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.


  1. Amelia - this is very moving - and insightful - but not insightful in a "wow how brilliant!" kind of way - but in a measured, human, reflective way - an eyes open, oh, I see kind of way - a tolerant, forgiving, non-righteous kind of way - a tone of empathy and affection for both cultures, for the common human condition as it plays out in different arenas - love you honey - talk soon - dad

  2. Amelia:
    ps - love your comments on mom - people naturally open up to her, complete strangers talk to her about their lives - she responds to people's struggles, their pain in a deeply empathetic way and people can sense this - especially people who are in pain and are very senstive to the people around them, maybe because of having been treated badly by people in their lives that they should have been able to trust - it is a gift your mother has - people trust her, because she can be trusted - and looks like you have it too - dad

  3. love your observations and, really, completely share the feelings! After 15+ years back in the USA:

    #1: The sheer amount of choices is overwhelming. - this can still get to me. sometimes when shopping I give up and walk out - and I admit "ke rato dilo" - I wish I didn't, but I like stuff as much as the next person :) it is still overwhelming! and it is ridiculous when you think about it.

    #2: I care more about what people are doing, talking about - I find this is very Southern. I have always been this way and so is my dad (southwest GA)

    #3: I forget that I don't have to greet everyone here.
    DON'T STOP DOING THAT - it is a GOOD THING! I walk in to colleagues' offices and always stop and say, "Oh Hi Amelia, how are you? How was your weekend." and then I go on - seriously, I wish people cared more in the USA and did that.

    #4: I still bend my knees and do the "other hand on elbow" thing when handing something to someone. I STILL DO THIS. and it amuses me. you will find it is less pronounced over time ...