Historical Context

April 13, 2013

I watched a video recently that explained the importance of putting things into historical context. The person who did it, Louis CK, is a comedian. Using humor and insight he put into words something that until that day had mostly escaped me. See the video here:

Louis CK explains historical context to Jay Leno

Immediately after watching the video I felt some remorse. I have said many things in my life that displayed ignorance due to not understanding a historical context.

Just as Louis claims in the video, I have taken the white people’s stance of, “I didn’t do anything!” for most of my life. Maybe I didn’t do anything, but I was also failing to acknowledge the shockingly recent history of segregation and slavery in our country. I have grumbled before things like, “Why do we need Black History Month?” without realizing that we are not at all out of the woods of racial inequality. Unfortunately I think many people think along the same terms. Fortunately, we now have a hilarious video to help us along.

But it’s not just about black and white. It’s about all people. You must respect historical context no matter where you are. And it’s incredibly hard to do at times. I failed at it in Armenia. I never really understood why the Armenians failed to let go of the past, to move on for the betterment of their country. It just didn’t make sense to me. I remember talking about it with other volunteers and saying things like, “They just need to get over it.” Looking back, I was the ridiculous one. I wish I had seen this video during my service.

In the future hopefully I can do a better job of considering the invasions, political regimes, disasters, inequalities, and other events that have a very real impact on the psyche of a people.

What They Won’t Tell You at COS About Life After Peace Corps

April 5, 2013

Close of Service (COS) is both a conference and an event. The conference comes several months before the actual COS date, when volunteers leave the country. At the conference volunteers meet to go over administrative duties as well as reflect on the bittersweet reality of 2 years coming to a close.

COS is a cool time in many ways. But there’s a lot to think about. Sometimes too much. Hopefully this post will give someone an insight in his or her own journey. Here’s what the Peace Corps staff won’t tell you:

Finding a job is the toughest job you’ll ever hate

Peace Corps really doesn’t do a good job of hammering this point home like it does many of the other things that are forced down your throat as a volunteer, such as the word sustainability. Your friends are all going to grad school. Your site mate is just going to travel, man. But for the rest of us (who aren’t retired), there is the dark shadow of the job hunt racing towards us as we count down our final days in country.

You’ve found a job before, you reason. It won’t be that bad. But at least 2 years have lapsed since you had to really search for anything. You’ve forgotten a little bit what it’s like. And the economy still just isn’t what it used to be.

It’s not Peace Corps’s fault at all really. It’s not their problem; it’s yours. You should know it’s hard to find a job. You should expect it. But I missed that memo and am guessing that thousands of others do too every year. We rely on the Peace Corps like babies while we are serving.

The truth is that Peace Corps doesn’t care if you get a job or not. Think about this: if Peace Corps were serious about Returned Peace Corps Volunteers’ (RPCV) careers upon completion of service they would be gathering metrics to understand whether or not RPCVs are getting jobs. Almost every college does this. But the Peace Corps has no incentive to see that its returned volunteers are thriving professionally. Alums donate to schools in order to help the kids or to pursue narcissistic naming rights, but RPCVs don’t give anything to PC other than some name recognition here and there when a Chris Matthews makes it big (which will randomly occur without PC doing anything).

The Most Interesting Man in the World

The Most Interesting Man in the World

So, while you attend your COS conference and get drunk in your hotel rooms while reminiscing about the last 2 years, you won’t find enough in your agenda about jobs. We had some nice sessions about resume writing and non-competitive status that were volunteer-initiated. Those were great, but I still have the feeling most people don’t come away from COS with the sense of urgency they need in regards to the job market. Many people worry about the reverse culture shock aspect of going back home; I would place employability several orders of magnitude higher than reintegration in the whole going-back-to-America picture. Take every resource and opportunity you can to get ready now.

WARNING: Unsolicited advice part

Tap the older volunteers with awesome career experience to help you with your resume. Talk about their careers and what they liked. Do informational interviews with them to see if you would like to do something similar. If so, ask for some contacts or at least advice on getting started. Tap the staff to do the same thing.

