Exactly six months ago, as hard as it is to believe, I sat across from a series of administrators in the Peace Corps Kenya office in Nairobi. I shuffled through a stack of papers at each of their desks, quickly signing dotted lines and handing over medical forms, proof my bank account had been closed, and my beloved (yet nearly destroyed) red volunteer card. Once everything was in order, the country director shook my hand and gave me a little pin with the Kenyan and American flags crossed over each other. "Thank you for your service."
Then, it was over, far faster than it had started. Pre-Service Training had felt like an eternity, but Close of Service activities took no time at all. Before I knew it, I was having my last Tusker, riding my last matatu, and getting caught in my last Nairobi traffic jam (I actually almost missed my flight, truth be told, having adjusted a little too well to Kenyan time, and not being quick to say goodbyes).
As I recount this, I almost don't remember the purpose of sharing my perspectives on this side of my experience. Maybe that's why blogs typically end with the last day of the adventure they are meant to chronicle. But in my last entry in Kenya, months ago, I mentioned that I'd come back and post one more time, after the dust had settled and I'd been in the US for a few months. I hope this can serve as an insight for current volunteers who are about to COS (since that's a special stress all its own), family and friends of returned volunteers, and future volunteers who are curious about what the rift between "before" and "after" will look like. I hope it also speaks more generally to anyone who's attempting to adjust to something different, new and undoubtedly scary.
I was talking with another RPCV the other day, and we laughed at ourselves when we agreed that almost everything the administrators in Peace Corps had warned us about readjustment to life back home had happened. But it looked differently than I thought it would. Even though I spent my first few days stateside in New York City, I was pretty able to handle the intensity. In fact, I found myself more independent and capable than I had been when I left the US, just because nothing phased me. A subway? It leaves when it says it will, consistently follows the planned route, and probably won't break? Bring it. That's easy. Maintained sidewalks and roads? Awesome, I won't accidentally fall into a ditch or break a shoe. People speaking a language I understand? Cool, I'm fairly certain they're not talking about how ridiculous the mzungu looks, since I can hear them discussing a movie. It felt like a game where I knew all the rules, and it was strange to feel so comfortable so instantly.
But it was a false sense of security. I found that the strangest moments triggered anxiety, confusion and even anger. I got home at Christmas time, and I didn't care about the holiday much at all. I hadn't exchanged gifts in a couple years, and I couldn't compel myself to get excited about getting anyone anything; I really just hoped I'd brought enough souvenirs to satisfy friends and family. But when I walked through Macy's in NYC, I almost jumped off the escalator just to escape the feeling of manipulation. There are advertisements in Kenya, but I had forgotten how much brands, images and messages permeate the culture of the US. And then there was the man sitting at the next table over during dinner who distracted me to the point of silence, talking about "helping Africa" in some of the most infantilizing, ignorant terms I could imagine. The weirdest experience I had in those first couple days was standing alone in the post office with a huge box of things I needed to mail home. I was incredibly anxious, because I didn't know where I was supposed to stand, or if people thought I was weird with my gigantic parcel, or if they could tell I was confused - it spiraled into a near-meltdown. At the post office. Come on.
And it's funny, the things that every PCV talks about looking forward to when they get home are the first and easiest things to get used to. Cold drinks, familiar food, showers, comfy couches, internet. It's pretty easy to slide back into the patterns that you'd lived with for years before leaving. So, even if you have a new little voice in the back of your head that cheers when you put laundry in a machine and don't have to scrub every shirt, or when you turn the tap and water comes out, there's an anticlimax. Because no matter how awesome modern conveniences are, they are nowhere near as great as PCVs make them out to be. Of course they're romanticized when you don't have access to them, but then it's confusing when you get back and appliances aren't miracles. They're things, and they have (and cause) their own problems. So even though those seem like the most important things of reentry, they aren't. They're distractions.
So, after the initial shock of reentry, I pretty quickly found an apartment and a job. I studied for and took the MCAT. I connected with some old friends, but not others. I met people. I clashed with people I love, I relied heavily on friends, and I stood up for myself more than I had before. I went out dancing a lot, and took a good deal of alone time, too. It was hectic, scary and emotions ran high.
But, deeper than the symptoms and manifestations of my changes, were the changes themselves. They're what's endured after the tumult has calmed, and what should be the focus of coming back home. What can I bring here? What conversations can I have with people that will give us both new perspectives? It's important to identify, nurture and tell people about the ways you find yourself changing during any time of transition or adjustment. For me, it looks like increased confidence and honesty, as well as a critical (some may say cynical) eye. But it also looks like patience and passion and an open mind.
The take-away message from my readjustment is, beautifully, the ultimate lesson I needed to learn from my Peace Corps experience. I needed to learn to let go of fear. I think this is important for any time of concentrated growth and change, so here's my advice for anyone in the throes of deep transformation: Don't be afraid to be confused about what you should be doing, sad about missing people and places, and discontented with the way things are. Don't be afraid to tell people what you need. Don't be afraid to tell them to ask you for what they need. Don't be afraid to be happy with a crazy decision. Actually, just don't be afraid to be happy, period. Don't be afraid to say yes, and don't be afraid to say no. There was a lot of fear before and during my reentry, but sometimes it disguised itself as excitement and I didn't address it. Don't let fear do that. Take stock of the steps you're taking, and even if you lose track of them for a bit, don't be afraid to reroute yourself. As your new environment and your new self get to know each other, be patient. Don't be afraid. If you let go of fear, you may seem strange, opinionated or even a little selfish. But you're not, you're just fearless.
Over the past couple months, life has evened out a bit. I've seen some of my fellow PCVs, and I've kept in touch with my friends in Kenya. Life is different than it was when I was living thousands of miles away, but it's just that: different. No better, no worse. I miss my students every day, and I'd do terrible things for a fresh mango. But here in Alaska I get to hold my baby nephew and go fishing in the endless sun. The only barrier to contentment was fear, so I've made the decision to leave it behind. And if that's in the past, I cant wait to see what's in the future.