Saturday, June 5, 2010

Reverse Culture Shock, Part II

I've been home for two weeks now, and it feels GREAT.

There is not one single thing that I miss about Liberia at this point. It's fantastic to be clean and groomed and feeling like a human being again, not some strange exotic animal on display. It's wonderful not to wake up frightened in the middle of the night because of strange noises. It's amazing to eat fruits and vegetables every day, and not a few times a month.

I've been outrageously lazy since I've been home, spending most of my time sleeping, watching TV, and participating in other mindless and unproductive activities. Liberia feels like a distant dream at this point. The peaceful order of Pennsylvanian suburbia -- the green rolling hills, the neatly manicured lawns outside of the quaint two-story houses, the comforting summer smells of cut grass and outdoor grilling, the well-monitored kids and well-fed dogs playing outside in the perfect 75-degree weather -- feels like the only blissful reality in the world. It's easy for me to forget about the Liberian mud, the stench of Liberian litter, the discomfort and frustration and tragedy of Liberian living.

And I want to forget it. When I think about the past nine months, I experience a little shiver of unease. I want to believe that when I got on the plane and traveled back across the ocean, the Liberia I was living in disappeared, that only the happy little world I am now inhabiting remains. I don't want to think about poverty. I don't want to care about the insoluble difficulties of international development.

The scary thing is, for the most part, I'm succeeding at not caring. Somewhere, behind my childish relief at being home again, I want to want to care. Instead, I find myself questioning whether I really want to work internationally again. Why be a glutton for punishment, especially when I have doubts about the ethicality and efficacy of international development work? Why not stay home and pursue the American dream, the house and the yard and the pool and the kids and the dog and the white picket fence?

As my overwhelming sense of relief at being home begins to subside, these little nagging doubts and conflicts in the back of my mind are starting to creep toward the front. I'm realizing that I am actually embarrassed to talk to people about my experiences in Liberia -- embarrassed, perhaps, because they did not live up to the reality of what I think others think a Peace Corps experience should be. To be perfectly honest, I'm firmly convinced that I did not "make a difference." The best I can hope for is that I didn't actually make things any worse; I have no illusions that I actually made things any better for any of the people I was supposedly "helping." But people don't want to hear that. They want a neat little sound bite about the experience, want me to say that "it was hot and buggy and challenging, but so rewarding! The best experience of my life!"

So I feel awkward and artificial, trying to process and package my experiences in a way that makes them acceptable, without denying the very real challenges of international development or belittling the accomplishments of people who do international work. I also feel ashamed when people say (as they often do, perhaps through lack of anything else to say) things like "That's very impressive! I could never do something like Peace Corps!" I feel like I have a dirty secret to hide, a secret about my ineffectiveness, a secret about my frequently less-than-charitable thoughts and actions, a secret about my failures as not only a teacher but a compassionate and caring human being.

I suppose this is reverse culture shock, although it seems to be manifesting itself in strange ways. On the surface I feel only relief, yet I find myself fretting inordinately over little things. Last night, I was up until 3 AM worrying about meeting my fellow first-year medical students in the fall. How can I face them, I kept thinking, when I know what a fraud I am? How can I gloss over the past few years of my life to make myself seem normal? How can I talk about my experiences truthfully without being off-putting, condescending, and/or boring?

The reality is, if I could go back and do the whole thing all over again, I absolutely would. The experience was eye-opening, thought-provoking, and otherwise invaluable. But there are a host of things that it was not -- enjoyable and effective being chief among them -- and I am having trouble reconciling that reality with the ideal Peace Corps experience that, on some level, I seem to wish that I had had.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Reverse Culture Shock

It's hard to believe, but this is my last night in Liberia. I'm one day and one official signature away from no longer being a Peace Corps Response volunteer.