Try to figure out what you want. Many people go the whole 2 years thinking, “Yeah man, I’m going to find myself during these 2 years!” At the end of it, guess what? They never got around to it and they still have no idea what the heck they want to do. That’s okay, but at least take some time to actively think about it and try to narrow it down for yourself.

Also, use time to your advantage. As a PCV you have the luxury of having too much free time. Your secondary projects aren’t going that well, let’s just all admit it. Or your primary assignment isn’t what you hoped for. Either way you have free time on your hands to pursue things. You could pursue your 8th crappy sitcom marathon OR you could spend the time looking for jobs. The automatic direct deposits to your account stop after the Peace Corps ends. Get used to that idea. Allow it to make you hungry. Use the hunger to search for employment. Once you get some job listings that seem interesting to you, figure out if you are qualified. If you are not qualified, gain some skills. Don’t watch Game of Thrones again. Figure out what Microsoft Access is all about, finally. Or look up some tutorials on how to use Adobe whatever. Go to MIT’s free courses and expand your knowledge.

Use the time you have to train up for life after Peace Corps, because PACA tools will only take you so far (according to the Seasonal Calendar, they will help you for 1 weekend in between the rainy season and the 6 month winter). But what about living in the now and enjoying the rest of the experience? From my experience, there was definitely time to do both. I know it’s not fun to constantly think about the future when you have such a jarring change ahead, but seriously, you’ll thank yourself later.

Non-competitive status is probably a joke

Let me be frank with you and save you a lot of time: non-competitive status is nearly worthless. Show me a room full of RPCVs and I’ll show you a room full of people who a.) still don’t really know what non-competitive status means and b.) did not successfully use it to get a job. Why don’t you hear stats about RPCVs being placed in Federal agencies due to NCS? Because 99% of them never end up using their NCS (okay, I’m guessing). I have done countless Federal job searches. Setting up an advanced search where you indicate your NCS does nothing but create false hope as you are subjected to awesome sounding but exclusive opportunities open only to vets or current whatever agency employees. Besides that, government job postings are the most disorganized pieces of garbage on the internet, which at least for me completely sucks my soul of motivation to ever apply for another government job. I keep coming back to the website out of my own insanity.

Short anecdote time: I defied logic and returned to the US jobs site for the hundredth time. This time I applied for a job. It took quite a while longer than usual because this job required me to mail in my application. That’s right, only the Federal government would be so inefficient. Anyway, I was happy to try to finally use my non-competitive eligibility. Well, after doing some more research after sending my little envelope on its way I learned that the agency I applied to has a hiring freeze. But obviously you would never remove your online job postings if you’re not hiring for those positions. This is the government, after all. I pen this whiney story only to caution future RPCVs that these are the kinds of disappointments you face with your NCS after service. I’m not saying don’t try to use it; I’m just saying… it’s not any kind of silver bullet. Sorry.

Bad Luck Brian

Bad Luck Brian

Your hard earned language skills will plummet in value

Peace Corps likes to make little lame jokes about your language skills. “You can use your Swahili to impress your friends at parties!” Yeah, that’s lame. And no one cares, honestly. Before you went to Peace Corps did you ever care what other languages someone spoke? Probably not. And that didn’t change just because you learned a strange language. Honestly, there won’t be much use for your language any more. Using it in a job is highly unlikely since America is a melting pot of immigrants, some of which probably speak your Peace Corps language natively. They can easily fill any roles that require their language. And sadly, about half of the jobs I apply to don’t even have Armenian listed in their foreign language drop down boxes. And that’s for a Peace Corps language I would consider in the upper half for name-recognition. So you can’t even brag about your language skills in a job application in many cases.

Also, you will have a hard time forcing yourself to stay sharp in your learned language. It just happens. There would be rare exceptions for those with more widely-spoken languages, but for most of us the language is tucked neatly into the Peace Corps Experience Box in our brains, which gathers dust rather quickly.

