The white coffee cup makes a delicate clatter against its saucer as the waitress sets it on the table before me. The noise jerks me from my reverie, in an instant withdrawing my brain 10,000 miles from my sauna-like village to my body’s present location: Paris. Rue de St German. Sidewalk café. I glance up distractedly and thank the waitress, “Asante tena, dadangu.” It’s typical for me now, if often embarrassing, to slip into Swahili when I’m distracted.

She stares at me for a loaded moment, as if wondering how long she has to tolerate my presence before the nice men in white coats catch up to me and haul me back to the asylum. Then, without another word, she flounces back into the restaurant, leaving me with my coffee and my half-filled Moleskine notebook.

———–

Reverse culture shock, or re-entry shock, describes the feelings of frustration and rootlessness when returning from abroad. One can feel like a foreigner again, as though you’re totally alone in your experiences, and they’re beyond understanding from the people around you. It can result from an idealization of the “primary culture,” or from the stark contrast between the host and home cultures. In the case of RPCVs, all of this is compounded by the sense of loss that accompanies departure: we miss our friends, our villages, our projects. Who knows when – or if – we’ll ever be back? Reverse culture shock is not generally as widely discussed as initial type, and understandably so; you spent over two decades in your home culture, what’s so weird about coming back? It’s not like when you arrive in a foreign country and have to cope with new food, new language, new manners and customs, new people, new bacteria attacking your every bodily process and appendage. (Sorry, PCVs – and RPCVs – like to trade war stories about overseas illness. Ask me about my parasites someday.) But for many people, it’s very, very real.

In my travels, I’ve found re-entry stress to generally be more intense than the initial culture shock. I’m not yet back to America, not yet surrounded by my friends and peers from before, so I’m sure I have lots left to discover. But the contrast between the “developing world,” where I lived for two years, and the “developed” world, where I’ve been traveling these past few weeks, is stark. Everything is gaudy and loud and unfamiliar. Everything is mind-bogglingly expensive. Everything is a little too clean, a little too sterile, a little too easy. Unfamiliar food is great – I’m loving trying new things – but why does the dining experience have to be so formal all the time? Why is everyone always in a hurry?

It’s odd.

(For an unexpectedly gripping [but good-natured] blog post about trying to find something to eat in an airport after a year in Peace Corps Kenya, click here.)

I remember the first time I lived in Africa, after doing a brief summer internship in HIV testing outreach in Tanzania, I came back to live in DC. I’d only been gone a few months, but I felt out of place. My parents took me to an upmarket steakhouse to celebrate. The slab of meat on my plate, marbled with fat and grilled to perfection, was enough to give a serving of desperately-needed protein to every resident of the orphanage-cum-hospice I’d been teamed with. I asked for a glass of water. The waiter brought out a large, chilled bottle of Evian, cracked the seal, and poured it into a stem glass. I found myself irrationally angry with him – why was he trying to sell me a $7 BOTTLE of WATER? Clean water access had been an issue in my part of TZ, too. America’s greatness is evident in its infrastructure – we had perfectly safe water from pipes any time we wanted, why couldn’t he bring me that? I sent away the bottle and got a glass of warm tapwater with a side of judgment. He didn’t get it. He couldn’t get it.

I wasn’t very much fun that evening, I think.

I’m not saying it isn’t wonderful to come home. It is. Nor am I saying it’s more than I can process of handle, certainly. Nor, for the record, do I want to sound like a self-righteous hipster jerk who has Seen So Much and is sooooo much deeper than the folks around me. But as I’ve mentioned before, it’s an adjustment. One that is rarely acknowledged, nor understood, by the people we’re coming home to.

