Paralysis in the Cereal Aisle

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If there is a common thread of experience in those who grew up overseas (third culture kids) or spent a considerable amount of time living overseas it could be the paralysis that occurs in the cereal aisle.

I walk in to the local chain supermarket and grab a shopping cart. The vegetable and fruit section causes minimal trauma, other than looking around thinking that I’d like to bargain over the prices.  It’s when I turn the corner into Aisle 3 when the trouble begins.  A sea of cereal assaults me.  The sizes, colors, names and food labels blend into a kaleidoscope and I want to cry.  I am paralyzed as to which to choose and in that instant I am transported back to Eesajee and Sons, the small general store on the mall road in Murree, a mountain area in Pakistan.

In the summers I would go with my mother to this store.  It was all so simple…so easy.  My mother would give Mr. Eesajee a list and he would climb up a ladder pulling down items one by one.  Lyle’s Golden Syrup, Nice biscuits, Digestive biscuits, Green’s Cheddar Cheese, store-bought butter and Corn flakes, one of the two choices of cold cereal available in the market. They were soggy the second a drop of milk touched them and the nutritional value was perhaps minimal, but it’s all we had and we were perfectly content.  Besides – if given a choice I would always pick parathas and omelets at a local tea shop.

I’m jarred back to my present reality by an announcement over the loudspeaker. I have no idea how long I have stood still or how many people have passed me by.  If I can survive the paralysis and make up my mind, there are some pretty good tasting cereals all available for a price.  My world suddenly opens up and I begin to read names and labels. After I pick Cheerios and Honey Bunches of Oats the kaleidoscope begins again as I realize there are 15 kinds of granola on the shelf.

I have often wondered why the cereal aisle?  The bread aisle has a lot of choices, as does the jam and jelly section.

What is it about cereal that brings out the confusion and paralysis, the feeling of being alone?

It should all be so simple.  Third culture kids are many of the brightest people I have ever met.  We survive wars, rumors of wars, and military coups; we know how to bargain in three or more languages;we can sleep anywhere and eat things that would send many to the hospital.  Why can’t we pick cereal?  Why is the mundane always the hardest?

It’s in the ordinary of life where we develop skills that are not always transferable across cultures.

Normal and ordinary includes mosquito netting on hot nights while sleeping outside on a rooftop and making mayonnaise with a blender; long periods of separation from family and eating fish curry with our hands; 15-hour airline flights taken alone at young ages with simply the command “Don’t lose your passport!”; vacationing in countries now considered the“Axis of Evil”; coping with crises considered insurmountable to others but all a part of the community that for better or worse we belong to.

No wonder our lives feel challenged by the normal in these passport countries.

It’s a challenge to go forward and make peace with the commonplace, moving away from thinking all of life in the United States as unimaginative and unoriginal. In my case it begins with the miracle of movement.  People who have experienced severe accidents with trauma to the spinal cord will often say that learning to walk again is one of the hardest things they have ever done.  Physically I do not pretend to relate, emotionally I know exactly what that is like.

It’s learning how to walk in a new way, learning how to live differently, first in baby steps, gradually gaining strength and momentum. It takes time and it takes work. 

The cereal aisle is a baby step in the journey.  Once I have picked my cereal, refusing to give in to the feelings of immobility, I find the rest of my grocery shopping goes quite smoothly.  I decide to pass on the granola…enough trauma for one day.

Besides, who needs three boxes of cereal on their shelf?

You can read more essays like this in the book Between Worlds: Essays on Culture & Belonging. 

55 thoughts on “Paralysis in the Cereal Aisle

  1. So much of your article–and the comments too–are applicable to me as well, that I wish there was a “like” (or “me too!”) button I could click under each comment!! The cereal aisle I still avoid even after over 30 years in this country. I think it’s not just the amazing, ridiculous amount of choices, but also the incredibly garish colors which assault the senses. I get a slightly nauseous feeling, as if I were being shouted and waved at by a million loud boxes saying, “Pick me! Pick me!” I purposely go and buy oatmeal, which strangely is in another, quieter aisle in the supermarket, and that’s what I have for breakfast. Problem solved :)

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    1. Yay for oatmeal is what I say. I’ll never forget the day when I burst into tears because I couldn’t find oatmeal…..That plain, comforting, quaker oats box was no where to be found. I left the store without it. I think it was hidden behind the kaleidoscope of sugar-filled other cereals.

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  2. Marilyn,

    This reminds me of a great scene in the movie The Hurt Locker where bomb disarming specialist Sergeant First Class William James returns briefly from the war to attempt reintegrating into American life with his family. There is this scene in which he is stuck staring at the endless cereal aisle with an equal amount of paralysis. Such a disconnect from his life of battle intensity. And yet, it seems clear that his paralysis is the result of something more than Post Traumatic Stress Disorder but stems from the disorientation of a life overly filled with trivial choices.

