coming back to america: expected and unexpected

There are so many parts of reentry to America to talk about, and I’ve started to make two lists. Here’s what I have so far:

Things that are really not surprising at all:

Super Wal-Mart is super terrifying. For two years, I did grocery shopping the Armenian way. I chatted with shopkeepers, had coffee with my bakery ladies, and shook hands with the vegetable man. There were so many things I couldn’t find in Armenia like brown sugar, buffalo wings, or tostada shells. Still, after growing up on America’s industrial food system, it was actually thrilling to know I could make do and that I actually loved food that was good for me.
I went to Guatemala for a summer during college, and when my mom picked me up at the airport at trip’s end, she took me to Wal-Mart to get whatever I wanted. In the orange juice section I had a breakdown. I couldn’t stop talking long enough to breathe. I hyperventilated. I couldn’t take the aisle of cookies, the plethora of tortilla chips, and now how was I supposed to know which of the juices hit highest marks in taste, vitamin content, price, and what if there’s some orange juice criterion I DON’T KNOW ABOUT!?  Consumer culture made me whack-a-doo. This time I saw it coming years away, and when I go in, I actually alternate between wanting to buy out the warehouse and run from the aisles as fast as I can.  Despite being the only game in this small town, I avoid the place as much as possible.

I can pet dogs. Every Peace Corps volunteer in Armenia felt like their town was the worst when it came to aggressive, angry, barking dogs. Every town had its regular strays, and I had to adjust my route to work to avoid the worst ones. I’ve been in Texas a month, and I haven’t seen a stray dog yet. 99% of the dogs I’ve encountered are well-behaved with owners that treat them like best friends. I’ve got my sister’s dog in my lap right now.

I can take a shower whenever I want to. This is privilege, straight up. I can drink the water. I can do laundry or dishes. I can take a hot shower. And if I want to, I can do this all at 3:00 am. It’s the kind of privilege so huge it inspires guilt.

There are some things that have absolutely caught me off guard:

Our silverware is heavy and shiny and beautiful. I know, not the most massive epiphany. Still, my first day back, I was dropping the silverware into the drawer and couldn’t stop from marveling at the beveled edges, the roses on handles, the gleam on the backs of spoons, the weight of each piece in my hands. In Armenia, I bought all my silverware, some twenty peaces for about $3. I can still feel the edge of a fork against my lip. Each dull piece was simply cut from a sheet and warped. I used to think our Texas silverware was old and dingy. And when I arrived here weeks ago, I at first thought my family must have bought an entirely new set of the same things. But no, the silverware here is just really nice.

I love going to the gym. I know you don’t really know me, and I know I’m lookin’ fly. But this bod hasn’t seen a gym since finishing my college credits in phys ed.  However, after knee surgery, and after a general lack of exercise in Armenian culture, I am so happy to be pushing my limits. I curl things and press things and crunch things, and then I bike until start to drip. And while my jogging figure was a spectacle on the roads of Stepanavan, here I am just one in sweaty crowd.

There are hand-mixers. Do you remember how I made a lot of chocolate chip cookies in Armenia. The landfamily loved them, and I can admit to having way to many, what I called, “Baker’s Dozen Dinners,” where dinner was simply a pile of cookies. (Those were long, cold, and lonely winters!) I have a knack for them now, and the other night my family wanted them. So, I got everything together, including a perfect wooden spoon for the mixing. Butter melted, eggs beat, sugar creamy, I had my little sister start adding the flour.
“This is where it gets a little tough.” I chuckled.
“We have a mixer, you know,” my mother said from the dining room.
For a moment I had no idea what she was saying. Literally, the sentence didn’t make sense. Then, brain finally firing at top speed… A MIXER. I remembered what it was, and I flipped out.
This has actually been my first and only reentry freak-out. Over the mixer. That was the trigger, and the monumental privilege that I now experience slammed me in the face. I have a washer and a dryer. I have a dishwashing machine. I have DVR. I have a comfortable bed. And I have a mixer.


12 Comments

  1. “We have a mixer, you know.” Love it.

    Love that you’re noticing all these things (and yes, Super Wal-Mart is super terrifying).

  2. Nicole FR

    Confession: I have been creepin’ on your blog ever since I was a wee PC applicant and my nominated region was the Eastern European/Central Asia block and found it on PCJ (sidenote: I’m in Paraguay now, but such is life). I kept up with it because it was great to find someone else from the great state of Texas and your stories and writing are fantastic.

    Sorry I’ve crept for so long, and good luck with readjusting… I dream about grocery stores sometimes here. Can’t imagine actually stepping into one.

    1. Haha! Nicole, please keep on creepin’! I’m really glad you found it. If you’ve got a blog or tumblr or whatever let me know. I’d love to see what life is like in Paraguay. I almost extended there myself.

  3. Cyndi Kramer

    In 1981, when I came back from Chile, there were drive-through Burger Kings. I was astonished.
    It took me forever to stop carrying around my own toilet paper, because there was never ANY in any of the bathrooms I had used for the previous two years. And I drove my mother crazy throwing the used stuff into the waste basket, completely forgetting that our plumbing was actually designed to handle it.
    And showers. Oh, beautiful showers. How I loved taking endless showers when I returned. I cannot say how much I appreciated showers. I’m kind of tearing up just remembering it.

    1. That is such a beautiful moment I think a lot of PCVs and other returning folks can appreciate, standing in the shower and letting it just wash over you. Beautiful.

  4. I was in India in 1968 as a PCV and it is interesting to see that readjustment hasn’t changed. Coming home was so much harder than leaving. I still remember my husband catatonic in the dog food aisle of our grocery store so that I had to lead him out. Readjustment does happen slowly but the memories of life in the Peace Corps never fade.

    1. Oooh, thanks for that last line especially. It’s good to remember that the memories will last through all of this readjustment. And I hope your husband can buy dog food with ease now. ;)

  5. Nicole FR

    I do have a blog! embarcando.wordpress.com There are some pictures up and some links to facebook albums I haven’t jumped on the tumblr wagon yet, because it looks way too cool and addicting… Paraguay is… beautiful! It reminds me a lot of Texas actually. Lots of open grassy land, people treasure asado and the ranching culture is still prominent where I live.

    1. Great! I’ll check it out! Ooooh, and hanging out with ranching Paraguayans sound awesome!

  6. Thanks, Raven! I always feel a little cheer when I do laundry for the same reason! Thanks for understanding!

  7. Haha!!! I can imagine! It’s hard to just land in a familiar and unfamiliar place. Thanks for sharing and not making me feel like I am the only one to freak out over something so seemingly small.

  8. Yeah, it’s kind of amazing what you can learn to do without. I feel like really I could live anywhere and with so much less. It’s wonderful to learn that boost of independence Peace Corps can give you.

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