Reverse Culture Shock

Reverse culture shock is tricky. I’ve been back in the U.S. for about a month now. In many ways, I am still in the honeymoon period. I am thrilled to have hot water, I love grocery shopping, the array of available hair products at CVS almost made me cry. And it’s beautiful to have family and friends close by (or at the very least, a domestic phone call away). This is where my “real life” is, and I am glad to be back to it.

But other things are overwhelming. I feel about the mall now the way I first did about open air markets in Yaoundé. School is back in full swing. A professor waxed poetics on the first day of class about how invigorating it was to see the bright-eyed freshman, returning upperclassmen, all of us still young and idealistic. Mostly, though, I’m annoyed. I have “field experience.” The classroom suddenly feels unbearably tame. There is such a high level of stress for such unnecessary things. No one in frontier zone Côte d’Ivoire would stress about writing papers. People worry about putting food on the table, the shaky political process, disarmament of rebel groups. And then there’s the fact that things cost a lot. I miss twenty cent avocados the size of both my fists. Now I am back to the world of three dollar iced coffee and my wallet hurts.

When I’m out, I put a lot of energy into not talking about Africa at all (because I know if I start I’ll never stop). I try to be positive (admittedly having not such great success with this). I’ve also been talking with friends of mine who frequently pass between cultures. One friend spent a year in South Asia. His advice: indulge in all the foods you missed, take a minute when you need to, remember that there are good people everywhere. Another friend recommended burying myself in the library, transforming my angst into a boosted GPA. But the most candid discussion I had about reverse culture shock was with a friend of mine who is the Army and currently on his third tour in Iraq. He was honest: it’s going to be hard for a while. He says that when he comes home the excess of everything angers him. He finds himself being harsh with family and friends, frustrated at his inability to explain his perspective. He said he started volunteering in a local soup kitchen the last time he was home. He said he saw “the same faces” lining up for a free meal as he did on patrol in Iraq.

I think the temptation when returning home from a distance is to romanticize your experiences or use them to place yourself on a moral pedestal (I’ve seen real poverty, I’ve seen real life). But those are false positions. My conversation with my friend in the military reminded me that life is hard for people all around the world. There are pockets of the third world within America. And through it all there are the intangibles which hold constant. We love our families, friends, we search for a way to reconcile our present with our hopes and dreams. What I learned during my time abroad informs my life here. I need to use my experiences to be a more effective person, sister, daughter, friend, citizen.

In conclusion, I’m realizing that the whole homecoming process will take time. I will feel out of my element for a while. This is normal, and I am certainly not the first one to go through it. In the meantime, though, the World Cup Trinity (Shakira, Akon, and K’naan) is getting heavy rotation on my iTunes.

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