Culture Shock by Kate Brunner

Kate close up at Llyn Morwynion“I returned to the Land of the Free only to feel like I am giving up my bits of my freedom,” I told a friend over coffee last week.

I’m back in the US after three years in Australia.

I’ve returned to a place where I never know if new people I meet will judge me and my family as too….. something to associate with politely. If the parents of the neighborhood kids my children are quickly befriending find out about my spiritual beliefs & practices, my progressive voting record, my sexuality, my feminism, my ally-ships & activism, or any other bit or bob that makes up the whole that is me, will they still allow our children to play together? Will they still welcome my family to the neighborhood? Can I still borrow the occasional cup of sugar?

I wish I could say. But the truth of it is I just don’t know.

I can pass—visually, but also conversationally. Years of practice playing Corporate Wife at shmoozey dinner parties. And as much as I would like to say that I’ll put myself out there, neighborhood judgment be damned, the reality is that I probably won’t. I hear myself beginning to justify putting pieces of who I am back in the closet. I feel myself, as much as I abhor it, struggling with re-chaining myself to (acceptably) American behavior and a compulsive need to blend in.

I’m caught between wanting to teach my children to live their truth fearlessly and not wanting to wager my children’s fragile sense of new community connection or our family’s ability to live comfortably in a new place on it. The last time we lived in this area, a child on a playground graphically explained to one of my children how she was going to burn in hell because she was wearing a Halloween t-shirt. A string of other more hurtful events in our past history with this place force me to confront fears of potentially toxic interchanges with new people we meet.

I learned to live without this sense of relentless external judgment while living in Australia. Don’t mistake me—Australia has its own slew of social justice issues to confront; an alarming number of women killed by their partners this year alone, a really ugly humanitarian refugee crisis linked to the legacy of years of “whites-only” immigration policies, battles over sovereignty for indigenous communities, etc. I do not mean to imply that Australia is the paragon of progressive utopia. No such place exists and I know it.

I’m limiting my scope to every day interaction—exchanges between neighbors, meeting someone new at the community pool, shopping at the local grocer, taking your car to the mechanic, going to a new exercise class. That is the scale of interaction currently at the forefront of my average, comfortable life.

In my host country, I never experienced the nastiness or judgment that colored my American past. When we first arrived in Australia, I was absolutely still carrying that weight though. I passed—at least until I opened my mouth & revealed myself to be a foreigner. And at first I still struggled to gauge how authentic I could be around new connections.

Over time I learned as each contact came to know me for me, the exact opposite of my experiences in America took place. Deeper knowledge of each other deepened relationships further. I came to understand at the level of every day interaction, the everyday Australians I came in contact with couldn’t care less whether or not we shared a religion, a political party affiliation, a cultural background, a gender/sexual identity, or whatever other category we, in America, use to endlessly divide and subdivide ourselves from each other.

All in all, I spent several years being able to make new relationships pretty fearlessly; having my life enriched by a wonderfully diverse array of people. Maybe it was the nature of the town or the expat experience. Maybe it’s something inherent in Aussie mateship culture. Maybe I was just plain lucky.

It wasn’t a sociological study. It was just my life.

And now, I find myself back here.

Confronting the dissonance between the person I became abroad and the home culture I’ve returned to takes place in a thousand every day moment; in every interaction outside my nuclear family, where it seems I must be weighed, measured, & judged on my acceptability as an American over and over again.

Will my daughter lose her new friend if that family finds out I’m not Christian? Can we successfully re-build an authentic life here? Will I be able to keep myself whole? Are there new relationships in my future that I can build without having to be vetted for the proper (acceptably) American criteria first?

And after all that—carrying these feelings in my heart day to day—I sit on the couch and watch the evening news.

And what completely rocks my world is that I also know, despite how out of place I am feeling in this moment, I carry a great deal of privilege in this culture. So, if this is how I—a white, financially stable, cis woman—am feeling, I can only sorrowfully imagine how those less (acceptably) American than I am must feel struggling with no reprieve, no opportunity to live a few years far away from the restrictive nature of their everyday lives in this Land of the (hypothetically) Free.