I am, of course, incredibly excited to get home and see my parents, my siblings, my friends, and my dog. At the same time, I'm already bracing myself for the reverse culture shock. Hopefully it won't be nearly as difficult returning to the US this time around, as I'm going home after having (effectively) completed my service, instead of being yanked out halfway through. I won't have to deal with the feelings of loss (over my abandoned projects), guilt (over my expensive helicopter evacuation when the Kenyans who were actually in danger were abandoned to their fates), confusion (about just what the hell I was supposed to do with my suddenly unemployed self), and depression that accompanied my unexpected and unwilling return to the US after my Peace Corps Kenya service.

At the same time, I can already feel the subtle effects of reverse culture shock. Watching the overly made-up, plastic looking newscasters on CNN World from my hotel in Monrovia, I once again feel a sense of anger at the vapidity of the Western media. Watching the dumbed-down analyses of world events, watching Larry King awkwardly strut and pose in an advertisement for his show, watching the same 5 video clips played over and over and over again, I am struck by the mind-dissolving superficiality of these “news” shows. I have the unsettling sensation that my plane ride tomorrow will take me not over an ocean, but to another planet – a soft, safe, neatly packaged bubble world, in which war, extreme poverty, and hunger are pictures on a screen and not realities.

One thing I really like about Liberian culture is that it seems much less image-focused than American culture. Maybe this impression is false, a result of the fact that I, as an outsider, am oblivious to the subtleties of Liberian culture. Or perhaps the relative absence of the media here really does make Liberians less image-obsessed. In any case, I remember being extremely frustrated with the American fixation on presenting a perfect image when I returned to the US from Kenya. I have a memory of turning on the TV a few weeks after my return from Kenya and watching a show entitled “How To Look Good Naked.” The host of the show was attempting to convince an unhealthily obese woman that she was attractive in her underwear (she wasn't). Disgusted, I changed the channel, to find myself watching a “Top Model”- type show, in which a rail-thin woman was reduced to tears by a magazine editor who condemned her as “too fat.” Sickened by the shows individually and particularly by their schizophrenic contrast, I turned off the TV, thinking “What the FUCK is wrong with my society? Why must we be so shallow that we turn the most basic thing – food – into something so complicated?!”

Living in Liberia is frustrating, yes. It's irritating to be confronted with ignorance. But at the same time, I can understand why that ignorance exists; after all, advanced (and even very basic) schooling is simply not available to the majority of the population. In the US, it is infinitely more frustrating to be faced with what feels like much more willful ignorance. I can't help but think, when confronted with evidence of American stupidity, “What's YOUR excuse, white man?”

So yes. I'm aware that the transition back might not be as easy or smooth as it seems on the surface like it should be. But I also realize that I'm incredibly lucky to be able to get on a plane to the US, to a land of freedom and opportunity and personal comfort. My dominant emotion right now, by far, is excitement.

I'm going HOME!!!!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Goodbyes and Culture Clashes

And I'm back in Monrovia again. I said goodbye to my site yesterday morning, and spent the next 11 hours in a Dramamine-induced stupor, which was marginally preferable to the alternative – the intense carsickness provoked by extended travel in sideways-facing Land Cruiser seats on unpaved roads.

In the end, it was not particularly hard to say goodbye to my home for the last nine months. Saturday started off well, as I gave away the majority of my things to my neighbors. It was gratifying to see how much they appreciated the few T-shirts and pens and pencils that I wanted to unload, and it was nice to be doing something – for once – that was win-win, instead of lose-lose. They were happy because they got a bunch of stuff, and I was happy because I got to get rid of a lot of stuff that I wouldn't really use in the US anyway. “See? I'm a GOOD person!” I thought to myself. “I give clothes to poor people! I give school supplies to children!” And I tried to forget about my failures as a cross-cultural communicator and my failures as a teacher: the complaining students, the frustration and anger that I often immaturely failed to hide, my fears that some Liberians' accusations of racism were truer than I'd like to admit (albeit in an unconscious and unwilling form).

But in any case, the good feelings lasted about 30 seconds. That is about how long it took for all of the people who didn't receive anything to show up at my door and start demanding I give them something. Even when I closed the door and the windows, they continued to shout through the curtains.

