Hello readers! It’s been a long time, so I have a lot to fill you in on.
Before moving to Cape Town, I took 5 weeks of home leave in August to visit the USA for the first time in 2 years. To put that in perspective, some things that didn’t exist the last time I was Stateside: Occupy Wall Street. The final Harry Potter movie. Gangham Style. Indeed, the world was a different place.
That means I had an interesting opportunity to see how two years in very different circumstances can change your perspective on home. I thought I’d note a few of my impressions of the USA:
+ Everything seemed so nice and clean. Rural South Africans spend a lot of time cleaning, but they’re fighting a constant battle against dirt/insects/decay. Not to mention the lack of water, trash pick-up, paved roads, etc. It was so easy to stay clean in the US. Related: the grass in America was SO BEAUTIFUL!!!!
+ In the village, much of my daily energy was spent worrying about basic things like water. Suddenly having that burden disappear felt odd, like I was constantly forgetting something that I had to do.
+ Driving through the suburbs and not seeing a single person outside was bizarre. In the village, people will drop by unannounced and you’re expected to stop what you’re doing and sit with them. I never got used to this, but I did like the strong sense of community. I interacted with all my neighbors every day. By comparison, the suburbs suddenly felt very isolating. I spent some time in NYC and was much more comfortable.
+ Everyone had an iPhone, even people who were broke/counter-culture. Technology in general could be surprising. One of the first things I encountered (in the airport) was a trash can that compacted your garbage on the spot. How is that a thing?
+ There are some things I totally forgot existed. Those paper toilet seat covers. Sunchips. Water fountains. (!!!!!)
+ I realized that volunteers are actually really gross when we talk about bodily functions like we do. I guess, isolated from other Americans, I’d thought we were charming or something. Um, sorry. Haha.
Free. Potable. Water. [From wikipedia]
+ It sometimes felt like some people complained and made themselves unhappy over insignificant things.
+ I knew I wouldn’t have the stereotypical PCV breakdown in a grocery store, because I’d visited plenty of posh South African grocery stores that I thought were just like American ones. But I was actually surprised by just how giant the stores in the USA were; random towns had nicer ones than you’d find in South Africa’s big cities. I’d forgotten that. I found myself wandering around them just looking at things, as if in a museum. Actually buying things seemed a little beyond me. I was also struck by how there’s a product and store for everything.
+ Being able to understand random overheard snippets of conversation was awesome!
For example. [From Wikipedia]
+ The food was great, but not so great that I needed to pine over it. I realized that many things I’d missed would always be there. PCVs put America on a pedestal.
In some ways, it was difficult to be home. It felt like my time in the Peace Corps had been a dream, because no one knew or really understood the people and places that had been important to me for over 2 years. It was a scary feeling. Talking to friends who’d spent significant time abroad helped, because it seemed like they also felt this way sometimes. I was glad that I’d be able to return to South Africa.
I also didn’t know how to talk about my experience. Sometimes I didn’t want to talk about it, but had nothing else to say. Sometimes I did want to talk about it, but didn’t know how to do so/didn’t want to be annoying. I felt weird and conflicted about it. Sometimes I just literally didn’t know how to talk to people. Yay Peace Corps awkwardness.
Speaking of which, several friends asked me how I’d thought I had changed in the Peace Corps. I’d love to know, but it’s hard to say. I think I’m more mellow in a lot of ways. I’m more spontaneous. I’m definitely more grateful and have a better perspective. I think I have a better understanding of the world/people with different cultures. On the negative side, I feel like I’m more self-centered and callous… just as defense mechanisms that come with living in the village. I’m not proud of it. I do think the positives way outweigh the negatives; joining the Peace Corps was one of the best decisions I ever made.
On the whole, it was so great to see everyone. Going into the Peace Corps, one of my fears was that my friendships would suffer. I didn’t want to feel like people had forgotten about me. But in August I was able to see most of my close friends, and I realized that the distance/time hadn’t impacted our relationships. It was so encouraging, and made me feel that much better about returning to SA.
I even got to meet-up with another PCV, Marie, in the USA!! Weird. I don’t recognize these well-groomed people.