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    1. I don’t remember that part but I do remember his return – the film portrayed well his inability to cope with the “normal”. I’ll have to see it again. I remember wanting to cry in the cereal aisle. It was all too much.

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  3. this was me, too! except my freeze up was in the canned foods section. i stood there crying until a store helper came and asked if i needed help. i’d never been so embarrassed before, but thankfully he was very gracious and even helped me with the rest of the shopping!

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    1. Someone else said it was the cheese section! Whatever section – the feelings are the same. What I think is great is that the store helper actually walked you through the process. Amazing! Was this in the U.S? Thanks so much for coming by Communicating Across Boundaries.

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  4. Ah, Lyle’s Golden Syrup. Now there’s the bond that ties us all together. It was a staple when we lived in Ethiopia – and a key ingredient when making home-made marshmallows.

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    1. Love Lyle’s Golden Syrup Anita! Saw it a year ago at a grocery store in London and the memories flooded back. It was a staple. I don’t think there’s an equivalent!

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  5. Even after getting out of HS when I’d been back in the USA for several years, I had a hard time even going to the store for shoelaces! I still hate shopping! Way too many choices! Ah for those simple days when we’d go down to the little corner store for some sour balls (dried plums covered with a red salty powder) or a can of sardines for the pets…We didn’t have any dairy available except powdered milk from NZ and cheese from the Black Market (stolen from the US military.) The toilet paper came in packages like we get computer paper in now, and there was no such thing as sliced bread!

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      1. Hi, Anne! I think you were a few yrs ahead of me at Morrison…I was in the class of “74 from 5th-9th grades (well part of my 1st time in 4th grade, too…I was in the dorm and got real sick with Hep A mid-year and had to repeat the next year when we were on furlough in Denver…those were 2 rather stressful years!) I was only 8 my first time in 4th grade, tho, so was with kids my age when I came back…we lived in Taichung then and I loved it! My maiden name was Johnston, and my siblings were Ruth Helen ( She Grad from Morrison in 1968, John, Priscilla, and David…he was class of ’76) Don’t you have a bro near my age?

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  6. You have really hit the nail on the head! I had exactly the same experience in the cereal aisle on my first grocery trip. It wasn’t so bad when I was living in Scotland, my passport/”home” country. I just bought what my Mum used to buy when we were back on furlough. It was when I moved to Canada that I really experienced it, so many brands I had never heard of before! I just didn’t know where to start! My roommate at the time was amazed and probably quite amused by my lack of cereal knowledge, but he took it upon himself to educate me! I am now proud to say I can walk through a grocery store and select what I need with no hesitation!

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    1. Great roommate you had! I often think of those that walked me through some of this, also quite amused! The other thing they were amused at that perhaps you’ve experienced is the mixing up of idioms! I could never get them right! Thanks for your comment.

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  7. Ahh you bring back so many memories. For me, it was the whole supermarket. And not so much paralysis but nausea. I would physically get a headache and start feeling dizzy and ill! Great to find your blog! I’ll be following!!

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    1. Thanks for the comment Sophie! I know exactly what you mean about the nausea – while I didn’t experience it in the supermarket, learning how to go places in the United States without being accompanied by either one of my brothers or my father would terrify me to the point of being sick!

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  8. Happens to me a couple times a month. Worst case is always when I walk out of the supermarket without having bought anything on the (small) list in my hand and drive home. Tami says “where’s the groceries?”. I say “culture shock moment” and I don’t have to say anything more. I’ll get them tomorrow.

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  9. After gaining a certain comfort level with our local stores, I thought I had this one licked. Then Terry and I spend three months in Australia, cooking and fixing for ourselves. It was culture shock all over again. One of my vivid memories was from the departure area in the Sydney airport. I was desperately looking for Tylenol or Ibuprofen–anything to ease my splitting headache–and couldn’t find a single ingredient I recognized in the aisle full of pain-killers.

    Thanks, Marilyn!

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    1. Did you finally find Paracetamol?? That is what we used to use in Cairo! So true that when adjustment is finally made, depending on what the next step is we start through it again!

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  10. Thank you so much for your comment Lea – and sharing the story of your daughter. The tears come easily in those situations. I have a small grocery store that is walking distance and my favorite because I know exactly where everything is.

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  11. Marilyn, thanks for sharing that. I still my remember my first trips to a grocerie store. They took literally hours. I was reminded of those experiences recently when I accompanied our daughter Anna to a Shopping Mall soon after her return from the Missionary Service. In fact, in tears she asked if we could just go somewhere ‘smaller’. How thoughtless of me, in the first place, to take her to such a huge Mall!