And so I was reminded that nothing about development work is ever simple. Some of the screaming, demanding children outside my window were actually from the family to which I had bequeathed most of my things. I had given everything to one of the two wives with instructions to share them with the other wife and all of the children, but realized later that she had distributed most of the things to her own children and not the children of the other wife. By doing my “good deed,” I may actually have created more problems by inducing friction within the family – friction that might even end in violence, knowing the domestic abuse history of the family.

In the car on the way to Monrovia, I distracted myself from the discomfort of the ride by eavesdropping on some interesting political discussions between other (Liberian) passengers. One man in particular had a lot to say about Liberian politics and culture. He kept coming back to the assertion that Liberian culture is being eroded by Westernization, that Liberia is losing touch with its roots. The man had some really interesting opinions, some of them very insightful, and some of them not quite logical. At one point, he denounced another Liberian for stinginess because that Liberian had failed to bring back gifts to share after a recent trip to America, saying “This is our CULTURE! We EXPECT you to bring things back for us!”

Glaring contradiction and all (how can you be upset when someone fails to bring you gifts from the culture you are criticizing as destroying your own?), I think this illustrates a really difficult and fundamental issue in Liberia and other developing countries. We like to believe that we can have our cake and eat it too, that culture can be perfectly preserved while technological and societal advancement continues. But “preserving culture” by nature involves the maintenance of a status quo, while “progress” involves change. It is a source of frustration for Western aid workers that some Liberians seem to want to take advantage of the fruits of Western culture without being “stained” by Westernization. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to have it both ways. Sometimes sacrifices must be made in the name of progress, and often in the developing world that means giving up certain cultural beliefs and practices.

Of course, that is easy for me to say. I’m not being asked to give anything up, and it is my Western culture that is responsible for the outright (through the colonialism of the past) and more subtle and insidious (through the domination of world markets and media today) destruction of the traditional African way of life. Still, I think that those who wish to “preserve” culture fail to take into account the changeable nature of culture. Culture is always adapting, and to oppose change for the sake of “maintaining a connection to one’s roots” is opposing a natural and inevitable progression. I think that anyone who has spent time in a modern African city such as Nairobi can agree that African culture can maintain its integrity even as it changes. Nairobi is a far cry from traditional Kenyan village life, yes . . . but it is also a distinctly African city, in its own right.

In any case, I think that part of me wanted a nice, neat little goodbye, a happy scene in which I bid farewell to Zwedru and the people of Zwedru express their heartfelt thanks for my generosity. But just as the relationship between Western and Liberian culture in general is complex and ethically nuanced, my own relationship with my Liberian neighbors could never be that straightforward.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

T Minus One Week

So it's finally settled – I will be leaving my site on Saturday, and flying back to the US next Wednesday. Two days left at the school. Two precious days, each one a beautiful memory yet to be made. Peace Corps bills itself as “the toughest job you'll ever love,” and it's so true; I love being here and I wish more than I can express that I hadn't decided to leave early. If only I had a few more weeks in Liberia, a few more weeks with these precious, lovely children . . .

HA. Just kidding. Since the students know that I've already calculated their final grades, they have no motivation whatsoever to do any work and are more disruptive than ever. Today, I spent 10 minutes trying to get the 8th-grade class to shut the fuck up so we could review the answers to their last homework assignment, only to give up and storm out of the class in tears, after lecturing them about what disrespectful, ungrateful, thieving little shitheads they are (I didn't actually say those exact words) and telling them how happy I am that I'll never see them again (I did actually say those exact words). I then broke down sobbing in the principal's office, whining about last week's theft of my phone and the disrespect of the students.

So on top of the mess of feelings that I was experiencing before, I can add a healthy dose of shame and embarrassment. I could just see myself, sitting there, the poor self-pitying white lady preparing to fly back to her rich country, crying because a bunch of parent-less, self-supporting, half-educated teenagers WERE MEAN TO ME. Waahhhh!! Waaahhhhh!!!

