO much. We appreciate your patience,” I cooed as I bagged my purchases and left that house of horrors full of indecision and overwhelm.

Walmart—creating culture shock in returning Americans since 1993.

But, let’s face it. Walmart is just the easiest store to get your culture shock for free.

It wasn’t necessarily the endless options of multivitamins, the expansive rows of every variant of peanut butter texture one might imagine, or even the crowd of people swirling around us.

The culture shock we felt had more to do with the fact that the physical building dwarfed all of the inhabitants.

We felt very tiny and insignificant while walking through the store.

I think we feel very small and insignificant when we visit in the US.

Everything feels bigger in the US than it does in Sweden—the roads, the cars, the traffic, the stores, the houses, the noise.

To us, it’s overwhelming. To the kids, it’s awesome.

Our kids loved Walmart. They love America.

Every time we visit, we are on vacation. Who wouldn’t love eating ice cream after every dinner. Of course, they love being surrounded by family who gush over them when they sleep over.

They wish we had a bigger house, “Like Grammy and Poppy and Grandma and Pepe” and wish we could visit more often.

It’s important for us, as parents, to remember that our kids aren’t processing our visits in the same way. They aren’t seeing the entire picture.

The adults are seeing the fact that we don’t have the right cash in hand, we have forgotten how big everything is, our friends are wanting to meet up but we are exhausted and disoriented, and everything feels like a slog.

Culture shock, even when only temporary, is emotionally exhausting.

Even being surrounded by English 24/7 is overwhelming. My brain refuses to turn off and I simply must listen to everyone’s inane conversations because I can.

While the adults heads are about to explode, all the kids see are huge jars of delicious peanut butter and fun dinosaur heads that they want to jam into their suitcases.

Maybe the adults in the room can take note from the kids and analyze less and enjoy more.

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