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.