Over the course of my year overseas I have experienced new languages, weird food, vast cultural differences, many hours traveling on weird forms of transportation, living without a fridge oven or car, spending days without electricity or water, having only 3 pairs of shoes and 12 days worth of clothes and not understanding many of the things going around me. I don't know if it is because I have travelled a lot or if I am just a flexible person but all of that was easy compared to returning to the US. Granted I love my amazing US family and friends and seeing them has been wonderful but there are not many people that completely understand what I am going through in returning. Many people have tried to be super supportive, amazing and wonderful. They have shown me tremendous love in so many ways but to understand the cultural collision that happens upon returning to the US after a year overseas is very difficult unless you have experienced it first hand.
You may be asking what is the big deal Kerri- You grew up here, get over it. In an attempt to explain what is happening with me I will explain the 3 biggest challenges I am currently experiencing and you can feel free to comment or criticize if you want.
Many call this reverse culture shock. And many people who have traveled extensively for long periods of time have comment that this is the worse kind of culture shock- I tend to agree with them.
The first major challenge I came across was the excessive lifestyle people have here and their need for physical possessions. After living with just my basic needs for a year I came to realize that you do not need a lot to have a happy life. We did not have a television, a refrigerator, a car, or many of the luxuries people have in America. We did not live in a mud hut either with nothing but we had what we needed to get by. We had a nice house, something to cook with, and our two feet to get around. Everyday someone had to go to the market to get food to cook and we spent evenings with friends instead of watching television. Many people here have said to me how did you live like that, but honestly I was the healthiest I have ever been, I made very intense relationships with the people I was friends with, and life was good. When I returned the first thing that made me overwhelmed was the amount of stuff I had. Granted before I left I thought I sold everything that I did not need but upon returning I felt like I had more than I would need in a life time. I was so overwhelmed I went through every area of my house and eliminated half my wardrobe, threw out piles and piles of documents I had been saving since college, and donated many objects that I found to be pointless. And after all that I still have more clothes than I need and stuff that I know is not important. When I walk into a store here I feel like there is not a single thing I need and don't even bother looking at clothes anymore because I feel like I have too much. After a week I still feel overwhelmed about the stuff in my house but what was the hardest was that every piece of clothing and object I donated I knew someone that could benefit from it far away and I knew that many people here are no longer interested in things once they have been used. In America if it is not new many people are not interested in having it. The frustrating part about all of this was that every single thing I got rid of could have been given to someone I knew in far away countries, but to ship the materials would cost more than if I just sent them the money from shipping costs to buy the items there. Which made me wonder- why as Americans to we feel the need to have so much stuff? Why does everything we own have to be brand new? And why is it ok that we are ignorant of the fact that we do have so many things when so many people have nothing?
Ok my second cultural shock was the intense sense of urgency and work that exists here. I have always said that the biggest difference I see between America and other parts of the world is the work load and the drive to have deadlines and schedules for everything. This compared to the more relaxed attitude I have found in other countries makes me wonder what we are always rushing for. Coming back I tried to mentally prepare myself for that. I knew that I started work 5 days after returning home and I knew that it was not going to be easy, but as I sat in our teacher institute day and heard about how many things had to be accomplished by Monday morning I was feeling VERY overwhelmed. Not only was I overwhelmed but so many other teachers were overwhelmed. I know that education is not the only field that runs on calendars, to do lists and dead lines but sometimes it makes me wonder why we are so focused on getting so much done. There are smart phone apps to help you get work done, email alerts to remind you of stuff you have to do, and a calendar on every system we use from paper to email to phones. With all of that there are also advertisements about medications and therapies for depression, anxiety and things like restless leg syndrome everywhere you look. Sometimes I wonder if the two things are not linked. As I have gotten SO overwhelmed by the intensity of our developed advanced nation I also wondered if maybe we have made ourselves so focused on schedules and work that we have also made ourselves crazy. Since being home I have tried to connect with many people and the thing that always amazes me is how scheduled they are and how they have to rearrange their schedules to see their friends or spend time with their family. I am not sure if the way we live in the US is good for our mental health but I do know that one of the best things I learned this year while travelling is that is ok to slow down and take time to get things done. The world will not come to an end if you are not doing everything or scheduled every hour of the day. Sometimes relaxing and letting life happen to you is good too. Now the trick is making my new way of thinking fit into my old American life.
After the intense throwing out of all my unneeded things and the decision to not obsess over my schedule, calendar, or to do list- I thought ok maybe I could do this. Maybe if I just slow down and relax I will be ok. That is when the phone calls started from my students in Tanzania. It started during institute day when Humphrey, a student Jill and I took care of all year, called to say hi, see how I was and asked me to come back. Then this morning Raphaeli, another student I have worked with for 3 years called to say hi and tell me he misses me. Honestly I know that there are kids at my school in America that need me and there is alot I can do here also and the more people keep telling me that the more I don't want to hear it because no matter how many America students need me it is still hard to tell a kid without parents living by himself in his dead grandmothers house that I cannot come back right now but miss him also. I love teaching- I love being in the classroom and I love the students I see everyday at Antioch they are great kids and the teachers are amazing people who I love to work with, but it is just not the same. Helping kids find food, clothing, shelter, education access and civil rights when they have disabilities is so much different for me than teaching in America with computers, diversity clubs, sports teams, and enough resources to teach every kid in a different way.
As much as I am trying and trying and trying to make it work and not be cynical and critical- It has been hard. My new culture that has been built from my amazing experience has decided not only is it going to collide but it is going to smash everything I once knew about life to bits. It is hard to look around and see how much stuff we have here and wonder do we need it when so many others are struggling. It is hard to enjoy life here when overwhelmed by the amount that is expected and demanded of one person with so little respect for their personal time to live. And it is hard to look at our textbooks, computers, and large teaching staffs and not think about kids over the ocean who only have pens and paper. Kids who learn about computers but will never see one. Kids who memorize the parts of a microscope but never actually use one.
Those in the US that deal with me daily, and those in Tanzania that get my many sad texts messages please just know I am trying, please be patient with me. I did not just go on vacation for a year. I worked really hard, made a life for myself, and enjoyed everything about it everyday. I love seeing every single person I am getting to see again in America and I love talking about what I missed and catching up but I also miss where I was, what I was doing, and the amazing people I fell in love with while I was there.
So.....What have I learned about cultural collision........When do cultures collide?
Cultures collide when you go somewhere really really different for a while. To a place that impacted your heart and mind and sent you home to realize you have forever been changed.