The Northern Coast

The Northern Coast
The Northern Coast--photo by Zack Thieman

Monday, August 5, 2013

Parking lots, gaining weight, and speaking English--or Reuniting with 'Mericuh

During the entirety of my Peace Corps service I never went home to visit-- no Christmas vacations, no weddings, no family emergencies (thankfully), no visits whatsoever-- so the first time I was reunited with my family and homeland was the day after my close of service.

I had been warned sufficiently that while culture shock and adapting to Peru would be difficult, going home and reverse culture shock would be much worse. I already had a small taste of this on the returns from my study abroad to Costa Rica and Spain, but I didn't know what to imagine after over two years of being separated from my home and US culture.

Most people have been pretty understanding that going from living in a third-world country back to the US wasn't going to be easy, and is probably pretty weird. However there are just as many people who don't really seem to understand why. After all, I grew up in the US, people here speak my first language, what's to get used to? What's the adjustment?

Well, I'm going to tell you.

Speaking English all the time is weird
Maybe it was the fact that I'd just left Peru and said goodbye to my Peace Corps experience and was on an overnight flight with my seat at a 90º angle, but I cried in the Houston airport, mostly because I didn't know what language to speak.

In the past two years I only spoke English with other volunteers and on the phone with people back home. Otherwise day-in and day-out I spoke Spanish. So it's safe to say 99% of my interactions with strangers over the last two years have been in Spanish, and suddenly I was faced with customs and they were asking me questions in English and my brain was having a really hard time just remembering common courtesies and things to say to strangers in English. It didn't matter that English is my first language, my brain was prepared with responses in Spanish and the switch wasn't easy. And then to hear English all over the place, well that was just too much! My ears have been trained to perk up when I hear my mother tongue, so suddenly my head was going into overdrive as everyone spoke it.

Customer service people are way too friendly.
There is nothing like customer service in the US. Seriously, nothing. There were definitely times in Peru when the waitress was practically glaring at us from across the room while we waited to be served, or I stood outside a bodega banging a coin on the metal bar of the front window yelling, "¡SEÑO!" over and over again for 5 minutes waiting for someone to come out and let me buy something.

So when a waitress doesn't just want to take my order but makes inquiries about what I've been up to all day, or the barista at Starbucks asks my mom and I if we're having a "mother-daughter day," my first reaction is, "What's it to you?" I used to work in customer service so I should be a little more understanding, but it's been surprising. I'm also pretty sure every waitress has been hitting on my boyfriend in front of me, but I could be wrong.

There are a lot of parking lots and paved things.
Need I say more? I can't get over how there are so many parking lots. Within the first 24 hours of being home I grew a disdain for them that I never felt before. Not to mention how weird it is that everything is paved. The town I lived in had one paved road and it was the main highway that ran through it.

There are way too many choices and products in grocery stores
I've heard a lot of stories of people coming home from third-world countries and stepping into grocery stores only to cry at the large variety, because going from having one choice of cereal to 50 can be extremely overwhelming.

I thought this wouldn't happen to me because in the cities in Peru they have big grocery stores like in the US, the only difference being products and expensive imported food from the US (like M&M's). At least a couple times a month I would visit them and splurge on something simple like a bag of picante mixed nuts or a Snickers bar.

So my first time in an Albertson's as I went to gather some food for a BBQ I surprised even myself as I crumbled into tears after wandering the aisles for 10 minutes and ending up with only one thing in my hand. I couldn't find any of the food I used to buy in Peru, and 50% of the food in the store was a processed product I'd never heard of. All I wanted was to find one pepper I used to eat everyday in Peru and when I realized I wouldn't find it, but there were a ton of products I could never think of a use for in bright and shiny packages, it made me pretty sad.

American food is both delicious and dangerous
I think I've gained 10lbs in the last week and a half. And I wish I was kidding. Yes, the US is filled with food I've never heard of and don't know if I'll ever eat, but it is also filled with yummy food I've missed so much. And I have gorged myself on it. And I've gotten really sick. My body has gone into shock over the richness of the food here. Everyday in Peru I ate rice two meals a day accompanied by a pretty bland piece of meat and legume or bean. But over time that blandness started to taste pretty good and full of flavor. And then I came home and ate food here and it was like an explosion in my mouth---and my stomach.

I miss my host mom's cooking, or mostly that I didn't have to cook
In Peru I didn't make my meals, I ate all of them with my host family, and I didn't have a say on what we ate. There were a few times I made food for the whole family, but my host mom and host sister made all the meals, and my only job was to be at the table on time to eat what had been prepared. Being an adult who had made my own food for several years it was a hard adjustment to lose control over what and when I ate. And then it just became life.