First World Problems

First World Problems

Will they fade away completely then? That depends. I’ve heard people say they forget very quickly, while others hang on to what they had. I have spoken with my host family a few times and read a few stories. I have lost vocabulary but it hasn’t been major. I also talk to myself in Armenian sometimes, envisioning scenarios where I meet a bewildered Armenian immigrant on the bus who just happens to not know English so I can swoop in and save the day. Am I crazy? Probably. YMMV.

The insurance is not very good

Something about pizza and french fries

Something about pizza and french fries

That statement probably didn’t surprise you. You get 1 month of insurance free after your service and can sign up for more if you choose. I signed up for 1 additional month. I’m glad I did just one. It was around $200 for the month, which seems pricey for what it is. I did go to the doctor during this time and had a minor procedure done. The billing was a nightmare. If you do go for the insurance, make sure your provider understands how the insurance should be billed. There was a lot of confusion with mine because I had also gone to the same provider for some of the PC-mandated things that use special PC forms for payment.

It took a good 6 months to sort everything out with them. I have to give them credit though; they eventually did pay most of my claims. I’m happy about that. But here’s the bigger message: take advantage of the doctors while you still can.

It’s no secret that having 2 doctors sitting there waiting for your visit is one of the glorious benefits of PC service. So, if there is anything nagging you or if you’re thinking, “I should get this taken care of sometime…” then NOW is the time to do it. Don’t wait!

Your 2 years = Everyone else’s 2 years

Yes, you did something strange. You had the experience that will shape the rest of your life. You discovered that the world is not monocultural. You now know an archaic language, sort of. You sat in an uncomfortable form of public transportation for long periods of time. You pooped your pants. You did some cool projects. You overcame immense barriers. You made friends out of a motley crew. You gave it all up for that stuff.

Yes, you did.

And while you were away those 2 years everyone else kept plugging along in what to your mind seemed like a chasm devoid of time. They kept going to jobs they hated. They got promoted. They got fired. They got hired at new places. They went back to school. They had babies. They got sick. They had successes and failures, just like you. No, they weren’t living in a foreign country. No, they probably weren’t as uncomfortable as you were. But they didn’t choose to go anywhere. Your 2 years is not more important than theirs just because you were in the Peace Corps. Until you care as much about their 2 years as you want them to care about yours, you will be disappointed.

Another thing to keep in mind: it is natural to block the experience into its 2 year chunk, comparing the before and after of your life. But for all the other people in your life this is just an arbitrary 2 year chunk. It means nothing to them. They won’t remember what it was like exactly when you left. They probably won’t even remember exactly when you left. As PCVs I think we have a tendency to see the world as revolving around us. After all, we’re saving the world. Shouldn’t everyone else stop and watch? We need to avoid that thinking. If you can be open minded and accepting towards reintegration and other people’s experiences during the time you were away, your reintegration will be a big success.




Think about the things that I wrote. But also just enjoy it like you should. There is definitely a balance to be struck between thinking about the future, which will be waiting there for you whenever you choose to face it, and living in the now. The incredibly spectacular, unique, once-in-a-lifetime now that you have.

Farewell For Now, Poland

March 21, 2013

Editor’s note: This post is a tardy, half-baked one I wrote upon returning from Poland this winter. Maybe sometime I’ll write more about the whole experience. Initially penned on Dec. 14th, 2012

Here I sit for the first time in 3 years in front of my family’s Christmas tree. I am listening to Bing Crosby instead of watching the news coverage of the Connecticut shooting.

The last few days were a total blur, again. I keep deciding to move out of apartments and do trans-Atlantic journeys all in the same day. I’ve got to stop that. It’s stressful. But there is some masochistic part of me that enjoys it as well – why not do two painful things at the same time? One moment I was telling the smelly guy in the Poznań train station that I don’t have money for him and the next I was walking by the guy ringing the bell outside a restaurant in Bloomington, effectively doing the same thing.

There was the transition from uncomfortable bliss of not understanding those around me to the reluctant acceptance that I do have to listen to the two guys behind me in the plane go through the whole “Hey, I don’t know you, but we’re sitting near each other so let’s have an awkward conversation where we compare the Christmas markets in different German towns to sound interesting.”

