I knew it then, and yet, I continue to be baffled at how hard it is.
I've been home for four months now. I was lucky to already have a job lined up and transitioned immediately into a full time job as a special education teacher. Immediately, as in I arrived home on a Sunday and was at an inservice on Thursday.
September and October were spent working full time at my first teaching job during the week and traveling every weekend to catch up with family and friends. I put almost 5,000 miles on my car in about 8 weeks. That's about the distance from South Dakota to West Africa. During these 8 weeks, I never slept more than 3 consecutive nights in the same place.
This time was full of gratitude, excitement and feasting. I also experienced first-world guilt, culture shock, social blunders, and a great deal of anxiety.
My second day home, my sister told me she'd never seen me this way before (anxious), and she was right. Up to this point in my life, I've felt competent and capable, cool under stress and thrived under pressure. The anxiety was new to me and extremely frustrating. My concerned mother asked, "What is it that's so hard about being back?"
Well, a lot of things. A lot things that are difficult to explain and have taken several months to figure out myself, Some of those things are extremely personal, and I will not detail those things here, but many of the challenges are ones I'd expect to be common among Returned Peace Corps Volunteers.
There's the expected challenge of reacquainting myself with the materialism of the Western World. I drive a tan car with one white door. I find that I am embarrassed and sometimes try to park my car so people won't notice it. Then again, why the heck does it matter?! It's a white door on a car that comfortably gets me where I need and want to go. A car that I didn't overcome major gender bias obstacles to learn to drive. This internal struggle frustrates me a great deal. I want to finally have nice things because I appreciate them now. At the same time, I can make almost anything work as a master Macgyver-er, and I feel guilty knowing that what I am considering buying isn't actually a need.
The sheer number of choices in America is overwhelming. In a restaurant in The Gambia, you could order a Coke, Sprite, Fanta, or Vimto. Here I've seen fountain drink machines in restaurants with more than 100 options. I'm embarrassed to express the level of anxiety I felt trying to pick out a razor among the 20 female razor options my first week home. It's not that there is something wrong with having so many to choose from. It's simply that it is overwhelming for me.
Then there's the social blunders. I still make a clicking sound instead of saying yes or I understand. When my students seem confused about what I'm teaching, it's still my first inclination to try to explain it in Wolof. I have actually launched into a Wolof explanation to my students and then encountered their even further confused faces. I honestly don't want to be that weird new girl in town who always talks about that one time she lived in Africa so I hesitate to share stories. At the same time, that was a huge part of my life that I do want to share with people. After living in Gambian culture, I over-greet everyone. The other day, I made eye contact with a stranger in a store. She apologized for the intrusion while I started to ask how she was doing. I'm culturally insensitive to my own culture.
But my biggest fear during my service was that I'd lose my place in the lives of those I loved most, that during my absence, my dear family and friends would find someone or something to occupy the space I previous held and move on with their lives. I found great consolation during my first few weeks home at how quickly and naturally my relationships seemed normal again. Their lives had changed a great deal, as had mine, but the depth of the friendships allowed us to pick it right up again.
On the other hand, I thought that after living in separate hemispheres, being just a few hours from my closest friends, and a mere hour away from some of my family would be a breeze. No more over-stuffed gelly-gellies with chickens underfoot and doors falling off! I have my own car! And I was coming to the land of WiFi, text messages, and impeccable cell reception! I could connect with my many dear friends who live all over the country! What I didn't expect to find was that it's almost worse when they're close but not here. It's easy to pick up a phone and call or get in the car and drive, but Americans are so very busy. Americans are too busy, and while I was relieved at how normal things felt when I talked to or saw these people, I am frustrated at how little time people seemed to have, and it's easy to feel a little hurt by this. I understand it because I myself often don't respond to texts or return phone calls in a timely manner. Still, it's difficult.
Compared to that of Gambian, American culture is lonely. I was frustrated in The Gambia when my host family thought I was sick or angry because I spent anytime alone in my hut. That's because they're always with someone. I'm not a fan of extremes, and I find I've gone from one extreme to the other! Americans, at least single Americans, spent a lot of time alone. If you walk from point A to B in The Gambia you will probably receive seven invitations to come and chat and three insistent invitations to come eat lunch with them, and probably a marriage proposal and two offers to adopt a child. It sounds like I'm exaggerating but honestly, I'm not. It's one extreme to the other.
All this said, I would like to throw some reassurance out there before any of you worry about me. It is good to be home. I love my job. I have an incredibly loving support network of people I trust and enjoy. I've been welcomed into a new community that is genuinely friendly and hospitable. I am grateful and blessed to be back in the daily lives of those I love most. I have had time to begin reflecting on my Peace Corps service and see what a gift it was. I am still in contact with some of my dear Gambian friends and overall, I'm very blessed. Transitions are hard, and this transition is extreme. I won't sugar coat and say that the last four months were easy. They haven't been, but each month has certainly been a little better. Thank you to all my dear ones for your support and prayers.