Finished out our Close of Service conference this past September. It’s a strange time, that week in the city. All of Group 15’s training periods have been happy—being together again, hyping up to go back to the field. This time was not so upbeat. Normally you head to your COS conference three months before your actual, official COS date. But PCM’s changed its intake calendar. Trainings for other groups got backed up and we had our conference forty-odd days out from COS. You’re allowed to leave the country a month early or a month late, which meant that some of us were leaving a week after the conference. No cushion of separation between the conference and the exodus.
The first half of the COS get-together is predictable. We give presentations about the work we’ve gotten done during out stay, look over the indicators we’ve fulfilled within the Mexico project framework and get forms signed and checklists checked and talk about the tattoos we’re going to get. It’s the second half of the thing that might surprise, given over to what the Peace Corps calls reverse culture shock.
You get culture shock going to wherever your host country is and you get it again when you go back to the States. Big cultural changes both ways. But I think it’s appropriate that they call them by at least slightly different names because they’re distinct phenomena, maybe pretty profoundly so.
Culture shock is a kind of nervous condition, in the way that 19th century writers wrote about nervous conditions. It’s the slow, daily buildup of confusions and annoyances and angers that come with being somewhere new, and the stranger the place, the more serious the condition. The chiste of it is that it includes everything about the place, from the particular Kafkaesque-ness of its visa procedures to the color of its streetlights. Here it Mexico, it’s the speed that people walk at, the time they take at the ATM, the volume of music floating in your window past midnight, the unfamiliar sound of radio shock jocks speaking in Spanish, the way that if you order water at a restaurant you get a fruit drink. It builds.
Peace Corps has culture shock down to a social science, and in training they’ll tell you that everyone has an initial honeymoon period with their country and that, whether it’s a day or three months, everybody eventually hits a wall. A night when you’re sitting in bed and you hear your family chatting in not-English and for a moment you just can’t. Can’t listen, can’t abide, can’t have patience. Maybe it’s just that moment and maybe it’s a series of flare-ups, sudden homesickness during a movie or little tantrums in English while you’re waiting in line. But it gets better and then it goes away and you acculturate.
Peace Corps gave us a little chart on our first or second day in-country with a line that zipped up and down the page. They told us that it was a graph of our mental state over the next two years, and it was ridiculous when we could look around at all our smiling friends and see how happy we all were. But for two years that graph was spot on, and I trust Peace Corps’s auguries a fair bit more. So I believe there’s something in store for us when we get stateside again.
We didn’t have to take a handout’s word for it. Half of staff are returned volunteers, we’ve got returned volunteers living with us here in Mexico, and they Skyped in some returned volunteers from the US to talk to us during the sessions. And they all of them agree that something’s going to happen, and that it’s a lot like culture shock. There are some differences, though, that stick out, and I think that in aggregate they might well be important.
Danny COS’d in November, but he says he’s just now finding his feet, and he still looks like a doughboy back from the trenches in 1918. Chelsea’s one of the more competent people I’ve ever met, and she says it was at least four months before she felt like she could commit to working on anything—so much so that she turned down job offers, which to a post ’08 high school grad sounds insane. Those are long adjustment times, even compared to volunteers who head to sites of real deprivation for their first bout of culture shock in their host countries.
The advice that everyone gives you after COS is to talk to other returned volunteers. More, that other volunteers are just about the only people who it will help to talk to. In contrast, talking to anyone is good medicine for culture shock when you’re just getting into Peace Corps, and talking to host country nationals is, intuitively, the best for it—it helps you adjust, to immerse yourself in the new situation. Which, reportedly, does the opposite of helping when you’re going through the reverse condition on return to the US.
Those are all hints, but it comes down to what it is about the place that gives you the culture shock, or the nature of the internal disagreement that puts you in a nervous condition. Coming to your host country, the thing that eats at you is bare difference—it’s unfamiliar, and at a certain point your magnanimity gives out and different, for a while, is bad. Returned volunteers talk about a moment that you’ll have when you get back to the States. They say it’ll happen after the same kind of honeymoon period, where it’s just great to enjoy everything you couldn’t back in site. The moment will happen, will catch you by surprise, and again you’ll I can’t.
But all the moments we’ve heard about haven’t been just objections to difference but a kind of felt moral objection to what you’re seeing, experiencing. “It happened as I was driving by a strip mall and saw a discount marriage place next to a discount divorce lawyer.” “It happened when I saw a KFC commercial.” “It happened because of the scale of the supermarket.” Visceral, full=body rejections of something that contrasts painfully with the lives we’ve come to know on the outside. And it seems like a fair number of volunteers never resolve that dissonance. We’ve got more than a few returned volunteers from Mexico who decided to stay on here and another few that went to the US and came back. “You’ll never feel like you belong again,” came up in a couple different ways.
One of the our trainers, one who I probably respect the most, spent four years in the Paraguayan bush and couldn’t hack more than a month in the States before he came back down and settled in Mexico. I think that speaks well of him.
RPCVs’ profoundly felt reverse culture shock speak to something at back home. Something wrong with the way we work and live and feel about ourselves and each other.
Naomi Klein writes that conservative deniers of climate change might be the only ones in the US who look the implications of the science full in the face. They deny the temperature rise because if it’s happening and it’s our fault, then we’d have to change everything about the way we live and consume to stave off disaster (and massive moral culpability). And they on some level make the decision that present comfort and profitability is worth the death of the world as we know it.
Conservative opponents who characterize the Peace Corps as a government funded study-abroad might be onto something, because it’s impossible to go and see and live with the peoples that we do and to return and not see and feel and be made sick by what’s going on at home. Not just the perverse politics of the moment or the shooting of the half-week or the particular decade’s social climate, but some deeper, more horrible wastage, the seething worthlessness of the mad rush, the action, the ceaseless work, the abandonment of the idea of family, the pursuit of wealth, the roiling foment of hate. And you can’t go back to not seeing it.
I’ll be home soon, and I’ll see how I feel about it.
(I’m home now, and I’m pretty fucking sure I know how I feel about it)