Cultural Whiplash

Nine months on a narrow sailboat in the backwaters of the South Pacific has a way of changing you. Other than a Bahamian childhood, that’s the longest I’ve spent in the islands, and definitely the longest I’ve spent away from my friends and family. My husband and I were so sad to leave wonderful Tonga and the great friends we’d made there, but really (REALLY) excited to see our loved ones again and of course to experience all those stateside things that I’d whined about missing for all those long months. I couldn’t stop thinking about all the things that I’d love to just jump into back in Ye Olde Fyrst Worlde: pedicures, movie theaters and long, scalding hot, luxurious showers. “Man, remember real beer?” My husband and I would croon on the days pending our departure, salivating in anticipation for a good craft brew. We were ready.

Lager is good, but a little variety, please!

Lager is good, but a little variety, please!

Turns out, I wasn’t ready. Touching down in Los Angeles International airport, one of the most hectic and disorganized airports on the best of days, I was shell-shocked by the hustle and bustle and jostling which accompanied the slathering mass of transiting humanity. After almost a year of instant coffee and island time, I saw my first Starbucks and had my first argument with a customer service representative within 20 minutes of leaving baggage claim. I felt like Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel trying to decipher the bus system and even more so trying to absorb all the billboards and buildings and cars and INFORMATION OVERLOAD! I kept feeling like a tourist, like I should be taking pictures of the freeway and the In & Out’s to show our friends in Tonga: “They call this a ‘Taco Bell’. It does not represent real Mexican food, but sometimes you eat it anyway and wake from a queasy, bean-induced haze an hour later.” AND, I couldn’t even take any of those long, hot, sinful showers because of the blankety-blank California drought, though thankfully, I was still used to hasty, 2-minute showers from boat life.

One of these things is not like the other...

One of these things is not like the other…

But what I really, really wasn’t prepared for was the sheer amount of options and choices that I’d be confronted with at every turn. In Samoa and Tonga, almost everything was shipped in from elsewhere. So all the stores carried the same plastic bag of white flour, the same lagers, the same moldy broccoli. Everything that didn’t come from elsewhere was limited to a select few types of fruits and veggies: bananas, taro, and papaya, with just a little variation. So, while those fresh things were amazing, if you were craving a strawberry, or Jeebus forbid, some quinoa, you were shit out of luck and better make do with the admittedly wonderful coconut white bread instead. You learn to live with fewer selections and to appreciate the seasons for pineapples and the mystery unlabeled lotion for sale in the small markets.

Mmmm, coco bread

Mmmm, coco bread

Stateside, just driving down the highway looking for something to eat, we were confronted with twenty different types of fast food and umpteen million different diners or other chain restaurants. Once we picked one, menus that had more than five items to choose from stymied us. Here, there are movie theatres playing fifteen different movies, there are parallel streets, allowing you to take different ways of arriving at the same place, and not just one circle road rimming the island like salt on a margarita glass. There’s a store 10 times bigger than the boat we lived on that just sells lampshades. The culmination of my own personal Indecision Hell was arriving at a drug store, looking for some eye drops and being astounded by shelf after shelf of different brands and variations of eye drops. Some were for red eyes, some were for dry eyes, some contained aloe, some were for contact lenses. Some of them must have had tiny masseuses shiatsuing your eyeballs for the apparent cost. In Tonga, I’d be lucky to even get eye drops at all, and here I am bombarded with more eye drops than even the most avid stoner could use.

Stop it. Just stop.

Stop it. Just stop.

After standing and staring goggle-eyed for about 10 minutes and seriously contemplating just leaving empty-handed, a tag with the cheapest price finally caught my eye and I grabbed the accompanying bottle and ran, hoping it wasn’t the type for one-eyed howler monkeys only. I got lucky that time, but still, after 2 months of being back, I tend to just close my eyes and pick from the menu or grab the closest pair of jeans on the rack and then bolt in lieu of making an actual decision. And science proves I’m not the only one that has this problem.

Study after study has shown that when presented with a larger amount of options (24 jams vs. 6, in one famous study) that consumers buy more often when they are given less of a choice. And not only do they buy more, but they also tend to be happier about the decision they made. I know that’s the case when I’m confronted with a store full of cute outfits: what if the one I choose isn’t the cutest, the most affordable, the one that works the best with other clothes I already have? So I spend hours dithering over the different options, and hoping I don’t regret my decision to get the capris vs. the ankle pants. It’s an exhausting way to live that is uniquely First World. In Tonga, I didn’t have to worry about picking the perfect outfit. If they had pants that fit me at the marketi, which is basically a scattered flea market of hand-me-downs from Tongan relatives abroad, then I bought them, whether or not they said “Trashy Gal” on the butt. And I was happy to have them because my other pairs were stained and falling apart. That’s a lot more choice than some of the Tongan families I met have, because I can at least decide whether or not to buy those pants, while they are often given their older cousin’s outgrown clothes and they can wear that or nothing.