And because I complained to the principal, all 200 of the 7th and 8th grade students are now being punished by being forced to do manual labor tomorrow, cleaning the campus. Some of the good, responsible students in the 8th-grade class came to me to complain about the punishment, and, pettily, I refused to listen and told them their class was rude and disrespectful and SHOULD be punished.


To be fair (and as I tearfully kept trying to explain to the principal in between denunciations of the students), I know that part of why I was so sensitive to the students' misbehavior was because part of me IS genuinely sad to leave. This HAS been an incredibly educational, beneficial, and rewarding experience, and I would not hesitate for a second to do it all over again if I had the chance. There are a lot of wonderful, wonderful people here, and I do feel a great deal of affection and sympathy for the students.

But I'm ready to GET THE FUCK OUT.

Monday, May 10, 2010


Emotions running higher and higher as I prepare to leave Liberia.

Friday, one of my students stole my phone. The idea of it more than anything is what gets to me, that one of the kids I've been fighting to teach for the past 9 months would turn around and do something so backhanded. But although I was really pissed about it for a day, the sympathy of community members – including other students – made me feel much better. It seems like every Liberian I know heard of the theft within 24 hours of its occurrence, and made sure to express their outrage at the student thief's actions. And while it's annoying to be phone-less, I really can't cry about it too much; it's only a phone and I wouldn't have used it in the States anyway.

In general, the students have been driving me absolutely up the wall lately. I've essentially finished teaching, and have been returning my classes' final grades to them, which has resulted in a great deal of whining and begging. I don't know why the students haven't figured out yet that the more they complain about their grades, the less sympathetic I become, but I'm less inclined than ever to listen to their complaints.

In addition to the pressures of school, I've been stressed about the details of my imminent travel back to the US. I still don't know exactly when I'll be leaving town, how long I'll be in Monrovia, and when I'll get home; it all depends on whether or not I can find a ride to Monrovia with an NGO. I know that the school is planning to have some sort of going-away program for me, which puts me in a crunch because they want to hold it at the end of the week, while I want to peace out as soon as I find a vehicle traveling to Monrovia . . . but I know I can't leave without letting them have their formal goodbye. So even though I'd really rather just sneak off without a big fuss (though I am very touched that they want to thank me for teaching here), I know that I'll have to adjust my travel plans around the party and try to enjoy it as best I can.

Anyway. I'm sorry for the whiny, repetitive entry, which I realize is probably very boring to you. As you may have guessed from the fact that I've now written three entries about essentially the same topic, I'm having a little bit of trouble these days seeing past my own very mixed emotions. While I'm eager to get back to the US because of all of the things I just listed, at the same time, each day brings a new little reminder of all of the things I love about living here. Yesterday, the neighborhood kids spent a good hour trying (and failing) to teach me to shoot marbles, and it almost broke my heart to think that I will probably never see most of them again. Everything – my affection for the kids, my worries about getting safely back to the US, my regrets at leaving Liberia, my irritation with the students, my discomfort with hearing people half-jokingly ask me (over and over again) to take them to America, my guilt at the fact that my little adventure in Liberia is coming to an end while those who are really suffering are stuck here . . . all of this is making me into a big old emotional mess.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Score

Let's add up the score from the past few days, shall we?

Yesterday morning, I had a fantastic class with the 8th-grade students, who almost started a full-out brawl over the differences between a physical and a chemical change. (The fact that everyone was screaming at each other was not so great, I guess, but the fact that they were fighting about science made me super happy). They asked some really, really thoughtful questions and were genuinely interested, respectful, and fun to be with. Point Liberia.

Yesterday afternoon, I Gchatted with several friends in the US (a rarity – often the internet is too slow), which made me homesick. Point America.

Yesterday evening, I gave the bulk of my baggage to two Peace Corps staff who happened to be passing through town, and who kindly offered to take my things back to the Peace Corps office in Monrovia to await my departure from the country. Bringing all of my stuff out into the yard caused all of the neighbors to gather around and say super nice things about me, expressing their sadness at my leaving. Many points Liberia.

