Culture Shock in Pictures: Grocery Shopping

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Culture Shock in Pictures: Grocery Shopping

This week I plan on posting photos that will demonstrate, through images, why people experience culture shock. Partly this is because I think it is funny and partly it is because I’m experiencing what I like to call culture clog. Similar to writer’s block but caused by crossing international borders.

Today’s photos are of grocery stores.

grocery store*image via Wikipedia

The following picture is the entire cereal section at the second largest grocery store in the country. And these photos are exactly why so many expatriates are reduced to tears by the cereal aisle.

grocery store1

And here is the produce section of a Safeway.

safeway produce section

And the produce stall I stop at whenever we need something. What I like about this photo is that it shows people, which to me, demonstrates the relational aspect of most transactions in Djibouti.


And of course, the meat markets.

grocery store meat*image via Wikimedia


Okay, I’m having a little fun with you. I know there are more meat options in the US than canned turkey sticks. And I don’t always buy my meat at places like this, though sometimes I do.

Also, I’m not trying to slam either culture. I love that I can anonymously run in and out of a Cub Foods in Minnesota and that I can be almost guaranteed to find exactly what I want exactly where it was the last time on the shelf. I love shopping in the market and talking with the vendors in Djibouti, I love the freshness of our food and the creativity of preparing so much from scratch.

But I don’t love the overwhelming amount of choices in the American supermarkets and I don’t love the limited options at some points in Djiboutian markets. Both can feel quite, well, shocking, at times.

How do you experience culture shock regarding grocery shopping?




  1. Chelsea August 4, 2014 at 5:12 am - Reply

    I love this! My husband always thinks I’m crazy because I get culture shock in the grocery store every summer. This year I eased into it by going to the grocery store twice with other people (when I didn’t need anything) before I had to actually try to find something by myself. Nonetheless, I was still asked if I needed help with anything while I stared at the huge selection of cereal when I actually needed to pick something up!

    • Rachel Pieh Jones August 4, 2014 at 2:19 pm - Reply

      Great idea to go with other people first, ease into it.

    • Jessica August 6, 2014 at 5:26 am - Reply

      It’s been over ten years since I moved back to the states and I still catch myself staring at all the choices and feeling lost in the grocery stores! We went overseas when i was 3 and I came back at 15… It’s still an adjustment.. Being on time is an impossible feat too..who needs clocks or time???

  2. Rae August 4, 2014 at 10:17 am - Reply

    I studied in Europe when I was younger, and we ate a LOT of fresh fish and fruit. When I returned to the States, I went grocery shopping with my mother. I was convinced the oranges were glowing! It turns out they often add color and polish to the fruit here to make it look more appetizing.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones August 4, 2014 at 2:21 pm - Reply

      Woah, that almost sounds creepy to me! No wonder they are so bright. Lots of our oranges are actually green, too, so the brightness is even more surprising.

  3. Kate August 4, 2014 at 10:37 am - Reply

    It’s ALWAYS the shampoo aisle or pasta sauces that get me, every time…

  4. Marilyn August 4, 2014 at 12:14 pm - Reply

    Yup – always the cereal aisle. Love this – the visuals are perfect.

  5. Jackie Thulin August 4, 2014 at 12:35 pm - Reply

    I have to agree with you about the cereal aisle, Rachel, and I live here. Deciding we need coffee is simple. The half-aisle of coffee options just leaves me feeling frazzled and a little guilty. I am beginning to like Aldes. I don’t know any of their brands, but there are about four kinds of cereal, and you either buy their coffee or none. It is very freeing.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones August 4, 2014 at 2:22 pm - Reply

      I don’t usually go to Aldi’s, but I’ll have to check it out. Good to hear from you Jackie – I tried to email you, would love to see you and Tom if possible in the next few weeks.

      • Becca July 22, 2015 at 1:14 am - Reply

        I love Aldi!! After living overseas for several years Aldi is so simple. All the basics in a small store and at reasonable prices and it keeps the culture shock at bay!!