It’s a transition, but this time a short and quick one. In many ways it feels like I just left, even though when I was walking through the cold in Poland I would have argued otherwise. There’s more to think about now. You need to find a job. Get your life back on track again. Sort out the immigration stuff. Figure out those medical bills that you couldn’t fight from abroad. Get a SIM card. Move again. Try to find normalcy after a two and a half year absence.

The thoughts of the journey home are already dissipating, so let me capture the main points. Here are my thoughts along the trip, triple cold filtered to bring you only the most pertinent:

  • I hope this is the right train
  • It is uncomfortably hot in this train. I am expiring at a rapid rate at the beginning of my trip.
  • This muesli and yogurt combo is amazing (Lufthansa)
  • Wow, he’s counting the time between stamps? Germans don’t mess around. Glad I didn’t try anything fishy.
  • I feel like a terrorist trying to board this Chicago-bound plane (thanks, America)
  • Why is there no free alcohol? What European wants to pay $6 for a crappy American beer? (United)
  • I feel like a terrorist again (customs form onboard the plane)
  • Yet again I must be a terrorist (deplaning and passport check in the little plane docking tunnel thing)
  • Surely we are all terrorists (standing in line for 30 minutes with OTHER U.S. CITIZENS JUST TRYING TO GET BACK INTO OUR COUNTRY)
  • ARRRRGHGHG (having a homemade gift to my family thrown away by an asshole customs guy)

I can’t imagine what a bad taste our deplaning process leaves in the mouth of any visiting tourist.  I understand it’s a necessary evil in this age of terrorism, but it even left a bad taste in my mouth (as a non-terrorist).

This Blog is Still Kicking

March 19, 2013

Contrary to what you may have thought, I haven’t completely given up here. It’s just that, well, I don’t really know what to do with it.

As soon as Peace Corps ended and I went to Poland the scope of the blog expanded and changed. It got ambiguous. And for some reason I didn’t mind sharing every detail of my life and thoughts while serving, but now that I’m doing other stuff that doesn’t sound so appealing.

Part of it is privacy. The other thing is that I am rarely inspired to write these days.

Still, the urge to write smolders. Besides that, there was the sweet, sweet connection with the readers of the blog. There weren’t many of you, but your readership meant a lot to me. I found that the blog was a good way to nurture friendships even from afar.

Some volunteers wrapped up their blogs so nicely and set them aside as if they were putting them in storage along with that -20 degree sleeping bag they’ll never use again. Sometimes I wish I did that too, but I just couldn’t. Mine took an abrupt Polish turn and has since gone quiet.

It’s awkward. But I have a lot of experience with awkward. Sometimes you just need to embrace awkward.

Here are some things I may occasionally write about here if the fancy strikes:

  • Armenia (duh) – My interest in the geopolitical affairs of the little Soviet Republic that Could will fester for a long time
  • Peace Corps – I still have some homies in the corps you know
  • The Journey – Going from A-18 PCV to RPCV to the great uncle who served in Algeria I think
  • Language Learning – Because if you’re not learning then you’re forgetting something
  • Poland – For obvious reasons
  • Other Random Life Interests – Stuff I think is worth sharing with anyone who still comes here
  • So this blog ain’t dead. I don’t know where it’s going exactly, but it’s going to go there.

    What do you think about the ambiguity? Your comments are the bellows to my fire.

    Fall in Poland

    November 5, 2012

    Fall in Poland is fall, but if with a twist. The leaves turn colors timidly, only the bravest of trees bold enough to show yellow. Brown is the hue of choice. Old men with mustaches sweep individual pale brown leaves into dustpans. Things are neat, yet wanting.

    The blue sky disappears behind endless gray clouds rolling in from Germany and the sea. On the rare day the sky decides to come out to play, the effect is stunning: a gorgeous and happy place.

    My favorite tree

    Trick-or-treaters wage a cultural battle against their elders, attempting to establish something American in the time typically reserved for mourning and remembering the dead. Cemeteries burst to life with loved ones cleaning, placing flowers, and setting up candles. The warm glow of thousands of candles somehow fills up your soul, albeit in a melancholy way.

