IHOP Broke My Spirit

There’s this thing called reverse culture shock, and man is it a real kick in the head when it hits you. I’m American, born and raised, and had my fair share of intercultural experience. I even have a degree in intercultural studies. Of all people in the world I should be most prepared to deal with cultural disconnect.

I had been living in the U.S. again after 2 years in Kurdistan. I was back for some rest and recovery, living with my parents, and not jumping right back into life as a full grown American adult. I was taking it easy, but keeping myself busy enough. I’d helped a friend prepare for her wedding, living with her family in the three weeks leading up to the big day. I had spent two weeks on a counseling retreat working through some of the stress of living between two cultures. And now I was heading on to an adventurous beach vacation with some friends and my dad.


We stopped to get some breakfast and head into Stuffmart to get the rest of the supplies we needed for the camping portion of trip. It was pretty early and we’d been travelling through the night, but I was excited for ocean time. I find the greatest peace when I am near the water, and it was going to be a week of waves and salt. We split the list between the four of us, divided up and managed to get everything we needed in about 20 minutes. I think we had a list of about 8 things each, which isn’t too bad. Except that Stuffmart carries about a dozen varieties of everything. So I had to decide what brand was the best/most liked by our group and also the best deal. And I had to do it quickly, on an empty stomach and an uncaffeinated brain. But I did it, I made it through, and was a contributing member to our group. This America thing was going to work out!


Then we went to IHOP. I have a weird obsession with restaurant pancakes. They are better than homemade pancakes. I don’t know why, it’s just a universal truth I have come to accept. I love them stacked high with butter and syrup; fluffy and delicious. I was excited about pancakes, maybe with bacon or sausage on the side. We got settled into our booth and our waitress came to get our drink order (water and coffee all around), list the specials, and give us menus. I was overtaken a bit by what seemed like a list of ten specials and variations on them, but I tuned most of it out after the second or third option. They had a menu with pictures; I would be fine.

I started to flip through the plastic-covered pages. Pancakes! But… buttermilk or whole wheat? Pumpkin? Chocolate chip? Pecans? Dr. Seuss promotional birthday cake? Fruit on the top? Strawberries, peaches, or blueberries? Maple syrup, butter pecan, blueberry, or boysenberry? Butter or margarine? A side with the pancakes? Bacon, turkey bacon, sausage patties, sausage links, or country ham? One or two eggs? Fried or scrambled? Over easy, medium, or hard? Or would I rather have French Toast? Or stuffed French toast? Or Waffles? Crepes? An omelet? A breakfast skillet? Eggs benedict? Oatmeal? Fruit bowl? Cereal? Cream of Wheat?

I lost it. I started crying right there in the heart of the south and lamenting about how much I hated America and just wanted to go back to Iraq. The trucker hats, flannel shirts, and blue perm jobs that surrounded me swiveled in their seats to see what kind of person could be so ungrateful, so un-American. I think they were surprised when it was the blue-eyed blonde headed woman in her jeans and Jesus-themed t-shirt. But I wasn’t concerned about them in that moment. I was a wet, snotty mess who could not be called upon to make one more decision in her life, much less about her breakfast.

I ached for the days when I was happy to have two different kinds of milk to choose from – boxed or bottled. When butter was a luxury to be savored on hot bread from the bakery around the corner. When my most complicated decision was how to cook the chicken differently tonight so that I wouldn’t feel like I was eating the exact same thing I had the night before. When my choices in a restaurant could usually be categorized as lamb or chicken with rice. I wasn’t asked to make 20 decisions before I was allowed to eat. I just wanted to climb on a plane and leave this crazy Western world behind.

Instead, I excused myself to the bathroom to try and pull myself together. While I was gone my dad ordered me a short stack and bacon and reassured my friends that I had not completely lost my marbles. He knows what dark hole reverse culture shock can feel like. I washed my face, collected the little sanity I had left and had a very filling breakfast. We had a rather fun time on the rest of the trip (including a ferry ride, lighthouse and abandoned Coast guard station, as well as an epic battle against raccoons.)


On the trip back home we stopped at a little mom and pop place that had about 8 options for breakfast, most of them variations on eggs and not a pancake in sight. IHOP had broken my spirit, and I think left my friends a little gun shy. We made it through though, and I learned that maybe it’s okay to not have it all together, to cry over pancakes, to refuse to look at more than one page of a menu. I have to say, though, I still have a hard time ordering pancakes.