  6. Karen Milliorn August 4, 2014 at 1:09 pm - Reply

    Here in southern NM, we have a chain of grocery markets somewhere between US supermarkets & the mercados we saw in Mexico. There you can buy “Virtue” toilet paper (& flush your Virtue down the toilet later!). The kids will also enjoy picking up some “Moko Gorilla” (gorilla snot!) hair gel! All fun aside–the produce section beats that of several other stores in town put together. AND, you can stop for a nice tostada plate to fortify you before you shop.

  7. Glynis Wentzel August 4, 2014 at 1:12 pm - Reply

    We had some friends come visit us from Yemen when we were in the UAE – we went to a South African coffee shop (Mugg & Bean) on the top level of one of the international grocery stores in Abu Dhabi. The couple went into sensory overload, the wife started crying uncontrollably, when we went into the grocery, after our coffee & meal, to do some shopping, of items that we couldn’t get in Al Ain where we lived. And yet, as good as this store was, it was nothing compared to what stores are like here or in South Africa. It made us appreciate what we had there when we saw the pictures of the little store they had in their village in Yemen. Each time we leave the US to visit family in Africa or Canada or even the middle east and come back, it is a sensory overload and sticker shock experience for our family for a few months.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones August 4, 2014 at 2:25 pm - Reply

      It never ceases to amaze me how much perspective affects us. I remember once being in awe of what my friend brought me from Pakistan while at the exact same time she was in awe of what she was able to pick up in Djibouti and bring BACK to Pakistan!

  8. Courtney August 4, 2014 at 2:55 pm - Reply

    Whenever I go home, going to Walmart is a BIG deal! I remember last time I went home I was sent to Walmart by myself to pick up a couple of items and I found myself just aimlessly wandering up and down the isles looking at everything on the shelves, getting lost in the variety and sheer quantity of it all.

  9. rachel August 4, 2014 at 3:41 pm - Reply

    I had a complete meltdown. In the frozen food aisle one time, and another in the pasta aisle! Now its easier, but going to a new grocery store or stepping outside of my comfort zones from the brands I’m familiar with still remains difficult.

  10. Anne-Marie Heckt August 4, 2014 at 4:15 pm - Reply

    Rachel – great way to show vs tell! 🙂

    I remember coming back from a year in north china in a poor city and just standing by a highway, stunned by the noise and activity

    It was crowded and busy and dusty and noisy where I was, but there was a small version of everything needed within walking distance, and every one you knew was out there on the sidewalk.

    Suddenly being back in suburbia, with lots of concrete, no car and few people was truly a shock.

    Not to mention the smells and sounds being so very different. I wonder you can sleep at all when you come back!

  11. Anna August 4, 2014 at 7:06 pm - Reply

    Everyone warned me that this would happen, and I fully expected it after over 3 years away. I do my shopping at a mostly open air market with a few stores, and it’s a huge treat to find something like a jar of jelly. But back in the US I never had a problem with culture shock in the grocery store/Walmart. My problem was always taking too long and wanting to buy too much. I’m used to the idea that if you don’t get it now, you don’t know how long it will be before you see it again! It may be that before going overseas, I simplified things by buying the same type of things & same brands just to cut down on decisions. So I fell back into that habit rather than making tons of decisions. 🙂

  12. Michelle August 4, 2014 at 7:45 pm - Reply

    The toothpaste aisle is the worst. I remember after being out of the US for a year I stopped by the grocery store because we needed toothpaste. I froze. And didn’t buy anything because there were too many options. All I could do to ease myself into American culture was count…In case you were wondering there were 37 different types of toothpaste. ahh!

  13. Julie August 4, 2014 at 7:47 pm - Reply

    Growing up overseas and now also living overseas I grew used to having reverse culture shock when going back to Canada…way too many choices! It got to where I now make sure I don’t need to go to a shop just after I get back but go anyway because I know I will stand in frount of the isle (usually run out of shampoo first) and just look at all the bottles. Then leave without buying anything because I just can’t get my mind around what to buy and the prices. Then I can go back a few days later and actually buy something.