    Rain stings your face a bit more often; water soaks your frayed pant legs a little too frequently. You’re safer just taking your rain jacket with you everywhere you go.

    The normal gray scene from my apartment

    Daylight slips through fingers at an alarming rate. The night begins well before 5:00 already. Smoke rises from chimneys, sometimes sweet smelling and other times foul. Piles of coal begin to accumulate in backyards. And the first snowflakes appear, maybe a little earlier than anyone wants. This is fall so far in Poland.

    In the Spotlight

    October 29, 2012

    The jungle heat emanating from the newly installed radiators of the old Soviet building’s major league heating system threatened to activate my armpits’ sweat glands and noticeably dampen my blue dress shirt. That or nerves. It didn’t really matter which it was. Sweat is sweat. I rolled up my sleeves…the last line of defense for a man who has already removed his jacket, and perhaps a nice figure of speech for what would be an hour speaking in front of the room.

    As the dancing shades did their best to contain the rare Polish sunshine while cold blasts of air penetrated the room, I was being introduced as Mr. It sounded a bit strange. Then again, an American in Poland talking about Armenia is kind of strange. What a strange road that I took to come to this place, this moment. I looked out on the room of faces and wondered if they’d understand me.

    Twenty four slides, 1 awkward swallow (I always manage at least one), and countless words later I was finished. The braver students asked me some questions, which were great. Success.

    It felt nice to share something with them. As any RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer) probably understands, the opportunity to talk about your second country is a thing to be coveted. I was also impressed with their English. They seemed to understand most of what I said. I think it’s easy to take for granted when someone else has learned a language, especially yours. If you sit back and think about how those students had to work for every word they know, the respect sets in.

    All in all it went really well. I’m glad I did it!

    The Moment’s Thoughts

    October 23, 2012

    This post has no theme. It is a place for me to have diarrhea of the fingertips and put my 60 GWAM typing skills to use. Apologies in advance.

    I guess I should start with how I’m feeling and how things are going here, since people tend to ask about that.

    I feel pretty good. There are lots of things to be happy about I suppose: I am hanging out in Poland, I have an apartment of all my own, I have a TV which I use to listen to Polish news broadcasts until I pick up a word or two, I can take showers whenever I want, I have a fridge with good stuff inside, my bed is comfy, and most importantly I am in good health, have great family and friends, and the future is in front of me.

    There are some things to not be happy about too: the Cardinals didn’t win Game 7, I couldn’t watch any of it, Bobby Valentine wasn’t calling games, and I can’t understand Polish. Maybe there are more but on the surface right now that’s about it. Seeing as 3 of my problems are baseball-related I think I’ve got it easy.

    Oh yeah, I am unemployed. Should that go in the first group or the second group?

    When people ask how Poland is I tell them that it’s pretty good. I think it would be better if I had work, but maybe that’s just wishful thinking. Regardless, I did apply to a bunch of jobs here last winter and had 0 success, so it’s not really for lack of trying. There’s only so much you can do as a non-EU passport holder (teach English). And I decided to not try to hawk my English teaching skills (or lack thereof).

    But I have decided to try and do something. I contacted a local university and have an appointment tomorrow to go talk with an English lecturer about giving a presentation to her class next week. The idea is that I will present something on Armenia in English for them. It’s a win-win because they get to practice their English skills, learn something about the Caucasus (at this school they all have a focus on Russia and the old USSR gang), and get out of a normal lesson. And I get to force myself upon a group of poor students and talk about Armenia ad nauseum. If it goes well then I can take the show to other classes or start discussion groups or something.

    I also have an acquaintance who is interested in improving her English. I am excited to help this person improve, despite the contradiction it might appear to create with what I wrote earlier. This would be voluntary work, or at least not done in exchange for currency (I would kindly accept a comestible of the Polish variety, however).

    I feel a bit guilty as I have no real muse now. Next time, next time.

