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!!!!

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