———-

I’m standing in a grocery. My toothpaste has been gone for a week, and you can only get so much mileage out of snatching the tiny convenience pouches of the stuff off of sleeper trains. I won’t lie and say I never had access to these sorts of places in Kenya – three hours on public transport and I could be in Mombasa, home to not one but three Nakumatts, which is the Kenyan equivalent of Wal-Mart. Piped muzak, buzzing fluorescent lights, and infinite shelves of shampoo. But for most of my friends, coworkers, and pupils, a trip to the shop meant something like this:


The “corner store” where I bought all my basics: milk, vegetables, washing soap, etc.


Here, Western consumer behavior is such a banal thing, that it’s nothing to fill a cart full of lotions, potions, and processed foods. It’s a twice-weekly exercise. We get frustrated when they don’t have our specific brand of conditioner, forgetting that there are seventy other choices on the shelf that are more-or-less the same thing.

“How can there be so many kinds of things a person doesn’t really need? I can think of no honorable answer. Why must some of us deliberate between brands of toothpaste, while others deliberate between damp dirt and bone dust to quiet the fire of an empty stomach?”
— Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible

—————

Life in Kenya is neither easier nor more difficult than life anywhere else, at least in my view. I don’t want to romanticize it as a simple, carefree existence of spiritual love and maize planting. Nor do I want to paint a bleak portrait of it as The Land of Rape And Lions (I know how not to write about Africa.) It's infinitely more complex than that.

In Kenya, I had a steady paycheck and no regular bills. However, I had to deal with physical hardship plus the emotional toll of working (mostly) with a population that had such desperate needs, a new language, and a culture where I often didn't share the values. (Politically/theologically speaking.)

In America, I will most likely never have to worry about having no access to water or getting caught up in a typhoid epidemic, but I'll be buried under the deluge of the mundane: paying the internet cable bill, deadlines that are actually deadlines, the hectic pace of everything, the fact that my neighbors generally don't know who I am or particularly care. The problems are of a totally different caliber – and adjusting to the sheer pettiness of so much of it will be a jolt to the system, I don’t doubt. Even now, I scroll through Facebook, and find myself going “PFFF. #FirstWorldProblems.” after every fifth status update. It makes me feel jaded and snarky, and I don’t like feeling that way.

So where does that leave us? Is the solution to embrace that tone to life, measuring my success on the square footage of my house and the version of my iPhone? Become the cynical wanderer trope who spoils everyone else’s fun? Or take a more balanced approach – the most difficult of all – and translate my experiences into awareness, humility, and simple gratitudes?

I suppose that, an invisible but poignant alteration in thinking, is as much a goal of this kind of experience as anything.

(I don’t have an iPhone.)

(YET.)

————–

Ka-thungKa-thungKa-thung

The hollow tapping noise wheedles into my consciousness, poking holes in the hood of sleep draped over my mind. Fire Gospel church, Guardianship service, I think to myself as I try to doze back off. My particularly devout friend Ruth attends that place, and from 10:30 at night until 2:30 in the morning, they sing and chant and call down Glory. Sometimes – times of great joy, or great need – they’ll continue all night and creep home just in time to light the charcoal jikos for breakfast.

But it’s not the drums of Fire Gospel making the noise. As I jolt awake, my eyes focus, and it takes me a few seconds to remember where I am: my hotel room, Paris, France. The measured clunking is the wheezing of the outdated A/C unit gasping as it cools the air. Twilight is creeping over the city. Between the excess sun and the walking exertions of the day, I’d fallen asleep for an hour or so on the threadbare red coverlet of my hotel bed; now, it’s time to head back out. I sling my bag over my shoulder, stuff my hands down into my pockets, and step out into the evening, in search of something delicious. THAT’S never difficult, here in Paris – unless you consider the difficulty of choosing. The night is young and full of promise.

(And crepes. Mostly full of crepes.)

Somewhere, ten thousand miles away, it’s already full dark. Ruth and her sisters are lightning kerosene lanterns, sweeping the stage, readying the pulpit. Men are filing into the sagging tin building, taking their places on rough hewn benches. There is no electricity, no water, but the place is full of the spirit. The Holy Ghost will guide their rhythms. They will drum all night.

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