    Foreign Country Reflux

    October 11, 2012

    Cześć! If this is a book, then this is definitely a new chapter or something. I even started a new Word doc in order to bask in the inconsequential fact that this part of my life is somehow different from the rest. The last Word doc, started on May 31st, 2010, is 188 pages and 115,347 words. The average novel is around 64,000 words. Did I really ramble for almost 2 books about my adventures in Peace Corps Armenia?

    As hard as it is sometimes to accept that the grand Armenian journey is now over, I must do so. It’s time to move on. And that’s exactly what I’m doing by becoming gainfully employed and truly contributing to society once again, rather than living off of the government’s teat as a white-knight grass roots development worker in the developing world watching Game of Thrones on my laptop instead of integrating in the community.

    Oh, wait. No. Nope. I am unemployed and hanging out in Europe. Specifically, I am writing you from Poznań, Poland. Not sure where it is? Don’t worry. Not sure how to pronounce the name of the city with that funny n thing? Don’t worry, me neither.

    As we all know, Poznań is just southwest of Bydgoszcz

    This is the part where we talk about how it’s going. The first week went really quickly because I was searching for an apartment. The second week went pretty quickly too. It is pretty cool to get to feel the European side of things again. After all, Armenia was a big mashup of Europe, Middle East, and Asia, so it’s fun to experience something that reminds me of that special place. As I predicted, it was a breath of fresh air to be here after struggling with a few things about the culture of my own country. And since I’d been here before, it wasn’t such a huge shock to come back.

    But. There’s always a but. I never stayed here for more than 10 days. I was never anything more than a tourist. And the tourist experiences the country in a certain way while a resident (or perhaps I’m a long-term tourist) sees it differently. That sets the stage for the main idea of this post, which is that foreign countries will give you heartburn.

    I don’t actually have heartburn guys. But recently I do feel all agitated as if I have some serious esophageal burnination going on. It’s not one big pain in the ass but rather death by a thousand paper cuts.

    It’s not just that I’m back to hand washing laundry again in some cruel twist of fate. It’s that the sun hasn’t come out for days. It’s that I have to sort my garbage. It’s that my windows are drafty. It’s that the water tastes a little different. It’s that I don’t understand anything, again. It’s that I’m not quite sure how to do anything. It’s that the electric water heater always manages to run out of hot water before I’m done with my speed shower. It’s that the toilet seat doesn’t stay up. It’s that the whole bathroom is the size of the bathtub in an American bathroom. It’s that the cashiers and clerks are more miserable than Sally Struthers on Slimfast. It’s that they have way too many coins and everybody wants exact change. It’s that life is lived according to the train schedule instead of according to what you feel like doing. It’s that I make countless comparisons to life in Armenia when in fact THIS IS NOT ARMENIA. It’s that I’m not really sure what I’m doing with myself or what will be. And it’s also that I somehow need to figure it out while getting over this stuff.

    Poland is cool. I like a lot of things about this place. But it is still a foreign country for me, and one that I’m not at all used to yet. It’s only been 2 weeks. That’s nothing. I need way more time to get used to the way things are here and to accept what I cannot change. Over time it will get a lot less frustrating and instead become endearing to me. The language scales will ever-so-slowly tip in my favor if I put in enough work. If anything this is a slap in the face and a reminder of just how hard and insane Armenia was in the first months.

    So, we’re back to celebrating small victories in life. Today I bought bread. That was my victory. It was the first time that I went to a bakery that has everything behind the counter (which requires ::GASP:: speaking!). I was nervous about it. I thought about it a lot. It seemed like something that could wait until I was curled up in the fetal position with my muscles atrophying from starvation. But on my gooey inside I just knew that going into that bakery was my battle for today. I walked in and looked around carefully. My eyes zeroed in on my loaf of choice. The lady in front of me paid and the clerk’s head popped around the side.


    Swallow. Execute speech command, Slavic style! I did my best to regurgitate my practiced line of, “that bread please.”

    It worked. Fiat currency was exchanged for some chleb (bread). And now my victory is digesting in my stomach. That’s good enough for today.

