Monday, May 21, 2012

A simplified version of my first four months of re-entry

I have gone through "reentry" to the US before. At age 17, leaving the Philippines after 3 years and "integrating" into a big californian high school for my senior year was possibly one of the worst years of my life! Then there was coming back after 6 months of biking and volunteering in Mexico and Guatemala, right in time for bridesmaids-dress shopping with my sister (yes, there were tears involved). As I got ready to leave Madagascar after 28 months out of the US, I knew it was not going to be easy, and I tried to prepare myself for what was coming, mostly by dreaming about how amazing Mexican food was going to taste.

Unfortunately, I wasn't really caring that much about burritos as I sat on the Dubai airport floor in tears after walking by what seemed like a mile of perfumes and liquor and well-dressed travelers. 

The physical things that have been shocks to my system are mostly little things to the US, normal American wealth. Like going to the grocery store for the first time (and the 2nd time, and the 3rd time), sidewalks, children in clean clothes, people walking their dogs along the beach park "recreating".

There's also the personal anxiety: wondering if the clothes I pulled out of the box from my sister's garage where I stored them are still appropriate to wear out of the house.  Does this match? I'm really hoping to blend in, but not sure if "just returned from Africa" is written on my face.  Turns out it's not, but there was still anxiety about going out and about. 

When eating meals in restaurants, I can't help but think about Antanifotsy and the half-cup of peanuts for all of us when I see people's portions of meat. I know better than to say anything about these thoughts. But I get stuck, not knowing what to order for myself. And then I find myself not really able to participate in the conversations around me. I don't know enough about "first world problems," so I just nod and smile when someone's complaining about their app (?!).

Somehow, I'm doing better than when I came back from Guatemala, better about not venting all of my thoughts on the wastefulness or wealth or pettiness that I may observe. Maybe that's it: I feel like an observer, not really in it, so I'm better at not judging, letting it be. Sometimes it seems like what I am is just numb, or just good at ignoring. But really, after four months back, I think I'm finding that the hard thing isn't as much the culture shock, but the simple missing of the place, of the people.

After the initial shock, I find that I'm just homesick a lot. What I think about is how I miss having the kids over coloring at my house, or walking down to Antonette's house to chat before fetching water, or the 5pm sunlight on my wooden floor.

What's hard? Yeah, all of the adjusting-to-America's-wealth stuff; but also not being in the middle of that crazy community that got to be my home. Not having those daily routines that I got so accustomed to. And for the first months back, until I got my acceptance to grad school, the not knowing what's next, and not knowing how to plan for what's next. Honestly, I've never been good at transitions, despite the many I've had in my life.

So what has helped? Talking with friends, those going through the same thing and others. Having a patient family. Physical activity, and putting seeds in the ground at a friend's farm. Journaling. Taking things slowly, trying to be patient with myself and others. Eating burritos. And ice cream and pie and donuts, and the Malagasy red rice that I brought back with me, even though I almost cried when it turned out dry on the electric stove.