Readjusting

My reasons for leaving are personal and will not be divulged in this entry. The purpose of this entry is both for therapeutic reasons and also to give others a taste of what it could be like to experience culture shock the other way around: in your own country.

Here’s what I’ve learned about readjusting: It comes in waves. It’s not often clear up front just all the things PCVs must readjust to, and a lot of it will ultimately depend on our own values and interests, what countries we served in and what habits of mind we developed as a response to our placements. In the first couple of days I just felt off-kilter in knowing that I was different but also being hyper-vigilant in what obstacles I might face during readjustment. This is some of what it’s been like thus far.

The first couple of days after coming back wasn’t anything earth shattering. At first I just felt indignant about how often everyone wanted to take me out to restaurants, simply how often we ate out. As we neared the end of each meal, I’d glance around the table and notice all the partially filled or untouched glasses of water. Thinking what a waste it was, I’d check my own glass and pour any remaining water into the Nalgene I still took everywhere. Walking up a hill on a very narrow strip to fill a 5L bucket had made water very precious to me. I was still in the habit of letting dishes pile till they brimmed over the basin to get the most out each wash.
The most immediate and striking difference I noticed in myself had to do with news media. BBC News, The New York Times and the Columbia Journalism Review were my home pages for three years prior to Peace Corps, and now I just couldn’t wait to navigate away from them as soon as my web browser opened. NPR was probably what I missed most during my time abroad. It had been my soundtrack, the first noise to wake me up in the morning and the last as I set my alarm on sleep mode before bed. One of the other volunteers knew that I didn’t have a radio, and when she COS-ed, she left me her low frequency radio. I spent hours coaxing the dial back and forth, screaming with joy when I finally found a garbled reception of Voices of America. It was as close to international news as I was going to get, and I missed NPR fiercely. I had even asked my boyfriend to send me CDs with podcasts of my favorite radio shows but those came far in between. He had also assigned himself to sending me a couple issues of Mother Jones every month.
Several layovers, 20-some odd hours later and over 9,000 miles away from Maseru, my access to news had 180-ed. The paradox here is that many volunteers serve because of the chance to have a better understanding of the world, but while we pedal through our service, we’re also almost completely deprived of outside information. Americans are often typified as being the least globally conscious of the Western world, but regardless we are constantly plugged into networks of information. I knew as I got off the plane that I could once again drench myself in news, but now I wasn’t certain I was ready for it. This 24 hour-access, CNN world seemed more an assault on my senses than anything else.
These were perhaps the easiest things to get over. Then I moved to Portland, OR.

I’ve wanted to live in Portland for quite a while. It was one of my goals in college to live in a place where I could bike or walk to work. I had first gotten the idea of living in Portland when one of my musician friends told me what a great scene it was for music. Gradually I heard about the bike culture, how environmentally conscious the city seems to be. Most of all, it was a small town feel in a big city, and that was that. It made it into my Top 25 of things to do.
What a time to move though. Almost immediately the change took hold. I noticed I was afraid most of the time. Of people. Of men. Of the canvassers standing on street corners.They were the worst. “Smile! Why don’t you smile?! It’s such a lovely day!” In fact, it was overcast and grey with a chance of showers on your umbrella-less ass, I wanted to say.
My instinct was to glare, and I’m afraid that the homeless standing in front of the grocery stores got the worst of it. After all this time I had been looking down everywhere I walked, trying to get from Point A to B as fast as humanly possible. Making eye contact for me had been largely disastrous in Lesotho. It was asking for trouble. But here were people who pleaded with their eyes and the only thing I could think of to protect myself was to glare. I always managed to look back on the ground before that glare came to complete fruition, but there it is. Glaring at the homeless. The poor and hungry.
But the worst days, and they came six days a week for more than a couple of months, I was afraid to go outside. It was a big deal for me. I spent hours beforehand drumming myself up. When I finally walked out the door, all I could feel was panic. My cheeks were burning and I wanted to move as fast as possible. Could everybody tell something was wrong with me?
I was especially afraid of men, and it was a distinct sense of fear. Of sheer and utter terror, actually. I didn’t want them to look at me. I wanted to be a flash, a blur that they couldn’t take notice of. The bike was my invisible cloak. Too fast to be noticed, too fast for details. Walking with a familiar crowd was a bit better, but I was still too scared to look side-to-side as we went down NW 21st. I was afraid, I once tried to explain, of how they would look at me. That look in their eyes, of arrogance, of cockiness, as though they thought they owned me. I felt suspicious of every male I had not previously known well, even of some acquaintances prior to Lesotho and good friends of friends. Prior to all of this, I had spent seven months constantly dealing with the topic of sex. Gender. Being a nontraditional female in Basotho culture. Men had beckoned to me across the fields. They had told me they’d go “easy” on me because I was young. They had tried to touch me and take photos of me. Some had berated me for my ethnicity while simultaneously proposing marriage. Get my number. Followed me. Insisted that we would have a sexual relationship in the future. Handed me big sticks to “think about at night.” Chased me across fields. Some of them were coworkers.
Women did this too. They often told me how I would be stolen by a man and forced to become his wife; my pleas would be useless in a court of law. They proposed for their absent sons and brothers.
In all cultures we have habits of courtship. Flirtation, if you will. But I had never been in a culture where I felt first and foremost as a sexual object. So naturally, I was afraid of men.
One way to look at dressing up is as a form of flirtation. This is true of living in Northwest Portland: east of the West Hills, west of the Pearl and sandwiched between 21st and “Trendy-Third.” For me, “dressed up” meant beyond sweat pants and a nondescript t-shirt. More than just a hoodie. Putting on clip-ons, for instance, was my version of dressing up. Seeing everyone walk around all nice and pretty, sometimes I just wanted to look nice too. But I thought I noticed more men turning their heads, and that frightened me into a baggy sweats submission.
I felt socially awkward. I didn’t know what to say to anybody anymore. Each night I went out, I made what I thought was a string of social blunders: Not talking enough, bringing up inappropriate subjects with people I didn’t know intimately, blurting out awkward sentences. A lot of this was probably in my head, but I was not used to being shy and silent. I had always been known for being able to talk through any situation, and that made me want to pluck up my courage all the more and force myself to speak.
I was so fragmented. Shattered and broken. I didn’t know what I cared about anymore. What issues, larger than myself, was I willing to fight for? I had no purpose. I had no personality. I would never be normal again. Never have the same energy again. I wanted to hide. People were enervating and I had lost all the things about myself I had once treasured.
My days were empty.