Now every meal is up to me. I have to decide what to eat, I have to go to a huge store to buy the food, and I have to prepare it. That was fun for about four days. So much more goes into preparing a meal here! Food is so expensive! In my site there was a small market and a few bodegas and my host family bought all of the basic un-cooked ingredients, like dry beans and a bag of rice. If you wanted meat you went to the carniceria and said "half a chicken" and they literally chopped a chicken in half for you right there, or "beef loin" (if they had beef that day) and they cut the loin off a huge leg hanging from a meat hook. Plus there was just more time to make all of the food from scratch.

Now I'm trying to balance fresh produce with processed products and the ethical production of that food and I'm looking at these plastic wrapped boneless chicken parts and I'm wondering, "where did this chicken come from?"

I feel like I entered an alternate dimension
There's this weird paradox about "home" when you're gone for a long time-- it both stays the same and changes. The things that stay the same make you feel like you've never left, and the things that have changed remind you that life has definitely gone on in your absence. Now I just I feel like I've somehow taken this weird quantum leap into an alternate dimension. Or that I'm dreaming. Either way, it's strange, and I'm not quite sure where I fit into this alternate universe yet.

I feel like I'm on vacation
I haven't quite shaken the feeling yet that this is temporary and that I'm going back to Peru soon.

I say "yes" when I mean "no"
In Peru it's rude to say "no," so even when you have no intention of working on a project with someone or meeting up with them, you say "yes." I was really frustrated about this in Peru, but I started adopting it, too. If someone invited me to a party I said, "yeah, I'll be there!" and then never showed up. And that was okay. That is not okay in the US. That is flaky. My boyfriend has had to remind me multiple times to be straight forward with people about my plans because, guess what? People don't get offended here if you already have something going on that day, but they will get offended if you blow them off.

Small children don't run to me for hugs and tell me how pretty I am
Surprisingly much more depressing than I thought it would be. There are some quirks to sticking out and getting a lot of attention, and that is small children want to hug you and are nice to you. If I were to hug someone's child here I'd probably get arrested.

Other random things:

  • People don't greet with a kiss here. Whoops.
  • Pulling your debit card out of your bra gets you weird looks.
  • People are very active, always riding bikes and running somewhere. Makes me feel lazy.
  • Everything is so nice and feels like a resort, which exacerbates my "vacation" feeling. 
  • My mouth is torn apart from eating chips and cold cereal (which I rarely ate in Peru).
  • I avoid men on the street/prepare myself for harassment from men in public.
  • I still have a hard time not throwing my toilet paper in the trash.
  • It's so quiet here. I have to stop myself from filling the silence with loud music. 
  • Life is so much more predictable here, yet people get upset when things don't go as they expect.
  • Everything smells so good. Idaho smells good. Oregon smells good. Trees smell good. I love it.

So yeah. The US of A is my country, my homeland, and I've spent 88.9% of my life here. That doesn't mean it's easy to slip right back into things. Even if things stayed exactly the same while I was gone, I've changed, and those changes in me are going to cause friction with the way life was before I left. 

It's kind of fun though. Seeing your own country and home through new eyes helps create change that maybe was needed all along. I don't have to slip back into the old me, and at the same time I don't have to completely change everything. I get to find something in between and that's an adventure in itself. 

Friday, August 2, 2013

Goodbye sucks, and other revelations

Two plus years of service crammed into two bags plus a backpack

I can't believe it, but this blog post is being written in the USA as I am now officially a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. I finished my service in Peru on July 24th, I'm home visiting family and friends, and I've been back on US soil for a week. And it's weird. I really wanted to post one last time in Peru before I left because I anticipated there would be a storm of new emotions and things going on the second I left that would be stories of their own, but this will have to do. It's just too much for one post to talk about the end of one life and the beginning of a new one.

My last week in site was overwhelming and filled with parties and teary goodbyes, and I didn't even get to say goodbye to everyone I wanted to. It's so hard to just get up and leave from two-years of relationships and experiences, so of course it didn't go exactly as I wanted, but I left with my heart overfilled. I had a series of farewell parties thrown for me ranging from the high school, to a friend's host family in a neighboring town, to the municipality. The last week in my site was one big party filled with kind words, occasionally booze, and tears. Lots and lots of tears. (Pictures below--yes, even of the tears).

Of course some people were harder to say goodbye to than others. My host family, my really good counterparts who became my friends, my volunteer friends, and the kids from my health promoters youth group. Saying goodbye to 14 and 15 year-olds is hard because you just don't know what's going to be next for them. I can't be there for the graduation of my oldest students, I can't be with the other students as they get older and move closer to their graduation. Are they going to stay out of trouble? Are they going to finish high school? What are they going to do after high school? What is going to happen to them? I invested a lot of time and energy into relationships with these kids who are still very much in the development stage of figuring themselves out and anything could tip them in a different direction. The adult friends I made will probably have very few differences between now and the next time I see them, but the kids could become completely different people. 