  14. Frances August 4, 2014 at 8:13 pm - Reply

    I made the mistake of sending my husband to pick up some sliced ham shortly after we returned to the states from Venezuela. He came home with a dazed look and asked me never to send him on that kind of errand again. “Do you know how many kinds of hams they have here?!”

  15. Melissa August 4, 2014 at 10:12 pm - Reply

    I think home grocery stores are always the biggest shock for folks who have been living overseas. I’m a weirdo – I love Costco and I love a rustic local market. And I don’t eat cereal! 🙂

  16. Malana August 5, 2014 at 12:13 am - Reply

    My surprise was how hard it is to buy fresh fruit in Panama. It is there, but stores only carry apples and pears and plantain. Occasionally there are bananas or watermelon or a pineapple. You need to go to a street vendor to get a good selection, and the town of about 3,000 doesn’t have a single one. You have to take a bus to the neighboring town to find a stall.

    There are however trucks that drive around daily and sell things. Figuring out what street they are yelling on the bullhorn in our jumbled neighborhood is hard, and I am still learning the language. I plan to start buying from them once I figure it out. But at first I thought they were yelling “tortuga” (turtle) when they were actually saying “tortilla.”

    Learning helps me overcome the culture shock. Understanding why a thing is the way it is takes the mystery and incredulity out of the picture for me.


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  18. Susan Davis August 5, 2014 at 7:13 am - Reply

    In comfortable Switzerland, I have just the right amount of choices, not too much and not too little. Food here, doesn’t have as much preservatives so produce spoils quickly. As refrigerators and freezers are smaller, one has to shop daily to buy food. Relying on public transportation, I only buy what I can carry. I too, have to cook from scratch, as the processed food aisle is small and now I prefer fresh meals.
    On visits to the states, I quickly adjust to US ways of eating more processed food that most people serve, but I have a stomach ache for the first week, getting used to more chemicals and GMO food.
    During Thanksgiving the upscale grocery store in ZĂĽrich, sold Libby’s canned pumpkin pie mix for the ex-pat community. One year they didn’t have it, so I asked the store about it. They had to discontinue it as it has an additive that is illegal in Switzerland!
    I have heard from others who move back to the US from Europe, that food and poor cell phone reception are the biggest hurdles in overcoming reverse culture shock. (Ok, and left and right politics as well).

  19. […] Culture Shock in Pictures: Grocery Shopping […]

  20. […] is posting on culture shock in pictures this week, including clothing and my personal favorite, grocery stores. Again, the issue of food came up. I thought back to Lao markets on the side of a dirt road, Hong […]

  21. John Donaghy August 6, 2014 at 1:23 am - Reply

    One of the most interesting examples of culture shock happened to me when I took four coffee farmers to learn about a coffee export project in another part of Honduras. We went the first afternoon to a small cafĂ©, run by a Honduran woman. The guys – coffee farmers – were astonished by the antique cappuccino machine she had and the whole atmosphere of a cafĂ©. They tried mocha and cappuccinos. The mochas kept a few of them awake half the night.

    The last day we had a working morning meeting in the cafĂ© with three Hondurans in the project as well as me and the US head of the project. It was fascinating to see how they felt out of their environment – even though the cafĂ© was simple, run by a Honduran, and with a limited menu.

    It made me think of the places I visit to eat and drink a coffee here in Santa Rosa – how they are really not part of the rural culture.

  22. Jackie August 6, 2014 at 1:54 am - Reply

    When we lived in Hungary I would buy eggs and other food from our open air market. I loved those markets! But when I first used the eggs, I was shocked that the yolks were actually more of an orange color and the whites weren’t clear but had a slight tinge to them. I later learned that this color difference is because the eggs I bought in Hungary were farm fresh eggs from free range chickens. That’s the color a yolk is supposed to be! Not the pale, canary/butter yellow of our eggs from caged chickens.