To live every day afraid of what might happen to their children. Especially those children that can’t pass—can’t smile and nod and keep themselves under lock & key—because pieces of their authentic selves just can’t be acceptably hidden.

I am afraid the neighbors won’t let our children play together if they knew me authentically.

But I am not afraid the neighbors will assault my children at the community pool. Or call the police on them just because they don’t find them (acceptably) American.

That sort of fear I, and many other Americans, may never fully understand.

But we should still make an effort to grasp at least a sliver of it.

Put yourself in that fear for a moment.

Imagine it at vividly as you can.

Now, let’s ask ourselves how (acceptably) American is it to live with that every day in the Land of the Free?


Kate Brunner is a writer, healer, ritualist, & member of The Sisterhood of Avalon, studying at the Avalonian Thealogical Seminary. She is a somewhat nomadic American, homeschooling her children with the world as their classroom. Before motherhood, Kate earned a BA from Tulane University, while studying Economics, International Relations, & Religious Traditions. She served four years as a logistics officer in the US Army, after which, Kate became a doula and holistic birth educator. She is a regular contributor to The Sisterhood of Avalon’s online journal, The Tor Stone and is active in the Red Tent Movement. Kate volunteered in Houston as a presenter for monthly Red Tents and semi-annual women’s retreats before relocating overseas. In Australia, she hosted seasonal women’s gatherings, facilitated labyrinth rituals, and led workshops on an assortment of women’s spirituality topics. She recently returned to the US and is breathing into the potential of a new chapter of life for her and her family.

Categories: General, Social Justice, Women and Community

Tags: , , ,

14 replies

  1. Thank you for a very thoughtful essay. As I read, I realize I probably can only love comfortably in a few cities in the US- NY being on top of my list.


  2. The unfortunate truth, in so many areas of our country. I think Portland, Oregon may be an exception, though. I’m moving there next month, so we will see!


  3. Thanks for sharing this Kate. It sounds exactly like the endless prattle of worry that goes on in my head, too, every nuance possible of what might go wrong. :) It’s just being human, though, we all do that. What we need is simply to cross each bridge as we come to it, and if we can manage that, the journey is so much more creative, more loving and productive!!


  4. You might not want your kids to play with the neighbor kids if you knew everything about them. We are all hiding something of ourselves, the bits we sacrifice in the name of “all getting along”.

    As an ex-pat, you lived in a bit of a bubble- you knew you were not going to stay forever in the country, they knew you weren’t going to stay. You had much more freedom to “let it rip” because you were temporary. Now you may actually have to settle in and put down roots for an unknown period of time. It is a different calculation.

    As Xochitl noted the other day, we all have to try and get along in our communities with lots of different people. This is a very different relationship than many of us are used to (we are integrated into a consumer society “I want what I paid for!”). But as a member of the community, you also have the opportunity and responsibility to shape it.

    At this stage, when the kids are small, the pressure for community is very strong. But as they get older and more independent, find their own friends and interests, this pressure becomes less intense. You’ll be able to live as a hermit, should you wish.


  5. I recognized myself in your post. I was so relieved when my child graduated high school because I was no longer concerned that people, especially people like teachers who could affect his future, would judge him as the result of who I was or my actions. But, as I think back on what characteristics of members of my family were most important inspirations, it’s the authentic acts done without regard to what others thought that had the most impact – my grandmother going back to college when her children were still in school at a time when this just wasn’t done, my mother deciding to be a pilot in her 40s. And, from a larger perspective, it’s when we have the courage to live fearlessly that we break down the power of those who dictate the social mores that repress so many people. You’re already living authentically by writing this post and all the other work you do – keep on keeping on!


  6. Kate, I want to say that I also appreciate the political insights you discussed. I think you were also trying to say something about how as Americans we think of ourselves as so free, when in fact, “it ain’t necessarily so”. I especially appreciate your pointing out the issue of how free are those black kids to play in their neighborhood pool, eg.- this is happening on the US-.
    I just wanted to underline the political, social message you expressed. There is also the spiritual piece many others have expressed but I wanted to make the political message more explicit.