This if course spun me off into thinking of all the things I could've done better during my service. No matter what you have done, there is always a way to do it better. My last week of service was filled with a lot of strong feelings and emotions, but battling off the feeling of regret was something I dealt with constantly. Did I do everything I could have? Did I try hard enough? 

Could I have ever done enough?

Like I said, it was (and still is) a battle, but I know I did what I could with what I had and what's done is done. Also, it helped to have people in my community tell me a lot of nice things I never expected to hear. A friend of mine who finished service before me said in the end of your service a bunch of people come out of the woodwork and you find out how people have felt about you and your work that you didn't know before. I've said it before, but being a volunteer is a pretty thankless job and you almost never get any sort of accolades. However in my last week of service I received more than I ever expected. Teachers whom I barely worked with told me with ernest how much of an impact I had on the students. Mother's from my escuela de padres told me how important my work was and how lucky their kids were to have me working in the school. People showered me with presents and kind words and it kept going on like that as people learned I was leaving.

But more than the kind words and presents I received as I was parting, the relationships I created in my last two years are a testament to what my time spent in Peru has meant. The people in my site and my host family will always be in my heart, and I think I'll be the same for them. Of course saying goodbye to my host family was extremely difficult. My host mom gets pretty emotional pretty easy (she always calls herself "llorona") so a lot of tears were shed there. My host dad stayed stoic to the end only demonstrating his emotional strife through excessive household projects that he worked on constantly up until the minute I left the house. He did leave me with various parting words, all of which came back to the same theme: I'm part of the family, and I am always welcomed (and expected) back at the house in the future. 

Saying goodbye sucks. And being separated from a life and friendships that you built from basically nothing over a two-year span in a foreign country is jarring and sad. Preparing yourself to leave and return home where people may not understand all of that is also hard.

All of this sadness in leaving just goes to show how much of a positive experience I've had in Peace Corps, and I really do think it goes both ways. One day I was sitting with my good friend Lupe, the obstetrician who worked with me in my health promoters youth group, and she was talking about how sad it was that I was leaving (Peruvians really like to drag out the "How sad that you're leaving. Oh how terribly sad, you're leaving a hole in our hearts, etc etc"). I was just nodding and agreeing and trying not to bawl my eyes out, and then she said something that I didn't expect but really stuck. She said, "Everyone is going to miss you so much. Did you know that everyone really likes you? I don't know a single person that can say anything bad about you. Before you came everyone thought [US] americans were rude, cold, disinterested people. But now that everyone has met you they can see that isn't true."

I know it isn't much, but that is Peace Corps Goal #2! "Helping promote a better understanding of Americans." Somehow knowing that helped me battle back some of the regret. I told Lupe how that is one of Peace Corps' goals, and now I'm heading home to work on goal #3, to promote understanding of Peru to my fellow Americans. 

On paper that is Peace Corps; three simple goals, two years, one country. But it's all the stuff in between that makes a Peace Corps service, and it's different for every single person who has done it over the last 52 years. Do I think I'll ever be able to do it justice in writing? Will I ever be able to give a "five-minute elevator speech" that truly conveys what my service was about?

Simply put, no. But maybe I'm not supposed to. Nothing will change what my time in Peru has meant for me, and I can only do so much to explain things to others who have never been there. But if I can get my small Peruvian town to think US Americans aren't a bunch of jerks, then maybe I can get the US Americans I know to understand a little about Peru and it's people and what my life was like there. The beauty of it is while I closed the chapter of my life when I was a PCV, I will forever be an RPCV, so I have time. 

The multiple despedidas thrown for me and the kind words said about me were more than I ever expected, and too varied to go into detail. Here are some pictures from a few of them.

My despedida at the high school. I'm sitting at the head table with one of my main counterparts and the director of the school. 

The students arranged some different performances for me. 
The back chalkboard was decorated and signed by all the teachers
Some of my favorite students dancing 
Dancing with my best teacher friends
Williams performed some songs
Another typical dance. It rounded out my experience at the school very well.

Lunch with my site mate Zack's host family plus friends (Kike and Sue!)

My health promoters youth group, Pasos Adelante, meeting one last time

One of the gifts made for me (by Gerardo)

A formal farewell at the town municipality
My host mom gave a very nice speech about me
Receiving ridiculously nice gifts I didn't expect
A plaque thanking me for my service in Mocupe 
Giving my teary farewell speech
Last dinner in site-- arroz con pato (duck and rice)-- my favorite!
My host family checking out my going away present for them-- a photo album with photos from the last two years
The host family at my host grandma's house. L-R- Host mom, host grandma, host uncle, host cousin, me, host dad, host brother, host sister
My host family! Our only photo of all of us together