Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Culture Shock

In the weeks leading up to my month home leave (a free trip home as a sort of prize for extending for a third year) it seemed everybody was telling me about the culture shock I was going to experience once I got back home. "You're going to freak out when you get back and see all the excess and waste...Nothings going to be the way you remembered it.....You won't even know how to talk to your own family and friends." I hadn't really thought much about any trouble readjusting to America, but the more people told me about it the more I began to feel a tinge of anxiety. It's been almost three years since I've been outside of Africa, I guess I could see how it's possible for me to have a hard time going back to the richest country in the world and slip right back in.

The culture shock came when I got to the Lilongwe airport. I was sitting in the terminal waiting to get on my first airplane since I came to Malawi. The TV on the wall was talking about Tiger Woods' personal life, and I was surrounded by white people talking about their 9-5 jobs, wedding plans, and the NFL playoffs...a big change from life in Mwazisi. As i started thinking about the trip I was embarking on my heart began racing, my breath got short, and I started thinking "oh man they're right, I'm not going to be able to relate to anybody. What am I going to do for a month if I can't even talk to my own friends." Then, other irrational panics came over me..."I'm going to miss a connecting flight along the way and get stuck in Johannesburg, The department of homeland security is going to bust me for the honey in my bag." I suddenly got very shifty and felt that everybody around me could see my extreme discomfort, and were judgeing away. I didn't say a word to anybody in the airport.

It wasn't until I was forced into conversation with my neighbors on the four flights home that I started to realize just how silly and comical my panic attack was. I had great wandering conversations about nothing with a whole assortment of good folks along my way. I was advised by a lovely thirty-something private investigator from Florida about what movies I needed to catch up on first. I talked to a young man from Wisconsin who had been backpacking all over Africa with his brother about his travels. I also chatted with a newlywed middle aged couple from Alabama who were on their way to Jackson Hole for a honeymoon, the sweet lady shared strips of beef jerky with me while her new husband told be about his beef ranch and how they fell in love as he brought his cattle to her family owned slaughterhouse. I listened happily as a hospital consultant from Minnesota told me all about her three sons that clearly were the light of her life. On the last leg home I talked to an environmental engineer from Grand Junction about fly fishing and and skiing.

With every conversation my anxiety seemed sillier and sillier. No matter where you go people are people, and you can always find a connection with a little effort, espechially when those people are from your home country. Talking to these folks about nothing really made me feel at home and cleared awayany nervousness. Americans are a mixed bag of people, and that's what makes us so interesting, in one flight you might have a western slope rancher on one side of you and an east coast civil rights lawyer on the other.

The past two weeks of being home have just been one great big confirmation of how much I love my home. Since coming home the highlights have been many, an ugly Christmas sweater party on Colfax that reunited me to many long lost high school friends, watching the Griz play in yet another national championship, a great week of skiing at steamboat thanks to the generosity of my brother, dancing in the dumping snow at a free Big Head Todd concert, randomly running into old friends and being able to fall back into our old banter without missing a beat, late night games of 500 with my family, holding my nephews in my lap while I help them put together great Lego creations, and spending time with my Aunt Kathy who doesn't let advanced MS or repeated trips to the hospital keep her from laughing and giving me hell. Just spending time with the people I love has been the main highlight....I've been away an awful longtime and it's good to be back.

So to other Peace Corps volunteers worried about going home and fitting in my advice is don't sweat it. I think the reverse culture shock hubub is bunk. I think ex-pats make a big deal about it so they seem more exotic and worldly. At least for me I feel like I've come home with a new appreciation for my home.

Last night I sat down with my parents to watch the Kennedy Center Honors on TV. I think it says a lot about America's appreciation for the arts when the President of the United States takes an entire night to honor a dedicated actor like Robert Deniro and an innovative Musician like Dave Brubeck. It also says a lot about our ability to find humor in anything that Mel Brooks the man who wrote songs like "Springtime for Hitler" for his play "The Producers" was also honored. We can see the beauty of our melting pot in the honoring of Grace Bumbry, a black women from St. Louis who sings classical opera. And finally we can see how much value we place on freedom of expression with the nomination of the boss Bruce Springsteen, because it's not so much his musical talent that makes him a legend but the way he writes songs that represent the left behind Americans. Songs like "Born in the USA" (people forget that that's a song about a Vietnam Vet who is mistreated by the government that sent him to war). I thought the whole show was a great example of what I love about America, we value our freedom of speech, our diversity, and our arts very much. The past three years in Malawi have showed me how rare it is to live in a country that holds those values sacred, and just how important those values are to me. So it's nice to get a little taste of that while I'm home.