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. 


  1. A high school friend who was a PCV in Africa had a breakdown when she first went to a supermarket after her return. I thought that was pretty extreme, but it sounds like it's almost the norm. Wow.

  2. Great article! I've only been away for 6 months but I was thinking about how overwhelming it would be if I could understand everything that was said around me. And how it would be different to blend in. You always make friends while traveling, both travelers and local people, because you stick out. I also had problems with eating way too much last time I got back from traveling, and I'd only been gone for 5 weeks! I'm sure there's a lot of food you've missed over 2 years :-)

  3. Great post! I've been back twice, but I remember thinking very similar thoughts. One day I woke up at 10:00am to....silence. It was so weird. Also, cars stay in their lanes! So crazy.

    And drinking fountains/abundance of ice. A hot handle on the water faucet. GPS on the phone. Its a lot to take in at once. Good luck with the transition!