Archive for September, 2012

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.

The End

September 12, 2012

My service ended on August 3rd. I left Armenia on August 10th. I’ve been home for a month now which included a couple weeks of travel. The end of Armenia and the beginning of America was thus a whirlwind, without much time to process what was going on. Add to that substantial writer’s block and a lack of motivation to write, and here we are.

It was a really busy time between trying to clean up my apartment, give things away or back to their owners, do trips to Yerevan to take care of paperwork, take pictures, and say goodbye. Not only busy, but stressful. The big transition, uncertainty of the future, and the end of an era combined with the aforementioned to give me a sudden case of TMJ, which I’ve never experienced in my life. Now my jaw is back to normal. Not everything is so normal, though.

I think I’ll write a separate piece on the readjustment to America. But what was abnormal 2 years ago became normal and what was my old normal became abnormal. Now I’m back to the old normal, so it’s abnormal. If you say “normal” enough you realize it is a really strange word. That’s kind of funny.

But back to the subject at hand. The end was basically a flurry of hyperactivity. It made me happy that I stayed the extra month.

When I think about the end of my service, which I haven’t really done until now, I am happy and satisfied. There is always that nagging voice in your head (I guess that’s ambition, although it’s pretty freaking annoying) that says you could have or should have done more. But considering all the things you have to go through and deal with in Peace Corps, you just have to tell that voice to shut the hell up sometimes. I adjusted to a foreign culture. I learned their language. I integrated into a community. I shared American culture and Armenian culture. I even managed to get some work done. I made it the whole way. All of that makes my service a success and something I’m proud of.

There are distant memories of PST, or the time before leaving for Armenia, or the first few months at site, which all make me realize what a mighty journey it really was. The idea that it’s all over now, and that it’s been over for over a month already, is still weird.

Armenia was great to me. It taught me more than I can explain. The people were great, the other volunteers were great, it was just great. There were times during the application process where I worried about “wasting” two years of my career on this. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Thank you Armenia and Peace Corps.

The end of my Armenian life