  7. Kate,
    Welcome back to the US. Culture shock happens even when you’re coming home. And as NMR said, Australia was a temporary bubble, and in the US you’re forthrightness needs to be weighed in a different way, since it’s more permanent. So be gentle and kind to yourself in this transition.

    I have one story to share that might make you laugh and maybe also realize that we can be a lot more fearful than we sometimes need to be. My daughter came home from school in the 2nd grade to tell me that they were doing a unit on religion and that every kid in the class was going to describe their religion. Well…it was a progressive school, and I probably shouldn’t have worried. But I’m a witch; I practice Wicca. So I told my daughter that she could tell anything she wanted to about our religion, but just not say the word Wicca or paganism. So the day she shared, she came home and told me that her teacher was a witch!!! I laughed and laughed and laughed, and then told her that she could tell her teacher and her class that her religion was Wicca, too.

    Your final point is well-taken. I’m white, too, or at least that’s what I appear to be (Like many Americans, I’m a mongrel with many ethnicities). In liberal Madison, Wisconsin, where I live, we’ve been confronted with the racial equity gap for the past few years, most recently when an unarmed black kid on mushrooms (acting crazy) was killed by a white policeman. It’s been a huge WAKE-UP call for us white folks…Well, I just found out today that two friends of mine have started a fund called the “Madison Future Teachers Scholarship Fund,” which “supports diversification of the Madison Metropolitan School District’s teaching workforce, reflective of the student body, through scholarship grants for eligible staff and students.” This year 11 9th graders have been chosen for this program. Of course, it will be 7 or 8 years before they graduate and become teachers, but in the meantime, there are scholarships for other non-white staff to become teachers as well. I think this is a wonderful idea. Right now Madison’s teachers are 88% white while the student body is 44% white (this is a big change in a very short period of time…the student body used to be 66% white just 15 years ago). I’m giving to this fund as one way to begin creating more chances for kids of color.


  8. Welcome back Kate. Culture shock on returning to the States has always been huge for me. Living in a foreign country is like being in a new love affair – everything is kind of wonderful and the unsavory parts have not yet been discovered. But coming home… well you know it so well. And these are very divided times we live in. But I do think that the vocal, hateful energy that’s so in our faces right now is really coming from a minority who unfortunately get way too much press.

    And yes, white privilege is real and huge. So glad to see it being discussed here.


  9. Come to the Bay Area, especially San Francisco and north up to Santa Rosa, or the Berkeley area. Or Santa Cruz area. It’s expensive to live here, but you won’t feel as paranoid as a pagan, feminist, doula etc. as you do in Texas. I know Texas and the South, and there’s no comparison with this area of California in terms of the freedom to live more authentically and off the social conformity grid.


  10. Great post. Thank you.


  11. Thank you Kate, for sharing your experiences and awareness of the struggles you are facing and then for thinking ‘out’ to others – a brave and creative thing to do. Thank you for calling us also to think so specifically beyond ourselves.
    I do hope that you find friending – are you thinking of starting your Witch’s Night In again? I was so taken with the practice you described.
    May you find strength to do what is possible and places where possibilities expand


  12. I agreed with the previous comments about living Kate growing up in a bubble. All I could think about was Ivy Walker from the movie, The Village. Like Ivy, Kate lived in a community where everyone is of the same faith and that was all that was taught and known and anything different would not be accepted. However, when Ivy ventured out on her own after killing the monster she found a new world with different ideologies (they may not be religious but they make the town what it was in the movie).

    Kate’s venture to Australia opened her eyes to different cultures and beliefs. You would think America is like that due to us being a “melting pot” but I believe in places like where Kate grew up with a majority of Caucasian Christians, that’s all that matters. Anywhere outside of that, does not matter, this makes Kate feel like she is not in the “land of the free”.

    I feel as if she can identify with the aborigines in feeling inferior to another group whose values should be taught, and if you refuse they will shove it down your throat until you conform or suffer greater consequences.

    Kate’s monster was killing the patriarchal family dynamic, structure, or system influenced by the religion she grew up with and found solace in Australia. She found her goddesses rooted deep within her.


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