The Heat Shield is On Fire

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.

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5 Responses to “The Heat Shield is On Fire”

  1. Ben Says:

    That’s a lot to process Kevin jan. Be patient with yourself too. Your linguistics are perfect and I think you did a great job of describing the intensity, confusion, and pressure of “re-entry”. We’re always here for you mi amigo.

  2. Wayne Burt Says:

    After two years, though I am very used to it, I still have a problem going down the aisles of a supermarket and seeing the entire row devoted to something like potato chips. Ice cream takes up just about as much space. I definitely miss the convenience of getting almost everything I needed within a three minute walk of where I lived. The fact that I now only need to drive 3.7 miles one way to get everything I need for groceries doesn’t really make up for those small shops where, as the theme song to Cheers goes, “everyone knows your name”.

    A friend of mine recently bought a hybrid car, Prius maybe, I forget, that shut off by itself as we sat at a stop light. For an instant, it brought me back to Yerevan and thinking maybe those taxi drivers did know what they were doing as they manually turn off the engines as they roll down even slight inclines.

    After listening to all the political rhetoric for the past six months and watching politicians go to jail, how dare I call Armenia a corrupt nation as if we are not. I can’t bring myself to believe anything I hear and it’s too much work for me to determine who is telling the truth. My one vote just doesn’t count that much to make it all worth it. I will exercise my right to vote by staying home.

    I’ll think you’ll find many instances where a particular happening will bring you back just for a moment to your out of country experience. You’ll enjoy those moments.

  3. icenugget Says:

    Good insights guys. I look forward to the moments that will remind me of Armenia.

    “Where everyone knows your name, yet no one can pronounce it”

  4. Ev Says:

    Your “reentry soda” picture actually made me gasp out loud. Yes, I had already forgotten. Thanks for the sneak preview at what I may be experiencing during my own reintegration next August! Miss you, Kevin. Hope all is well.

  5. icenugget Says:

    I hope it helps in some way Ev! Miss you and Laura too. Stay warm.

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