    The other thing is the way meat is presented. Meat in the US in the meat section is presented as much to look as table ready as possible for raw meat. Nice cuts of beef ready for the barbeque, etc. Nope, not so much in Hungary. Meat is presented to look as much like a dead animal as possible so that your know your meat is a fresh as possible.

  23. Kim August 6, 2014 at 1:57 am - Reply

    I shopped in Japan at grocery stores where the aisles were only as wide as the basket, AND the carts you could use could only hold one basket on top and one basket on the bottom (hence the width of the aisles!) and if you saw someone in the aisle then you had to wait until they turned down another aisle… True, these were the corner markets with things piled precariously to the ceiling, and still to this day I giggle when I see our Real Canadian Superstore aisles and carts… what a contrast! Always thankful for my car trunk now, after hauling bags of groceries, a toddler and kindergartener, and an umbrella stroller on and off trains and buses!!!

  24. […] And again, in our week of culture shock through pictures…scenery […]

  25. Isaak August 6, 2014 at 9:08 am - Reply

    That was a pretty well stocked cereal aisle. You should talk about how much that small box of cereal costs. I can walk out of the “grocery” store here with a small box and spend $160, but in the United States I would get a cart full of food and provisions. Not to mention that I could get everything I wanted from one store and not spend and entire morning trying to find all the ingredients needed for dinner that night.

  26. Amanda August 6, 2014 at 2:55 pm - Reply

    My husband and I have lived in Peru for the past 5 years- and every time we go to the states its culture shock all over again! Especially because they add a new flavor of everything and new products. you should see our cart! People think we are funny because we are running around like kids going “LOOK AT THAT!” “THIS LOOKS AMAZING!” and because it doesn’t happen as fast with anyone who lives there, they don’t notice.

  27. Tammy August 6, 2014 at 3:40 pm - Reply

    When we went to Nairobi from our town in Tanzania I sent my – at the time 14yo daughter – to pick out some deodorant to take with her to school. She came back and said, “Mom, how do I know which one to pick? There is a whole isle of just deodorant!” I think culture shock hits harder when its from one African country to another. Without the long plane ride its hard to prepare ourselves for just how different one country can be to another within Africa! (I know not all of Kenya is like Nairobi though.)

  28. Andrea August 6, 2014 at 8:43 pm - Reply

    I came home after I had been overseas during 9/11. Every car on the road was flying an American flag and “God bless America” was EVERYWHERE. I remember my first visit to a super Walmart. I was overwhelmed to the point of tears and totally disgusted. I didn’t like my home country very much for a while.

    One funny thing, in Russia we never knew what public restrooms would offer, so we got in the habit of stashing precious napkins in our bags when we got them, just in case. I had been in the States for a while when I realized I had huge handfuls of napkins taking up all the room in my purse because napkins here were plentiful and totally unnecessary for bathroom use.

  29. Wendy August 9, 2014 at 7:00 am - Reply

    I piggybacked off your post with my own, contrasting Japan and Australia (our two “home” countries) here:

  30. […] by popular demand, I’ll continue off and on to post photos reflecting culture shock. Today’s topic is bathrooms. Oh yes, let’s look at photos of bathrooms. (caution, this […]

  31. […] I also shop in a western-style grocery store in Djibouti but not all the time. I’m just sayin’ American shopping culture can be a bit overwhelming and over-stimulating for this market-shopping […]

  32. Lisa Overman May 15, 2018 at 9:04 pm - Reply

    While not related to food necessarily, I experienced crazy culture shock after two years in Kinshasa, DRC and returning home to Florida. The orange traffic cones on the road that slowly merged the traffic from two lanes to one was overwhelming. In Kinshasa they used rocks on the road to abruptly end one lane and force you into the next lane. No warning or anything.

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