My mother chuckles at me as I fill a pot with water to heat on the stove for tea.
“What??” I reply.
“Why don’t you use the microwave, you silly girl?” she asks.
This was months ago now, during our first visit to the home my parents moved into while we were away. My mother seemd to follow me like a shadow during that, my first time in her new kitchen., checking on my cooking, directing me to the correct utensils, chuckling all the while at my apparent ineptness.
‘A mãe is a mãe everywhere,’ I thought, as I recalled our host mother in Mozambique insisting we use certain spoons for certain cooking tasks, and following us around the little kitchen in much the same way my mother was doing now.
Just as our host mother did, it seemed my mother- perhaps unintentionally- was training me. Or re-training me.
As it turns out, we had a ‘training period’ during our first three months at home that was oddly similar to that three month training period upon arrival in Moz.
There were things like (re)learning the language, first experienced when someone said they were ‘doing lyft’ this summer.
“Do you mean lifting?” I asked, motioning as though I were lifting weights.
She did not mean lifting. I’m sure you know what she meant. I didn’t.
And moreso during things like job interviews, or talking to someone about Peace Corps service, when the English word was right there, but couldn’t quite be found behind the Portuguese word. How many times have I just wanted to be able to say ‘pedir,’ knowing it means ‘to request’ but knowing too that no one says ‘request’ and wondering what is the more common English word we use.
There were (who am I kidding, this is present tense..there are) market stress moments.
I remember the first days in our market in Mapinhane: an overwhelming experience because of local language I didn’t understand, heat I wasn’t ready for, and the feeling of being stared at by lots of eyes. It didn’t take long before that became the norm and lost its overwhelm.
Now, the grocery store is a mess of large carts, too many choices, and lighting that seems meant to scare me. While I’m resistant to this becoming the norm, I suppose it will, eventually.
While the setting has changed, the biggest mystery remains the same as it was in the Moz market: what the hell do I cook with what’s here?
You might recall from my last After the R post that I talked about ‘catching my breath, catching my culture.’ That was a big part of the first 3 months back, and still comes in waves.
We recently passed the 6 month mark since closing our Peace Corps service. Passing that mark hit me hard. Some tears were shed.
And for many of the same reasons they were shed after passing the same time marker in Moz: It’s been a good while since I’ve seen the people I left behind, I still feel unsettled and a little out of place, that life of ours that was so beautifully normal now feels like a dream.
What’s shifted since I last wrote to you about life after the R, is that now that I’ve caught my breath, my culture (more or less), there’s space to start seeing some of the bigger picture stuff. There’s space to start noticing what Peace Corps service truly did for me.
Simply put, in Mozambique, I grew up.
This isn’t a realization that I’ve had only since being back; I knew it toward the end of Peace Corps service. But 6 months out I still recognize this as the umbrella that shelters most of the deep changes that occurred and most of the ways in which those 868 days away taught me to live well here.
I didn’t grow up in the sense of ‘adulting.’ When I started Peace Corps service, I was in my late 20’s, married, and had spent a few years working, paying loans and bills, since finishing college. I had become an aunt. I had travelled. I had published a book.
But still I hadn’t accepted my own anxiety. It had to follow me across the world and dig me a big deep hole for me to really acknowledge it, get to know it, and learn to manage it.
Still, I was often wracked with guilt about various relationships in my life. Then came a simple phrase spoken so strongly that it invited me to believe it: ‘Estou bem como estou.’ I am good how I am. A good friend told me to tell my students this when they said my hair was unkempt. But those may have been the most important 4 words spoken to me during my time in Moz.
Still, I wondered about my Purpose. But when nearly everything in my day to day life dropped away and was steadily replaced by something foreign, I noticed the things that remained and recognized them as shining, glimmering, unwavering Truth.
Being able to witness how the experience of culture, language, lifestyle, and work abroad have woven together to effect life now is turning out to be one of the best paths of discovery since being home.
When I most appreciate these discoveries is not when I’m actively trying to use a skill I learned from Mozambique. It’s not when I can understand Spanish because of learning Portuguese, or when I can get ready for my day using leftover boiled water when the water is turned off for a construction project. It’s not even when someone tells me I have the “patience of a saint,” or that I’m resourceful. In these moments I can smile to myself about Peace Corps skillz.
But when I most appreciate these discoveries is in the moments when I realize how Mozambique taught me, how it grew me, without me even knowing it. It’s when I notice my brain assessing a problem in a whole new, dynamic way. It’s when I understand what I need, when I can say hey to my anxiety, when I can be pleasant but assertive and know that that’s a good thing. It’s in moments of solid confidence, of letting go and trusting. And it’s in the tough moments, but how I ride them out instead of getting stuck in them. It’s in a feeling, a memory, a knowing, as strong as the sun, as subtle as the tide going out, that I realize the way things were and the way things are.
Meant to fill a void I have observed in the Peace Corps blogosphere, this series will address personal elements of life after earning my ‘R,’ a designation that changes a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) to a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV), after 27 months of service. Look for posts that answer common questions, address elements of transitioning back to life in the U.S., and reflect on Peace Corps service.