Some Thoughts on Reverse Culture Shock after Being Gone for Two Years

So, I know you’re all wondering what it’s like being back.  I’ll do my best to explain it briefly.

In a nutshell, it’s this strange sensation that makes you feel like you never actually left.  But there’s this huge gap in your head and, to a lesser degree, your body that makes you feel like everything is very, very different even though it all looks and sounds and acts the same as it was before.  Mom and Dad seem the same.  Abner is the same (even if slightly fatter).  The house looks the same (aside from some new furniture).  The squirrels still play in the yard.  The blue jays and the mockingbirds still hop about.  It still rains like it used to.  It’s still cold in December like it was before.  But none of it seems quite right.

So you could say, it’s a little like I had this dream that was Morocco, and the dream deeply changed me, but I woke up, and I don’t know how it changed me.  Everything around me seems just like it was when I went to sleep minus a few minor differences.  Now, Im trying to sort out just who I am or who I’m supposed to be in light of the dream that happened.

At least, that’s what it’s settled into.  When I first got back, it was a little like this honeymoon period. [I will spare any volunteers reading this by avoiding any mention of the cheesy gordita crunch I ate or the home-cooked lasagna my mother prepared].  At first, everything was more comfy, more clean, more spiffy.  Everything makes you smile a little, because hey, it’s home.  You see something like well-paved roads or ride in a car where you’re actually wearing seat-belts  and it’s expected rather than offensive to the driver.  There’s no dust.  Just green trees everywhere, and if you comment on something like that – like, “Oh man, trees.  Everywhere, trees” – you sound a little like you’ve been smoking the reefer.  I mean, I’ve never been high, surprisingly, but I imagine it’s a bit like culture shock.

Then, it just gets weird.  You drive the first time, and you drive like a grandpa, because even though it’s hard to forget how to drive, you’re just extra cautious.  Or in my case, I drive by my own street I grew up on and actually miss the turn off.

Part of all my driving has been trips to stores to buy different things.  New sweatpants I’ve wanted for months.  Gifts for Christmas.  Lots of window shopping for things I had in Morocco and miss.  I spent two days looking for a tagine in Jackson.  Epic fail.  Still, every time I made a purchase, I hated myself a little.  I’d think in Moroccan dirhams and think, “Oh, God, this is adding up.  You’ve almost spent 2000 dirham and haven’t even been home for a week.”

One of my first days back in Jackson, I went with Beth to see Lincoln and that was my first monetary culture shock.  Except, the issue wasn’t really how much the movie cost so much as it was the fact I couldn’t understand the lady asking for money.  That’s actually been the biggest shock, I think: Southern Drawl.  I’m so acclimated to British English or, at least, very, very accentuated, clear English, that I had forgotten what people from the American South sounded like, and I could honestly not understand the word “fourteen” (the cost of the movie for two).

“‘at’ll beh fart-ten dohlarz.”

“Uh…”  I stood there with my wallet while Beth paid.  I just felt dumbfounded that whatever had just been spoken did not compute at all.

That’s just it, though.  It’s the little things that are the real shocks.  And they slowly add up and create this whole experience of feeling out-of-place and confused.  Like – I stood at the window watching squirrels play and realized I hadn’t seen a squirrel in two years and how weird that was for me.  The day after that, it rained, and I mean, it wasn’t just raining, it was pouring, and I realized that I’d only really seen a few light drizzles in Morocco.  It just doesn’t downpour in the desert very often.  This was an outright storm by my desert standards.

On the more utilitarian side, I kinda hate using forks and knives when I have perfectly good fingers.  Oh, and so you know, yes, I have returned to using toilet paper, and it’s not all that bad, although I very deeply miss squatting.  It’s so much better for your back and your bowels.  It’s what we were made to do when it comes to bathroom etiquette, so it kind of annoys me that we think of this porcelain throne as a symbol of civilization when it just makes us look kind of stupid, in my opinion.

A lot of people told me, and I wrote about this a while back, that I would be depressed when I got home.  Even Peace Corps has offered three free sessions for a psychologist because reintegration is supposedly that difficult.  I can’t really say I’m depressed, but I understand already why that would be necessary.  Morocco, after all, was my life.  Even when I had nothing to do, I had a reason to be doing nothing.  The aching beauty of such a rugged culture bred and encouraged this lively feeling that just made you constantly want to scream, “This is Morocco.”  You always felt alive.  Here, in America, everything is… well… normal.  And the norm is numbed and dulled and expected.  It’s not the unknown I’ve come to love.  Mom asked me yesterday why I’d asked for “so much camping stuff” for gifts this Christmas with a degree of consternation.  I think she’s worried that I’m already planning some escape.  Am I?

In the meantime, I have to admit, I’ve been keeping a low profile.  If you haven’t heard from me, well, you’re probably not the only one.  My day is consumed with teaching myself French (I learned colors, numbers, and the verb ‘to be’ today), working on my novel, and looking up job or school opportunities.  It’s quiet and unobtrusive, and I actually like it.  The few times I go out, if there are lots of people around, I get anxious.  I have set up shop literally right in front of the Christmas tree, and it’s about the most therapeutic place I could ask for to write and think and do all the things I do best.

So, there you have it.  That’s where I’m at for now.  A good dose of reverse culture shock combined with a productive schedule.  I hope you’re doing well, whatever you’re doing and wherever you are.

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2 Comments

  1. Thank you for this! I’m on the other end of the process, awaiting the invitation. I think I’m going to Moldova. But Morocco was one of my interests. I remember coming home from Greece almost 40 years ago, and my experience was similar. Hang in there, it’ll get easier. Just don’t lose those parts of yourself you discovered while in Morocco. They are YOU!

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