Thursday, August 4, 2011

the trip home

It’s been inexcusably long since I last wrote on this, and the worst part is I feel like a lot has happened in that time. The big roadblock was my month-long trip back to America, which was planned as a surprise for my Mom, but there were a handful of blog-worthy happenings in there as well which I hope to eventually get to in later posts. Mainly, what I want to deal with here is the notion of culture shock, or reverse culture shock to be specific to my experience.

The initial move from Ohio to Uganda was a bit jarring to say the least, but so much of that was cushioned by my expectations. I knew I would come here and meet all new types of people and see a different way of life than I am used to (cultural norms, poverty, corruption, etc.). When you expect the unexpected, a lot of the edge can be taken out of the shock. It also didn’t hurt that I was in the same boat as 28 other future Peace Corps Volunteers. The return trip a year and a half later was something else entirely.

Setting foot on that plane was like stepping through some kind of science fiction wormhole through time and space. All of the sudden, the headaches were gone, everything was clean and functioning properly, staff were going out of their way to take care of me. It was awesome, but it didn’t feel right.

When I arrived in Chicago (after a quick overnight stay in Istanbul – I won’t go into it here, but what an amazing city! I highly recommend it.) my friend Dan was there waiting for me at the airport. The switch was unceremoniously thrown from African time, where the concept of tardiness and urgency are completely foreign to American punctuality. My little delay in Turkey had cost me a whole day in the states, and we had a schedule to keep. After a stop-off at Art of Pizza, my absolute favorite, we picked up our friend Jon and went back to Dan’s place so I could grab a quick shower. From there it was straight to the My Morning Jacket concert that was a birthday present from Dan (thanks so much again, buddy).

Surprisingly, the blaring music, flashing lights, and droves of people that make concerts what they are didn’t have much affect on me. It wasn’t until we went out to a bar afterward that I realized the full extent of the culture shock. As people sat there and talked about relatively normal things – the job market, the newest iPhone apps, HBO’s Game of Thrones – I realized that I was completely incapable of contributing to the conversation. A year and a half ago, I would have been right at home. I knew all of these people. I had talked with them about the exact same things, but something was different and I knew that something was me. What was I supposed to say when someone was talking about apartment shopping? “Oh really? A two bedroom just a block away from the Red Line with a great view? Sounds great! That reminds me. I was recently thinking about zombie proofing my own apartment. You know… Just in case.” While I didn’t go through with it or even say it out loud, yes, I was seriously considering it for a while.

Though I really did love every minute of my trip home, it was a bit marred by my difficulties in re-acclimating. Sure, things like wastefulness and constant attention to the iPhone are things that I would have expected to annoy me, but it didn’t stop there. Nice dinners, easy transportation, time with family and friends, good customer service, even tap water caused me more than a little anxiety. At first I couldn’t understand it. These things are all positive, and I have thought about each and every one longingly since I arrived here, so why wasn’t I able to fully enjoy them without some nagging anxiety?

I have thought about it for a while, and the only thing I can come up with is a skewed sense of equilibrium. Life in Uganda can be incredible at times. Work can be so rewarding. Time with friends is so refreshing. Good food is a rare, but always much appreciated treat. I have rafted the Nile River and safaried in savannahs. The thing is, every good is paid for, and I don’t mean in shillings or dollars. For every breakthrough at work, there’s countless hours wasted waiting for people to show up, convincing (sometimes begging) them to try things your way, and doing your best to protect everything you’ve built from corruption, infighing, outside jealousies, and so many other problems. For every weekend adventure with friends, there always the cramped, smelly, agonizingly slow public transportation and the people outside of your safe community who see you as if you had a target on your back. Headaches seem to accompany just about everything here. I’ve had the opportunity to do things here that I never dreamed I would get a chance at, but, as I said, these things are paid for by a million headaches and frustrations. It’s a balance.

I think the root of my culture shock in America stems from that lack of equilibrium. I got a chance to hang out with friends and family every day. When I wanted good food, all I had to do was open my Mom’s refrigerator. On the rare occasions I didn’t find something that I was excited to eat, I could just hop in a car and go get something. I know this sounds great, but the problem was, I was experiencing all of this stuff while I think my mind was still keeping a mental tally for me. It thought that for every shower and glass of water, a grueling trip to the well loomed that much closer. For every good meal, a dirty, long matatu ride into town should be made. For every day of fun with my family and friends, at least five more would have to be spent in solitude. And that’s the way it went in America. With my good, easy times continuing to heap up on one side of the scales while the frustration and headache side remained empty. The more things that piled on the good side, the bigger the shit storm would have to be to balance it out. Luckily for me, that shit storm never came.

Even still, it’s hard for me to believe how profound the culture shock was in coming home versus that of when I came to Uganda. I guess it goes a long way in saying how we can get used to anything, even things that seem so so foreign to us.


  1. Great post. Reflecting back on 25-years post Peace Corps re-entry to the USA, it was perhaps finding this equilibrium again at home that was the most life-altering part of Peace Corps. No one I knew who went into Peace Corps came out the same. Life directions changed unalterably, and in good, creative ways. That makes it sound easy. It was a roller coaster at first. :-)

  2. Hey Davey Cakes,

    I'm glad there was no shit storm hitting you when you were back home. If you were that anxious about it, I wish you would have just told me so I could have kicked you in your knees when you weren't expecting it. Either way, I'm still happy you were able to come home.

    Good luck re-re-adjusting to life buddy!