It’s hard to describe just how complete this feeling of despair and struggle was. There’s really no way to over-dramatize it. I’m still trying to figure out how it began to change.
It had been four months since I returned and I was still struggling. I wrote to my boss and asked her if it was normal to take as long as I had to readjust. Peace Corps Medical gives three vouchers for counseling for all COSers. I hadn’t used any because they are essentially useless. Three sessions? Three hours: One to explain what happened to you, one to explain how you felt, one to explain where you are now. And where are you by the end of it? In the same place with no advice and three hours of emotional energy wasted. Maria assured me that four months was fine, that of course I felt scared. I had been in a country for seven months adjusting to completely different cultural cues.
One day I was talking to a good friend online. She was traveling around Europe and had just stopped in Istanbul. What’s it like? I had always wanted to go there. The idea of figs, apricots, spices and beautiful mosaics enchanted me like they’ve probably enchanted the rest of the world. I asked her a string of questions about her favorite stop thus far, including what most shocked her.
“Well, the biggest thing has been how hard it is to swallow all your feminist bents when all the men are like, ‘Yes please’ and whatever when you walk by them. They just want you to buy their shit, but they’d never never dare say so much as an unsolicited ‘how are you?’ to a local woman–or an obviously Muslim/Middle Eastern woman. So mostly you just want to turn around and go ‘Fuck you, Buddy, lay off!’ but you know they won’t get it.”
Her experience began to sound like my own.
“You cannot people-watch, it’s impossible, except for kids and women,” she said.
And suddenly it clicked for me. That’s the difference. Ours is a people-watching society. It’s okay to look at other people in our culture and not feel like they expect something in return because we all do it. In my mind, that was the beginning. When things started to be okay.

This is not to say that Lesotho wasn’t wonderful, but recovery is always from the bad stuff, the bad marks on your credit line that follow you for years. I had days there when I asked myself whether I wasn’t lowering my standards of happiness and days when I felt just how welcoming the culture could be. My experience is a conglomeration of internal and external factors–my convictions, their cultural homogeneity, Globalism exacerbating racial tensions, my sex and gender, their perceived gender roles and ultimately, the needs that I must address to remain happy and functional.
I look at the pictures of other PCVs sometimes and wish I could see Lesotho the way they do and the way I once did. I have people and things I miss. Like the wind plastering me to the top of the haystack of rocks behind my house. Like the bells konking together as the sheep climb the hills. Like one of my coworkers from the Ministry of Environment who spent a lot of time telling me about his travels to Israel and what the Basotho have to learn from them. My ausi, who wants to become a doctor and was shy the same way that I became shy. The volunteers who offered their time to me, to catch me up on permaculture. My teachers, who spent some of their personal time tutoring me on language because they wanted me to reach the “advanced” level. Like my ‘m’e, who shares the same birthday as me.


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~ by dennetmint on June 12, 2008.

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