So I'll be down here for 27 months. I have lots of wall space and would love to receive some postcards from you back home. If you send me a postcard:

1) I'll be very happy, 2) I'll show it to everyone that comes to my apartment, 3) I'll send you a postcard, 4) You can be 100% sure that I won't forget who you are during my time here.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Back in the 'Yunais'

I've been back in the US for almost a week now. For a while before coming back here everyone was talking about reverse culture shock and how tough it was going to be. I've experienced it before and I guess that the idea of it is a bit weird at first thought: after being abroad for x amount of time, you start to experience culture shock from returning to your home culture.

I haven't done all that much this past week. With all the despedidas (going away parties) the last few weeks in Juticalpa and 4 days in our closing conference in Tegucigalpa I was exhausted once I got back here. However, some of the biggest changes so far are:

  • The cold. It's freezing here and I walk/bike almost anywhere I'm going. I'm more used to it now than the first few days but when people get excited that the temperature is going to reach 45 degrees F today then there's a problem. In Juticalpa, I was complaining if it got down to 65 degrees F at night time. A little bit of snow fell here the other day and the streets and sidewalks are pretty icy.
  • Not being a rock star anymore. Peace Corps staff always joked with us during training that we would be rock stars in our sites. We would be El Gringo that everyone wanted to meet. Well, it was true. I knew people almost everywhere I went in Juticalpa, and if I didn't then some stranger would probably start talking to me. People here don't normally look, let alone talk, to strangers in the street.
  • Language. I'm not sure what I miss more, Spanish or Spanglish. Although, I will keep practicing Spanish (probably not as much Spanglish).
  • Philly. Philly is much different than Juticalpa. Both are really great and I'm always happy to be back in Philly. This past week I've been able to walk and bike around, drink various types of dark beer, eat all sorts of food and all this has been done without seeing people with machine guns driving around. There's also less dust here.

There are a bunch of other things that upon arriving here I realized are so much different, but overall I think the reverse culture shock isn't too strong this time. Maybe once I start getting out a bit more and seeing more friends it will hit me more, who knows. 

When we were accepted to PC, we got tons of packets and papers and information. There was one excerpt that I kept where a RPCV (Returned PCV) described reverse culture shock. I'd say there's no better way to describe it and I think it's the way I felt the first time I experienced it. Check it out...

The problem is this notion of home. The word suggests a place and a life all set up and waiting for us; all we have to do is move in. But home isn't merely a place we inhabit; it's a lifestyle we construct (wherever we go), a pattern of routines, habits, and behaviors associated with certain people, places, and objects all confined to a limited area or neighborhood. We can certainly construct a home back in our own culture, just as we did abroad, but there won't be one waiting for us when we arrive...

In other words, no one goes home; rather, we return to our native country and, in due course, we create a new home. This condition of homelessness is perhaps the central characteristic of the experience of reentry, and the confusion, anxiety, and disappointment it arouses in us are the abiding emotions of this difficult period.

To put it another way, the trouble with reentry is that you suddenly find yourself in transition when what you expected was to simply pick up where you left off (though, of course, neither the place where you left off nor the person who went overseas exists anymore). Even when they're expected, transitions are troublesome; when they're not, they can be genuinely debilitating.

Your self-esteem isn't helped, meanwhile, by the fact that no one seems especially interested in what you've been doing for the last two years. You have just gone through what may be the seminal experience of your life (certainly of your life to-date), and experience that has transformed your view of the world and your own country- and changed you profoundly in the process- and yes your family and intimates somehow aren't bowled over. You have so much to explain, but alas, their capacity to absorb is not nearly matched by your need to recapitulate; they're filled up before you're even half empty. The typical returned Volunteer is a catharsis waiting (not so patiently) to happen.

This dynamic only adds to the returned Volunteer's growing crisis of identity. With no present role, your sense of self- and of self-wroth- is embodied in the sum of all the experiences you've had in the Peace Corps; you are what you have been through in the last two years. But if nobody wants to hear this, then how can they know how you've changed and who you've become? And if they don't know who you are, how can they value or even like you?

Another frustrating dimension of readjustment is the sudden return to anonymity. While Volunteers often complain about living in a fish-bowl overseas, their every move the subject of intense scrutiny and still more intense speculation, they nevertheless enjoy being the center of attention and interest; it makes them feel special, even important. Speaking the local language for example, makes celebrities-even heroes-out of Volunteers, as does being the first American ever to teach at the King Hassan II Elementary School or to ride the local bus from Song Kwah to Phu Banh. Now, no one looks up when we enter a room or squeals with delight when we start speaking Swahili. Our every move has more or less the same novelty value as everyone else's every move. We aren't special anymore-and we miss it.

Something else we miss, acutely, is the intensity of the Peace Corps experience. Even when it was difficult-indeed, especially when it was difficult-the experience of living and working among an alien people had an almost palpable richness about it. We could practically feel ourselves growing and maturing, being stretched beyond what we thought were our limits and forced to come up with more patience or tolerance or persistence than we thought we had in us. We knew we were being transformed. And this was immensely stimulating and sustaining. Back home, life is easy and predictable; our character no longer gets a regular workout.

These losses-of home, self-confidence, and independence-are at the core of readjustment and all but guarantee that most returned Volunteers are not going to pick up where they left off. What's worse, the typical Volunteer suffers these losses alone and largely in silence. For two years, throughout all the excitement and frustration of culture shock, pre-service training, settling-in, and beyond, we were supported by other Volunteers going through the same experience we were. Now, suddenly and precipitously, we're on our own. We have our family and friends about us, and they are sympathetic, but they don't really understand.

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