    I can build on this. And I can eat it!

    The Nomadic Life

    September 23, 2012

    Well, it’s been real America. It’s also been slightly confusing, yet pleasant. I’m also stuffed. I leave the fatherland a solid 6 pounds heavier than I arrived. And so, not a mere 2 months upon arrival, I depart within the week.

    This time my destination is Poland. I travel not to begin volunteer service but rather to pursue love. I go not to a strange mix of west meets east but to a country that feels like a close relative. Things are definitely different this time around.

    As I have my final few days here I try to think of things I should be doing to get ready. There just aren’t many tasks. When I wonder why, I realize that it’s because I already have my life all packed up just like a nomad. The time horizon might also have something to do with it. I’m just going for a few months, so no need to overdo the packing.

    Going away somewhere so soon is strange. I haven’t fully adjusted to American life again (although the pizza that I destroyed tonight tells a different tale), yet here I am embarking on something else. I’m sure that many people I speak with don’t understand why I am not staying put. The logical side of Kevin knows that finding a nice solid job and getting settled would be the thing to do. But there is more than just career logic at play.

    There are also some benefits to going away now. I think some time in Poland will allow me to feel closer to the Armenian style of life in many ways. My integration back into American culture has been choppy, so Poland will be the calamine lotion to my rash. I also am still in the state of mind where my adventure receptors are open for business, awaiting their next stimulating partnership with cultural confusion, language learning, or just figuring out a new city. The more settled down you are, the more energy it takes to pry yourself from the everyday muck to do something out there.

    Many have asked what the plan is. There is no real plan. That’s not to say there are no goals, but there aren’t many concrete details about the next few months. I have no job there, no prospects really, and I honestly don’t really care. I spent way too much of the past year worrying about what I would do in Poland, failing to find something, and frustrating myself about it. Besides spending time with Aga, I’ll be starting the job search for an American job. I also want to hit the Polish language hard, which I’ve been self-studying for over a year now. On the side I want to volunteer. It’d be nice to make some money here and there giving private English lessons as well. But that’s not so important to me right now.

    Part of me can’t wait to have a job, a home, and a normal life again. And the other part of me is so glad that I’m going to Poland right now without any of those things. And the second part knows that the first part will be satiated soon enough. This should be an interesting time.

    The Heat Shield is On Fire

    September 16, 2012

    They. People throw it around a lot. Who are they? Some other group of people who know a lot, apparently. They always say something. Something rule of thumb. Something you should abide by. Something that seems to be correct way more often than you want it to be.

    Peace Corps had a special ops unit of They which PC used to give us all kinds of advice. We sat through many boring admin sessions listening about They’s advice for us and what They thought was going to happen next. We never met They but They turned out to be scarily accurate in predicting things. So when I heard the final piece of advice They had for me on the long journey, that going home and reintegrating can be just as hard as going to a PC country in the first place, I listened.

    It seems a little hokey, honestly. How can coming back home be harder, or even difficult at all? A familiar culture, language, and country – how can that pose any problems? It seems like another “woe is me” Peace Corps Volunteer thing to say. “Integration is hard. But reintegration is SO hard.” I’m sure I heard that spoken by a hippyish 20-something along the line sometime. This is me rolling my eyes.

    So, I listened to the advice but was also skeptical a bit. It turns out that readjusting to the fatherland is its own bag of struggles, but certainly not harder than going into a foreign country as a dripping wet n00b. At least in my experience.

    First, let me explain the easy stuff. The lack of a language barrier alone is enough to make reintegration a piece of cake. Everyone everywhere can understand you and you can understand them. It’s like magic. No dictionaries, no hand gestures, no frustrating pauses as you try to find a linguistic workaround to bridge a gap in your vocabulary, nothing. The only cause for a lack of understanding is either hanging out with people too smart/dumb for you or an inability to express in words what is going on in your head. That’s it! It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.

    The cultural barrier is also obliterated the moment you touch down. Not only do you not have to guess what a person is trying to say, but you also don’t have to guess why he or she is saying that or what it really means. Having everything within your natural cultural context makes everyday operations a cinch. Gorgeous stuff.

