Tag Archives: culture shock

On being back in America, an RPCV

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I’ve been back in America for a while now so it seems fair to update you all on what it is like, you know, coming back to America.

To sum it up as fast as I can, no one thinks I’m important or interesting anymore, things often are not where I left them three years ago (I mean both places, like the Spice Terminal in Reading Terminal Market, which I just today discovered is no longer there, and things, like a Joe Sacco comic book and my blender and my French press), more things are automated than I think need to be automated (doors, toilets, sinks, towel dispensers, supermarket checkout lanes), and public transit is unnervingly efficient and consistent in terms of where it goes and when and how much it costs to get there.

So, then. I am happy to be back and to be back in Philly, but every once in a while I find myself wanting to cry because I miss my host family, or embarking on a long-winded story about that time that that thing happened on the kombi (that no one is interested in hearing). I have realized that all the news reports I’d been reading about how hard it is to find a job nowadays were not exaggerations, and have the worrisome suspicion that many potential employers view Peace Corps and Fulbright as a fun three-year vacation I took rather than as three years of me managing projects, writing grants, and collaborating with everyone on any project they could think up, all with me speaking either Macedonian or Albanian. I feel moderately to very abandoned by Peace Corps, and would like to humbly request that they one day consider giving more to their former volunteers than a few thousand bucks, a reusable grocery bag, and a Peace Corps mug. (I mean, like, options to buy healthcare if you have a weird return schedule, not more money.)

I’m going to stop now, because I’m trying not to spend too much time reflecting on how strange it is to be on the other side of this Peace Corps thing. For years it was my only goal, and it never occurred to me that one day I would finish Peace Corps and would have to figure out what would come next. Now I’m almost 27 years old, unemployed, uninsured, and hoping that I work things out soon. Fortunately I can do so while reading my library books, eating Reese’s cups, and drinking all the good beers Philly has dreamed up in my absence.

Sometimes you don’t know you’re in a honeymoon phase till you exit it

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I’ve been in Macedonia for over a year now, which in the early days of my training and service I thought would be kind of a magic time when everything would start going well for me. I would be doing awesome projects at work, I would be well-integrated in my community and struggling to schedule all the coffees people wanted with me, I would be reading like one book a month because of my active life style, I would have lost all the weight I gained during my training and my first few months in Debar, and my bowel movements would always be regular.

Only it turns out things aren’t so much like that, and that, at least for me, there was a kind of honeymoon period lasting after the first week or so in country. Relating to other topics, I like to talk about “Peace Corps goggles,” and I think I had some version of these on until about the day I started working in the classroom again after summer break. For the past year, every time I encountered some trouble (like my language not being so good, or spending more time sitting and watching in the classroom than I wanted, or not being able to get clubs or projects off the ground) I was able to think: “But next year it will be better! Next year I will be better integrated, my language will be better, I will have met every person in my town who is excited to create positive change…”

But there are some things, now, I just don’t feel I have the energy for. I do still spend time with my family, but not on the nearly the level I used to. Instead of three or four or five or even more hours a day, I fit in a quick coffee after work, or just count the time that Ava comes over to hang and play Donkey Kong as my “family time” for the day. Spending hours watching music videos and soap operas doesn’t have the allure it used to, and maybe it’s partly because I’m studying for the GRE and need to have more alone time, but I also find myself thinking, “Well, I’m going to enjoy reading this novel more than I’m going to enjoy watching turbofolk videos…”

My dad compared this to the early stages of marriage. When you get married (so I take it) you want to spend every waking second with whatever person was foolish enough to declare his love for you with a $50,000 wedding featuring every person you’ve ever met. But then time passes, you remember that you like having a couple hours at night to play online poker, or watch Jeopardy, or read, or do the crossword puzzles, and it no longer seems imperative that you spend so much time together. This is pretty much how I feel now.

Of course, Peace Corps being Peace Corps, they sought during training to reassure us that we will have ups and downs and that every volunteer has these. There are certain points of service at which nearly every volunteer finds him or herself brimming with a deadly mixture of self-loathing, pessimism and desire to eat a $4 burrito. The chart Peace Corps showed us looked something like this:

I can only hope, then, that I’m at one of the marked low points. Given that I have more projects in the works than I did at any point in the last school year (more alphabet books! Flat Stanley! School library! Regional spelling bee! Teaching kids to brush their teeth! Teaching students the often incomprehensible rules of English pronunciation!) my poor attitude and desire to crush the idealism of all the new volunteers will hopefully fade soon, erased by the pleasures of, I don’t know, teaching an illiterate third-grader how to write the colors in English.