Our limited options on laundry day

Our limited options on laundry day

Obviously, I’d be lying if I said that I don’t appreciate the larger variety of things available and other modern conveniences available in the U.S. (oh, Benefit mascara, how I missed you). The ample availability of good wireless internet is also quite delightful. All I’m saying is that when you go to your local Whole Foods (another kind of absurdist enterprise that’s a huge cultural whiplash from the limitations of island life) and are faced with a wall of 100 different yogurts to choose from, perhaps it’s time to take a little reality check from American consumerism. Sometimes the simple choices, like whether you should have coconut water straight from the nut or just plain old water (no choice needed there, always choose the coconut!), make you feel grateful that you have choices at all.

Foraging at Low Tide

Foraging at Low Tide

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Jessi Johnson

About Jessi Johnson

Lo these many years ago, Jessi Johnson (née Hall) was born unto a Californian mother and a Bahamian father, thus beginning the on-again off-again life of an island girl. She had a wonderfully wild barefoot childhood in the Bahamas, then moved to a landlocked farm town in California, where she pretty much stayed until she met her next island man, Dane. Dane reeled (pun absolutely intended) Jessi into the sailing life after a weekend trip to Catalina Island from Southern California. Hooked, Jessi soon met Dane in French Polynesia, where she adjusted to life on a slender sailboat with no shower (that’s what the clear blue ocean is for!) or refrigeration (just makes you drink the beer faster). It doesn’t take long to adjust to cramped quarters when one is looking at a sky full of more stars than you’d ever see on land, swimming with manta rays, and gorging on cheap fresh baguettes with brie and a non-breakable glass of wine. You can read more about their adventures on their blog,

After a brief hiatus back on the mainland for work and to get lawfully wedded, Jessi went back to the boat and her new husband, this time parked off a different rock, American Samoa. With the original intent of taking a belated honeymoon and traveling on to other islands in the South Pacific, island time soon set in like a thick Mai Tai haze, and several months later, Jessi remains in what one guidebook has described as “fjordlike” and she likes to describe as “stinky” Pago Pago harbor. While waiting for the next puddle jump, Jessi delights at the arrival of the container ships with fresh foods from the US, snorkeling among some of the most amazing reefs she’s ever seen, and tasty sundowners while watching the daily mynah bird commute to the giant banyan tree by her boat. Stay tuned for more rocky adventures from the Friendly Islands of the Pacific!

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11 thoughts on “Cultural Whiplash

  1. Love the writing! Yes, someone wrote a book and went on the NPR circuit a couple years ago…The Paradox of Choice (?) or something like that.

    • Yeah, I think it was something like that. Absolutely fascinating and true in real life. I just get flustered with so many choices; it doesn’t make me feel more free. Besides, isn’t life better when you can yearn after something, even if it’s as simple as a bag of pistachios?

  2. So very true. I’ve been wondering about what it would be like to ‘go back’. Sounds like we have better choices on St Lucia than you had on Tongo, but I still find myself bemoaning the lack of choice/availability. That said I know two things – a) I love wearing t-shirts with holes, baggy shorts and flipflops most days, and being where getting dressed means having a shower and passing a comb through my hair – not sure that would work back in the UK (to be honest it doesn’t fit with St Lucian culture either, but it doesn’t seem to matter) and b) I think I would be impatient (and possibly feel the need to vocalize) with people expressing first world problems…maybe I better stay where I am. Thanks for another good read. Enjoy being “home”. 🙂

    • Thanks! That lack of “grooming” is something I didn’t even get into, but you’re right. I wore the rattiest things out there…In ‘Murica, I’d be mistaken for a homeless if I walked around like that. Kinda miss it 🙂

  3. Me in a nutshell! I don’t enjoy visiting America – and going to a mall is absolute torture. Last time I travelled off the rock was a few years ago when a girlfriend thought she would “treat” me to a girls’ weekend in NYC. I felt so bad as I struggled in the over air conditioned, over packed, over stocked, over choiced environment. We went to a large shoe warehouse … and I came away empty handed. It’s overwhelming and not enjoyable. I guess some of us are just meant to be island girls .. and for those like so many of our cruise ship visitors who have a ridiculously high level of expectation and need of entertainment and shopping options – they will never understand the beauty of just sitting on a quiet bay watching the sunset.

  4. Girl, you rang my bell. I lived the island life for 12 years, seems like eons ago, and a super Walmart still boggles my brain. I long for the simplicity again. As soon as I can fulfill my duty of caring for my 88 year old mother, I’m outa here. Id rather choose from 2 or 3 cereals than 100! The USA is wasteful of everything, boastful of her power and products and in for a fall. And WHO NEEDS WINTER??!! Amen.

  5. What a fabulous post! I howled as I read the phrase about Cletus the Slack-jawed yokel. Such a wonderful perspective on our many consumer options in the USA. (How many times have I spent several minutes staring at those 100 yogurt choices in indecision?) Look forward to reading about more of your adventures.

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