    Then there’s the luxury. Don’t even get me started. My friends and I often go on wild rants about the luxuriousness of everything around us. It’s as if the rest of the Americans don’t appreciate it or don’t recognize it. THIS COUNTRY IS LUXURIOUS. Every chair allows you to sink right in. Every bite is an explosion of flavors, both natural and artificial, among your taste buds. Every blast of hot air is met with one of perfectly controlled AC. Every possible mode of entertainment is at your finger tips. It is NOT difficult to go from normal comfort to luxurious comfort. It’s just not.

    Wait, I can drink as much as I want of this delicious fountain Coke? And if I want, I can go back and get Root Beer, Sprite, Hi-C, Dr. Pepper, or Sprite? Luxury.

    Those are the main reasons why reintegration is not more difficult than integration in a foreign country PC environment. However, like I mentioned, it’s not all easy. There are some hard parts.

    Reconciling the past two years’ lifestyle and the new lifestyle is difficult. I’ll just give you some thoughts I’ve had the past month to illustrate the point:

    Why am I driving a car down the street to Wal Mart? Why isn’t there a store closer by? Why are there no bike racks anywhere? Why do we live so far from everything? Why do Americans insist on having huge yards of grass, water it, cut it, rake it, and then do nothing but glance at it while rolling into the driveway when coming home from work? Why does everything have Xanthan Gum in it, along with 10 other chemicals that I don’t know exactly what they do? Why do people pop pills instead of eating correctly and exercising? Why are there no bakeries making fresh bread that will go stale if you don’t eat it today or tomorrow? What is in my meat? Why are cakes in boxes? Why does no one walk or ride a bike anywhere? Why do people speak such poor English? Why do the people look like zombies everywhere you go? Why is everyone in such a hurry all the time?

    The answer to all of these questions, undoubtedly, is, “Because we’re American and that’s HOW WE DO IT KEVIN.” And I totally understand that answer yet question it all at once. Confused yet? Me too.

    Our country can be just as strange as Armenia

    The truth is that each of those questions has a logical American answer. Xanthan Gum is a thickener which is used as an additive in order to add viscosity to our favorite liquid foods and a certain cohesiveness to those yummy solid foods. Nice, America answers my questioning. But let’s take it another level deeper: Why do we want to put something in our food to make it not runny? Umm…because…we’re American. See? It all falls apart there. Because we’re American used to be good enough for me. Suddenly it’s not quite as satisfying. All of this questioning is waning after just a month in, but I think part of it will always stick with me. It’s good to question things, but there’s a point where it just becomes fruitless and annoying to those around you.

    Is this necessary? No. Is it awesome? Yes.

    That’s a long winded explanation for one challenge. In general there is definitely resentment or an unhappiness with a lot of facets of my own culture. When you come back home from a long stint abroad you gain the temporary ability to see things as a foreigner would. I should be careful with the use of the word temporary there. I think it’s temporarily very strong and then subsides with time, but you always have it to a degree. Readers who have lived abroad for at least a couple months and been back home for a while, correct me if I’m wrong.

    There’s another challenge going on as well: processing the end. I think it’s hard for people to pack their experience into a box and basically stuff it into the storage unit that is their memory. It’s hard to go from that different world, that bubble, and come back to something similar to the life you had before. It’s like you’re expected to flip a light switch in the room to turn the light off. But that light wants to keep burning. Now you’ve flipped the switch off, the light is only slowly dimming, and you’re wondering what’s wrong with your house. It’s an imperfect transition. But what else could it be? Is there some kind of reintegration decompression zone? No.

    To be fair, there’s a lot more going on. There are strange, unnamed emotions that have crawled out of crevices deep within my brain that have never been seen before. It’s like the vents of the Mariana Trench. It’s dark and mysterious down there, but there’s a LOT going on. It would take linguistic skills that are out of my reach to express it all.

    Despite the challenges, I do think that overall it’s not so bad. Every day things become a bit more normal. And I have to say, America is just wonderful.