I've been in the US for about 2 weeks now, and have completed 2 out of 3 interviews.
It's both really nice and really weird to be back. It's nice because it is awesome being with people that I love and enjoy spending time with. It's also nice because, well, things are just easier here – potable water comes straight out of the tap, the indoor temperature can be controlled with the press of a few buttons, and nobody makes me feel uncomfortable and guilty by demanding money or calling me a racist when I refuse to give out my phone number.
It's weird to be in the US for a lot of reasons, some of which I can't quite identify. The fact that I'm here primarily for interviews certainly plays a role in the weirdness – it goes without saying that interviews are stressful. (Having said that, I should say that I've been very impressed with the ways in which schools genuinely try to make the interview process as painless as possible. And for the most part, the questions that interviewers have asked have been easy to answer – questions about Peace Corps, about why I want to be a doctor, and so forth).
In addition, I think that, under any circumstances, it is always a little bit strange to return to a place to which you have a connection, but haven't visited for some time. Coming home to central PA always feels that way for me. It's my home, and in that sense it is familiar and comfortable. But it can also feel small and restrictive, and even though I lived here for 22 years, I somehow feel like I don't quite fit in anymore (if I ever did). As an example of this, the very way that I talk apparently is un-Pennsylvanian. I've had several people (interviewers and fellow interviewees) ask me “Where are you from?” and then act surprised when I reply “Pennsylvania;” some people seem to think I have a Midwestern accent. This is a silly thing to be bothered by, especially because I don't particularly want to speak with a strong central Pennsylvanian accent, but it makes me think: Am I trying to be somebody that I'm not? Is this just one more indication that I can't really call this place “home” anymore? Am I and was I ever really a “true Pennsylvanian,” and if not, do I give a shit?
I guess it's kind of absurd to think about these things, especially since I have never had a desire to spend the rest of my life in PA or felt a particularly strong connection to my “Pennsylvanian roots” (I feel ridiculous even typing that). But I think there is something about spending a lot of time in a totally different culture, and trying to understand how and why others think and act the way they do, that makes me think more about my own background and upbringing. In much of Africa, the tribe that one belongs to has a very strong influence on one's values and beliefs; regional and national identities are of secondary importance. As Americans, I think we have a much stronger national identity, and relatively weaker cultural identities, possibly because (in theory at least) inclusiveness is highly valued here (in contrast with Liberia, where it is actually unconstitutional for white people to be citizens). Paradoxically, because we value individuality, I think that we encourage the formation of unique personal identities to a greater extent than in communal cultures, and to a certain extent this comes at the cost of the development of a group-based identity.
I've been thinking about these issues a lot as well because, being in the US again, I now am trying to integrate my experiences from the past few months back into my “American self.” I feel as though being outside of the US teaches me a great deal about not only Liberia, but about America and about myself as an American. But I struggle somewhat with trying to maintain what I've learned abroad without falling back into old habits of thought and action that I had before. At the same time, I know that I haven't really changed THAT much, and I don't want to become that weird white girl who can't fit into her own American culture because she somehow thinks that her experiences have made her more “worldly” and “wise” than others who have not had the same experiences, or who allows her experiences abroad to completely define her personality (which are not uncommon pitfalls for returned Peace Corps volunteers).
Anyway, my point was that I feel like the questions of who I am, where I came from, and why I am the way I am have been at the forefront of my mind during this visit home. It's been great to be back, like I said, but I can't help but wonder as I visit family and friends – how have I changed since I've been gone? How have they changed? And how can I continue to grow and move forwards while still maintaining the connections that I have to the people and places that are important to me?