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  12. Thanks Marilyn,
    I thought the canned goods were the worst when I came home. Starting at the upper left hand corner of the label and reading through every description on the tin, it seemed to take for ever just to know what it was, much less make a decision. People would pass grabbing from my right and left and I would try to refocus and feel dumber all the time. Hated trying to read small print in a grocery store with hundreds of cans to cover.

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  13. Bettie – thank you so much! I know – the feelings don’t seem to go away. You reminded me that part of the novelty of Eesajee was actually shopping without a man present who was not my dad or one of my brothers! And I agree with you, despite wanting to cry in the cereal aisle I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

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  14. How succinctly you have written about these experiences! I am enjoying every blog and very glad that you are writing. By the way, after all these years in retirement from Pakistan I still gawk at the super market shelves! Since I had little experience in actually shopping for groceries during those 34 years, I still feel more “secure” having Hu go with me for our weekly trip to Kroger! What a wonderful life!!!

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  15. Marilyn, I love it! I’m laughing and crying at the same time, and remembering how wonderful it felt to be able to buy those special treats just down the road ( or up depending where we were living in Murree any given season.) In Sindh in those days, it was a long drive to Sukkur to get them, if the shop had them. We get nostalgic over Digestive Biscuits from Stop and Shop, and Roses Lime Marmalade is still my favorite. Remember making homemade marshmallows? And shelling peanuts to make peanut butter? Love you – keep up the great communication!

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    1. I know! Remember when they first put the soft-serve icecream stand in Murree?! I think it was right near Eesajees! thanks so much for reading and commenting! My favorite are still the nice biscuits.

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  16. Thank you, Marilyn, for your insights. I am challenged and inspired by your reflections.

    We hosted a woman from Mozambique as she first arrived in this country. Hearing her amazement at little things, as, wondering where the people were as we drove along Rte. 114 heading toward her first meal at a McDonalds (not my suggestion!). There were no people walking along the road doing their shopping. I had never thought about it, but along most of that section, there are not even any sidewalks. As we talked about our dependence on our cars for even the basics of life, I realized that almost all of the walking in the suburbs is for exercise. Few walk to a store, to the post office or the bank. Those in cities do walk regularly, at least to get to public transportation, if not all the way to the store. (Is it just my imagination, or are there are fewer overweight people in the cities than in the suburbs?)

    I have realized, too, the waste when I take a shower. I am showering in potable water. I am even using it all, allowing some of it to go down the drain without even touching me. So many in our world do not have enough to drink and here I am washing in it. Part of it reminds me of what an abundant land we live in, that we have plentiful water that needs minimal chemical treatment. But it also reminds me to be less wasteful, to be grateful to the Lord for this abundance, to pray for the thirsty, and to support those who are working to alleviate the problem.

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    1. Love the reflections of the woman you hosted! I have a book called “Watching the English” – a book about behavior of the British from the perspective of an anthropologist. Reading your comment made me think of the book as it mentions some of the same things. I’m also reminded of the movie “The Gods Must Be Crazy” and one scene of a woman getting in her car to drive to her mailbox a block away!
      I don’t think the comment on weight is in your imagination- at least as evidenced by who I see walking and taking public transportation. Thanks for your response and for reading!

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      1. Marilyn–good blog(s)! I had no idea what bothered me about living in quiet suburbs, until I met a woman who related the following:
        Years earlier, she had accompanied her husband when he took a one year professorship in Japan. They loved the vitality of living where there were people everywhere! When they returned to their beautiful, suburban home, she felt lonely and more than unusually restless. One day, as she looked out of the window at her beautiful garden, she suddenly had the picture that she was now living on the moon! She suddenly realized that the problem was that there were NO PEOPLE! She could live for days without seeing another person from the window of her home. Even her beautiful garden could not dispel the feeling.

        This story had a profound effect on me. I had never thought consciously about the fact that I missed seeing people as soon as we left the confines of our home! Once I understood that, I could explain my discomfort. Yet, my feelings have never changed. Living where people do not walk outside feels like living on the moon. Now we live on a street where I can look out of my window and see people outside, even in the frozen, snow covered, moon-like, white of winter! It has been nearly nine years since we moved here, and never once have I felt like I am living on the moon.

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      2. Great story – That description works so well. I think that is why Cambridge works for me as Madison does for you: I always know there are people around, no matter what time of the year. I think even more than that, your comment “Once I understood that, I could explain my discomfort” is such a critical piece for TCK’s. It’s being able to articulate where our sense of confusion and disorientation lies and how to make peace with our passport countries.

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