Watch out for those (Culture) Curve Balls

Fact: You can not flush toilet paper in Costa Rican toilets. At least, not without facing some big consequences.

As difficult as it was to learn at first, this is one of those things that has become a norm for me, I am now conditioned to not flush my toilet paper, but instead put in in a trash can next to the toilet. I don’t even think about it anymore, that is until we have visitors who are as surprised/offended by this as I probably was back in January.

I never thought I would experience reverse culture shock, but after being away so long I think this is a good possibility. So, if I don’t flush my toilet paper at your house upon my return, please forgive me 🙂

WorldTeach taught us volunteers the term “culture curve” back in orientation, and this is a much more accurate way of describing the cross-cultural immersion experience than the initial culture shock. Yes, you experience that, but you also experience many culture lows and highs, in addition to the shock, hence the curve.

So far, my lowest point on my Costa Rican culture curve surprisingly had nothing to do with toilet paper. It happened in a Subway of all places. Yes, that kind of Subway, with that Jared guy who keeps gaining and losing weight.


Ross and I were traveling. I was tired, hungry and grumpy. I saw an amazing looking breakfast burrito on the menu that I thought would fix all the aforementioned issues. Ross placed his order no problem. I ordered my burrito, but was shot down immediately (it was 11:45, breakfast ended at 11:30) I should have just given up there, but instead decided to choose something else.

The lunch time crowd started coming in and I was getting passed in line (as you probably know, ordering at Subway is like working a conveyor belt).

I choose my sandwich, and the woman making it (aka my arch-nemesis) asked what kind of bread I wanted it on. I replied “Avena, por favor”, (Avena is the word for ‘oat’ and ‘oatmeal’ in Spanish ‘). She replied with “como?” This conversation repeated itself 50 different times. I mean, maybe my pronunciation wasn’t PERFECT (I admittedly still have a hard time with the fact that “v”‘s are pronounced like “b”‘s), but there was no other bread type that sounded anything like Avena (integral-whole grain, blanco-white, etc). Finally a women in line, also one of the people cutting me in line, translated for me. You can imagine at this rate how long it took me to create an entire sandwich, for every topping and condiment we went through, I was passed by another 10 people.

To top it all off, the soda machine exploded on me when filling my fountain soda. Needless to say, I was 100 times more tired, hungry and grumpy pissed off by the time we actually sat down to eat. I was also about 2 seconds and a passport away from hopping on the next flight to anywhere English speaking.

I know once I’m feeling comfortable and adjusted here, it will be time to go home and re-adjust.

Have you experienced any extreme high or low on your culture curve when traveling or returning home from a long time abroad???


2 responses

  1. Yes. Yes. A million times yes. Ordering/obtaining food, interpreting/pronouncing stuff on signs, duration of conversations that should be simple being long and laborious. Eventually I was able to carry on slowish conversations and get a decent vocabulary, but progress was interrupted when I had to return home.

    Once back home, I realized how much I liked not being able to comprehend all the crap people talk about in public. It also had some effect on my concentration. Chatter uttered by all the people around me made it hard to concentrate on who I was talking with and what we were saying. I guess it’s an effect from the brain readjusting to a native language environment.

    As for culture, I really miss not needing a car, people watching, window shopping, the cheese, and the slower pace of life. Americans spend too much time running around. Of course, the slower life pace might have been because there weren’t enough cashiers at the grocery store, living on the 5th floor of a building with no elevator, stores that sell only one thing, inefficient strikes….

    • I never even thought about the whole being able to comprehend all the crap people talk about in public! You are so right about that! I am also less brainwashed by advertisements and television, since I don’t understand a lot of that constant crap that is being pushed into our subconscious at all times.

      I will try to be more thankful for this over the next few months! The inefficient strikes however, those will not be missed 🙂

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