The opinions expressed in this blog are mine, and mine alone. They do not represent the views of the Peace Corps or the United States Government.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Culture "Shock"

I have been back in the United States for about two weeks. Many friends have asked if it feels strange or if I am experiencing culture shock. On the one hand, I feel like a fish out of water. I feel out of place--alone--like no one else knows how strange it is to be in the US. Being around other currently-serving volunteers is really helpful because they provide a good foil for this feeling. They remind me that people do understand. On the other hand, I am HOME and I feel the comfort from being in my own culture. I don't have to worry that I will offend someone. I know what to say. I know how to act. This is my country. These are my people.

Recognizing these two feelings was comforting. Peace Corps service has changed me. No doubt about it. But this experience has shown me that I can come back to the United States and function well here. I am no longer afraid that I won't be able to live here because of the changes within me. I will be able to find like-minded people. At the same time, I am so very sure that I am not ready to live here yet. I love my life in Botswana and miss it very much. I look forward to returning and finishing out my service.

I wouldn't say I have experienced culture "shock" since being in the US. Going to London in October was definitely helpful in that regard. However, I have noticed things about how I am relating to Americans and life in DC:

#1: The sheer amount of choices is overwhelming. Almost all of the volunteers who come back to DC have a "grocery store moment," in which they get freaked out/anxious/confused by the sheer size of grocery stores. My moment came when looking at all of the choices of peanut butter. Similarly, it happened in CVS when I was picking out fragrance-free lotion. Why do we need so many brands? It baffles me.

#2: I care more about what people are doing, talking about...where they are going. I have had random conversations with strangers on the street, bonding about common observations. I never did that before I went to Peace Corps. My mom, however, has always been that way. People say that we all eventually turn into our parents and that is clearly true for me. My mom attributes these tendencies to her artistic nature. She is inquisitive. Perhaps that is coming out in me as I become more observant. I also generally crave more daily contact with people, something I acquired from being in Botswana. On the flip side, I also value the fact that I don't have to talk with anyone if I don't want to. I can listen to music, walk down the street and no one bothers me.

#3: I forget that I don't have to greet everyone here.

#4: I still bend my knees and do the "other hand on elbow" thing when handing something to someone. Everyone in Botswana--you know what I am talking about on this one.

#5: I try to refrain from converting costs of goods into Botswana Pula. It just depresses me.

#6: I am more aware of wasting things. I don't feel comfortable throwing food away. I think about composting and the amount of trash that we produce. I also cannot keep the water running through a whole shower. I turn it on to rinse but turn it off when lathering up with soap. Thinking of wasting water really bothers me. Again, something I was not conscious of before Peace Corps.

#7: I donate more money than I used beggars, to people on the street soliciting for their causes, etc. It feels stingy and inhumane not to.

#8: I have noticed that Americans are both individually and collectively self absorbed, which is as true as it has ever been. Going along with this, the issues that are considered newsworthy are laughable. The amount of time spent on analyzing politics and candidates is mind-numbing. It all seems so unimportant compared to what is going on in the rest of the world. However, this does not frustrate me like it used to. I have more compassion for Americans and understand them more now than I ever have.

#9: Continuing from the last point, the fact that 50 states can coexist in this system is unbelievable. I am astounded by the intelligence and fortitude of the founders of America. The First Amendment is so impressive. We are so often caught up in complaining that we forget how beautiful it is to have the right to do so.

#10: I am still amazed by how many people have computers/smart phones/ipads etc. Walking by Starbucks is a laptop commercial. I want to simplify my life. If I can use the black and white Nokia brick cell phone from Botswana when I finish my PC service, I will. I don't want people to have email access to me at all times. I want some distance from the world.

#11: I feel MUCH more comfortable in diverse, less-affluent communities. I spoke about this a bit in past posts, but I notice race much more than I did before. And being in an all-white area makes me uncomfortable.

It is nice to be able to step back and look at ourselves and our culture. I am grateful for the gift of time and space to be able to do so.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

We Will Always Love You

The death of Whitney Houston shocked the United States this week. I am lucky enough to be in the United States to watch the news and star tributes after her untimely death at the age of 48. I arrived in Washington, DC on February 4th. I will return to Botswana sometime within the next month. Since I have not written about this trip, I will address it briefly before I get back to Whitney.

Peace Corps supports its volunteers in many ways. As you can imagine, many things happen to volunteers during service. They can become lonely, depressed and disenchanted with their work. Some volunteers actually become injured. People break all sorts of bones, deal with sprains and other ailments. Sometimes medical issues (including those related to mental health) can be dealt with while the volunteer is at site. Sometimes, the volunteer needs to be transported somewhere in his/her region or back to DC to heal. Many volunteers are frustrated that they have to postpone time at their site to heal a broken leg or get an operation. Others are given the option to come to DC after they have become a victim of a crime--to get whatever support they need in order to carry on their service. The latter is what happened to me.

I do not wish to get into details on this blog. I am not physically hurt and I will be absolutely fine. That being said, I chose the option to come to DC and work through some things necessary in order for me to continue my service in Shoshong in the way that I want. You must help yourself before you can help others. That is what I chose to do.

Throughout this entire process, Peace Corps has been amazingly supportive of me. I thank PC staff in Botswana for their flexibility to support me in the ways that I needed. I am grateful for all of the emails and facebook posts of my family and friends in Botswana and in the states, who have helped me make the decision to come back for some R&R. I am happy that I have already been able to see my parents and some friends in the states. That has been amazing. I thank my local friends in Shoshong who listened to my needs and acted accordingly. And I have felt unwavering support from the Office of Medical Services in DC as well as other volunteers from around the globe who have also been Med Evac'd.

I look forward to returning to Botswana. And when I do so, I will be able to reflect on this experience more fully.

Until then, I want to talk about a woman I greatly admire: Whitney Houston. Listening to her music represents an essential part of my childhood, like the Beatles and the Everly Brothers.

For those of you are not familiar with her music, she was originally a church gospel singer from New Jersey discovered by a famous record producer named Clive Davis. She was a huge star in the 1980s and 1990s especially, known for her larger-than-life voice. Some of her most famous songs are from the movie "The Bodyguard."

My favorite album of hers is pictured left: Whitney.

Of course those who are at the top have the farthest to fall, and that was true with Whitney. She was plagued with a rocky marriage, drug and alcohol addiction throughout the 2000s. Regardless, she was loved by all for her talent, attitude and infectious spirit.

When I was in the PC Building a couple days ago, I noticed a photo spread of notable African Americans. I was talking to the security guard, telling her that we should put Whitney up there. She said, "A drug addict? I don't think so." I was taken aback because Whitney means so much more to me, as she does to so many others.

I said to the guard, "That's sad." She agreed with me. I smiled and continued, "No. I mean, it's sad that you feel that way." The guard said, "Well, that is how she is going to be remembered." I countered, "No, I don't think so. There are many aspects to a person."

It was indeed sad to me that this woman would look at Whitney Houston and simply see a drug addict.

We can learn so much about ourselves from our interactions with others. This dialogue reminded me how easy it is to judge other people and forget that we may have similar struggles. And if we somehow are able to overcome those struggles, are we to judge those who have a harder time? I sure hope not.

Once a good friend of mine reminded me of this quote by Plato, and I like to remember it often: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."