Before sitting down to write today, I looked back at the first ‘After the R’ post that I wrote. In addressing the question ‘How was leaving?’ the first thing that I mentioned in the post was that I still felt in extremely close emotional proximity to Mozambique and to Peace Corps service. At that moment, I felt that life had changed suddenly in huge ways, that all that we had built up over two years was suddenly pulled out from under us, and that our lifestyle was kind of unraveled when we left. There was a strange form of grief that I felt for a number of weeks after leaving, and 3 months later it still comes back to me some days. I expect it will for some time.
With 2 months of travel to process through some of the impact of leaving, we arrived home with more emotional distance and clarity. We arrived home to the tune of many questions about life in Mozambique, perhaps more questions about what’s next for us, and one glimmering question about what’s going on right now.
The question is: How is being home?
Remember when I gave you the short answer in that first post? I’ll do the same here.
The short answer is: Good.
The short answer is true. It is good to be home. It is amazing to see our family and friends. It is good to take a hot shower. It is good to eat blueberries. It is good to hike and ski and wander and roam. It’s good to drive to the doctor and not fly. It’s good to drive. It’s good to not sweat. And as a close RPCV friend once told me, it’s good not to have “crunchy panties,” due to residual detergent that’s impossible to remove during hand-washing…
There are mountains upon mountains of things to be grateful for when it comes to being home, and I recognize those things every day, and take note of them.
It is also possible to hold two things to be true at the same time.
It’s good to be home.
Remember when I told you before that the short answer is really only sufficient for small talk but provides minimal understanding? The same applies here.
We’ve been home now for what feels like an eternity but is actually hardly more than the blink of an eye. We’ve been home for 7 weeks.
We were gone for 124 weeks, and we’ve been home for 7.
I often forget the disproportion of those 2 numbers when I find myself frustrated at still being overwhelmed by the 87 varieties of Triscuits in the supermarket or still not being able to find words in English or snow boots in some packed-away box. In this way alone it’s incredibly obvious what’s changed in our lives: we’ve moved from a slow culture where ‘Eu nao sei’ (I don’t know) is an acceptable answer to any question from cracker choice to your life plan, to a fast culture where the expectation is to ‘sabe tudo’ (know everything), from cracker choice to your life plan.
Our life has changed so much, so quickly that some days it seems impossible that we’ve lived deeply in these two very different realities within 3 months of each other. It’s a very uncomfortable truth that Mozambique feels like a long, beautiful, vivid, increasingly distant dream. As I listen to a bathroom fan run, I wonder if it really could be true that I used to urinate frequently in a bucket. As I buy tomatoes only in multiples of 4, I realize how odd it is that Moz made that a habit that doesn’t apply here. I could pick up 2, 5, or 30 tomatoes, and there would be no woman to waggle her finger ‘no’ at me as if the idea of buying some willy-nilly, non-multiple-of-4 amount of tomatoes was preposterous.
These days, it seems that I am supposed to be like a rubber super-ball, bouncing back into life in America-the life I grew up in, after all- after bouncing out to Moz for a quick sec. In reality, I feel more like Silly Putty being tugged on by a nasty, grubby, sticky expectation of what re-integration should look like.
In one moment I am pulled into the terrifying maze of Super Target by the [false and infuriating] expectation that my re-integration should include shopping at mega stores.
In the next moment I am pulled into yet another conversation about the future, under the expectation that I should have a plan.
I should remember the plethora of helpful kitchen appliances now available to me. I should be able to eat all foods without my stomach taking revenge. I should be able to speak English well. I should never accidentally drive on the wrong side of the road for a sec (well, Alex should never…), I should be able to buy a 6-pack in less than 20 minutes and 6ish paces in front of the big ‘ole beer cooler. And, goodness gracious, I should know what Triscuit I want because I ate ’em before and what’s changed, really?
I should feel normal.
I should understand.
I should feel one hundred percent joyful to be home.
Whether these shoulds are pressed onto me by others or self-inflicted, the fact of the matter is that they are a product of the culture and the environment in which we now find ourselves, and staving them off is a never-ending battle.
I tell myself I should because I want to feel normal in my environment.
Others tell us that we should because they think they understand, because they want to understand and are trying to understand, and probably even give us helpful tips as to how we can re-adapt.
I believe strongly that there are pieces to the re-integration experience that everyone can relate to. Everyone has experienced sudden and drastic change in their life. Everyone has experienced pressure from expectations, and from the word should. Everyone has, at times, felt out of place in their culture or environment.
But just as with any of those unique experiences- and any RPCV reading this would say the same thing- no one can understand unless they’ve done it. Unless they’ve done this exact thing. I’ve had this conversation with RPCVs from Moz, from Tanzania, from Guyana, from Morocco, and while our experiences even vary among us, I think this is a pretty universal conclusion about reintegration.
I’d venture to say that all of the shoulds are about 20 steps beyond what any recently returned PCV feels is urgent and vital in re-integration.
There is a sense of urgency, perhaps, but it is not in what you think. There are a million subtleties that define each day, completely invisible to the person that sees them day in and day out, but stark to the person who doesn’t, or who hasn’t for a while. This is culture.
It defines how we relate to each other. It defines when and what we eat. It defines how we perceive our surroundings and our world. It defines expectations, goals, and desires. It is ‘the air we breathe.’
So, when you ask ‘How is being home?’ and I pause to inhale before I speak, know that I’ve already answered, just by taking a long, deep, slow, breath.
Being home is trying to catch my breath. Trying to catch my culture.
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.