Yesterday night, I spent another in a series of nights with very little sleep, waking with heart pounding at every little sound and finally getting up at 4 AM to investigate some very strange and ultimately inexplicable noises. Point America.

This morning, I was awakened by the sound of pouring rain, and ended up walking to school in the mud through thick clouds of flying insects. Point America.

This afternoon, I showed some of my students a picture of myself with my siblings and they commented on how nice my skin looked in the picture, unlike now when “the mosquitoes are really biting your face.” Point America.

This evening, I had bread, eggs, and cocoa for dinner for the fourth night in a row. Point America.

End result: A tie, in which somehow I am both a winner and a loser . . .

Strange to think I'll only be playing this game for another week. Somehow, the closer I get to leaving, the more I want to get home, and yet the more reluctant I am to leave.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Aid Mentality

Since I've been here, I've had a lot of conversations with other expatriates about the so-called “aid mentality” in Liberia. The idea of the aid mentality goes something like this: Because there is so much aid money pouring into the country, and that money is so poorly monitored, and the perception of the West as an infinitely deep well of finances is so firmly ingrained, many Liberians have grown used to the idea of relying on charity. After years of receiving something for nothing, there is little motivation for people to invest their time and energy into various projects, because why should they bother to work when the West can just give them what they need for free?

Whether or not I agree with the idea (and we'll get to that in a minute), I can definitely see why the concept of the aid mentality is so widespread among frustrated foreign aid workers. It never fails to amaze me how open people are about begging here. When (as happened this morning) a child walks up to me on the street and screams at me to give him my umbrella – with his parents egging him on in the background – I can't help but think, “Have you no shame??” We as Americans have a certain horror of asking for charity; beggars are looked down upon by our society. We pride ourselves on being an independent nation where every man can make something of himself if he works hard enough. But here, there is little to no negative social pressure against begging or accepting charity, and so people feel free to ask – or demand – whatever it is they desire, whether or not their request is reasonable by anyone's standards.

So in part because of many Liberians' willingness to demand resources without qualifications, many Western aid workers end up frustrated with what they perceive as Liberians' reluctance to invest a lot of time and energy into various business, educational, or agricultural endeavors. “They have so much LAND and they don't FARM it!!” I hear expatriates complain. “We try to teach them to farm and they don't want to learn! They just want us to GIVE them food!” And while I am disturbed by the vaguely racist undertones of these arguments, at the same time I feel a similar frustration with my students, as you, dear blog reader(s?), well know. “Why don't they CARE?? Why won't they WORK??” I keep asking.

But I think it's important to remember that in the past 20 years in Liberia (the civil war began in 1989), long-term planning has not exactly paid off. Perhaps it's no wonder that many people are hesitant (either consciously or out of habit) to participate in activities requiring confidence in the long-term stability of one's government. Why invest in a farm if the legal system cannot guarantee ownership of one's land? Why invest in one's education if one cannot get a job with a college degree? In America and other developed countries, there is a certain amount of truth to the fact that hard work leads to success (although of course things are not nearly as fair or as simple as we would like to believe). Here, cause and consequence are not necessarily connected. In a corrupt, dysfunctional system, hard work may lead to nothing at all. A person may work her ass off only to see another person promoted because of nepotism, or to see her house robbed by the desperately poor.

In any case, it's true that an “aid mentality” is a perfectly logical explanation for the attitude of many aid recipients. Human beings are selfish and lazy creatures; if we have a choice between working for something or being given it without working at all, we will certainly choose the former. But that “aid mentality” is not necessarily the ONLY explanation for why people behave as they do, and believing too firmly in its truth may be detrimental. After all, the logical way of dealing with people who have become overly dependent on aid is simple: cut off the aid. That way, people will be FORCED to work. But what if the “aid mentality” is a myth, or if there are other complicating factors at play? Mightn't cutting off the flow of aid in this desperately poor country actually exacerbate some of the problems that so frustrate Western aid workers? Logic does not equal truth, and I think that Westerners need to be careful about accepting the gospel of the “aid mentality” simply because it seems true on the surface.