Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Culture is Shocking: the 20 Weirdest Things I Readjusted to as an RPCV

This August, I went home for the first time in two years and three months, and what a wonderful, crazy time it was. I got to eat my fill of all the cheese I'd missed out on during that time, saw so many dear friends and family I've missed so much, and got to see my home country with a new set of eyes, as I'd never seen it before.

I'd been warned about intense reverse culture-shock from other RPCVs returning home, but it actually wasn't as overwhelming as I expected it to be; probably because I knew I'd be returning to Rwanda again.

In no particular order, here are the weirdest things I experienced on my three week sojourn back to the good old US of A:

1. Bathrooms that contain western toilets that always work, always have toilet paper, always have a sink with clean hot water, and soap. The fact that I could drink out of any sink without boiling and filtering the water first never got old. Plumbing is a modern miracle, y'all.

2. Anonymity. In Rwanda, especially in my small village, I'm never anonymous. My community members knew my name when I had no idea who they were, and even the most mundane activities were worthy of a long, drawn out stare or taking a terrible quality picture on their phone. People used to line up to watch me buy toilet paper. Even after two years of living in my village, mothers would still yell at their whole family to come out of the house and watch the white girl run by on my evening jog. The fact that I could go for a run and go shopping and just walk down the street without attracting stares in America was mind-blowingly awesome. I was just another face in the crowd instead of being a muzungu. The day after I landed in America, I went for a long run along the Atlantic ocean in New Hampshire wearing shorts (!!), and the sense of freedom that I felt at that moment, with the ocean crashing up against the sea wall and the salty wind in my hair, was overwhelming.

3. FOOD. Ohmygod, there are so many good things to eat in America. And you don't even have to wait two hours for it. As my mother and brother can attest, I went a little nuts on my first trip to an American grocery store. SWEET JESUS, THERE ARE FIFTY DIFFERENT KINDS OF SALAD DRESSING! I just walked each and every aisle, picking up all the unnecessary but amazing items you can find and just staring at it. After about two and a half hours and the world's largest grocery bill later, my family finally had to drag me out.
Food in Rwanda: plate of mashed boiled green bananas
Food in America: cheese for dayssss
4. Being able to eat in public. This is definitely a Rwanda-specific one, as the Land of a Thousand Hills is the only place I know where it's taboo to eat in public. Needless to say, I enjoyed picnics and al fresco dining aplenty here. Although it was still very, very strange to see Americans stuffing their faces while walking down the street without everyone else asking them to share.
5. PDA. The first hint that I was back in 'Murica was when I landed at the airport and saw people holding hands, kissing, and hugging. Out in the open. WHAT THE WHAT? In Rwanda, hand-holding is generally done between just men or just between women, and people don't really kiss in, say, the supermarket line. FREEDOM! 'MURICA!

6. The rush. Even though I was on vacation, I still sometimes felt hurried in a way that I rarely do in Rwanda (anyone who knows my family knows that being late for a dinner prepared by my Dad is basically a mortal sin). Of course, I have deadlines to make and buses to catch in Rwanda, but most of the time things happen at a fairly leisurely pace.

7. Pleasure. I never realized how much of American life is focused on pleasure and entertainment, for all of our senses. There are fleeting fireworks to watch, music to listen to, arcade games to play, ice cream to eat, perfumes and candles to smell, insanely comfortable beds to sleep in, sports and concerts to attend. It's not that the pleasure principle doesn't exist in Rwanda as well, it's just that you don't usually encounter them all at once, all the time.

What the heck is this? 
8. Convenience. Perhaps this goes along with the more rushed pace of life, but I couldn't get over how convenient everything was, and how America seems to be designed around that basic principle. You can literally not even get out of your car, go through a drive-thru, and have food in front of you in five minutes. There's remote control everything.

My beautiful hometown :)
9.  Individuality. I drove in a car BY MYSELF and it blew my mind. I slowly started to regain my personal bubble and started to not greet every single person when I walked into a store. You can be this little anonymous person in America, going about your own business, to an extent I didn't know was previously possible.

10. The internet. And cellphones. When I left for Rwanda, I never appreciated having fast internet in America. It was just there, it just existed, and I totally took it for granted. It's only after experiencing the pain of trying and failing to attach a document multiple times with glacially slow internet that I really appreciated America's insanely fast internet. Um, and when did 8 year olds get cellphones??

11. Shopping. Wait, there are multiple sizes of the same item of the clothing? There's a set price on everything? I don't have to bargain for these tomatoes? People do this as a leisure activity?

12. Speaking English again. I speak pretty good kinyarwanda, but I always have to focus a lot on the conversation, and there's no way I can listen to more than one conversation at once. It was kind of incredible to 100% understand everything that someone was saying to you, even at lightning speed, without any clarifications. There's no place like home, and there's nothing like your mother tongue.

13. Diversity. When I first got to Rwanda, it really used to bother me that my identity was reduced to the word "muzungu", which means both "rich person" and "white person." Even when people knew my name, I'd still be called muzungu. At one point I tried to explain to the nuns how much it bothered me when mothers would shake their babies awake to point at me or that children would crowd around me and try to rub my skin. They asked me, in all seriousness, if I did the same thing when I saw a black person in America. It's hard explaining to Rwandans who believe that America is strictly made up of white people how diverse America actually is; not just in terms of race but in every category: religion, culture, languages, the food we eat, the music we listen to, the clothing we wear. In my community English class, I showed my students the Humans of New York book my friend Kristen gave to me as a Christmas gift, which features beautiful New Yorkers of all shapes, sizes, and colors. It was incredible to come back to a country with such a rich mix of everyone and everything, all in one place.
Some of my community English class students
14. Modern appliances. I used to think it was kind of ridiculous how many Rwandans that I met thought that everything was run by machines in America...and then I realized that's kind of true. We have machines to dry our hair, brush our teeth, clean our dishes, wash and dry our clothes. In Rwanda I use zero of those five machines.

15. You need an ID to drink. The drinking age is 18 in Rwanda, but I have never, ever seen it actually enforced. I have literally seen children drinking in bars, and the times I've been asked to show my ID to buy or consume alcohol here is exactly zero. I forgot my ID at least three times going to bars in America (Tim and Dad, I'm still sorry about the time I had to ditch you at the Dubliner to drive home and get it). It's still extremely strange to me that you can have grey hair and still be asked for your ID in order to have a beer.

16. Not sleeping under a mosquito net. Perhaps this is a sign that Peace Corps' Stomping Out Malaria in Africa initiative did its job, but in Rwanda I sleep under a mosquito net every night, and I felt naked sleeping without one in the US.

17. No one carries stuff on their head. And everyone uses plastic bags (they're illegal in Rwanda!).

18. Consumption and consumerism. Maybe it's because there's no garbage collection where I live here in Rwanda and all my trash has to go into a pile in my backyard, but I couldn't believe the amount of unnecessary packaging on everything in America. I mentally kept track of how much garbage would be in my backyard garbage pile in America, and it just made me sad. I'm pretty sure I created more trash in my three weeks in America than I have in the last two years in Rwanda. There were ads and billboards everywhere encouraging everyone to buy, buy, buy and I felt kind of overwhelmed by it all.

19. All the music and pop culture references I'd missed. I may or may not have thought the song "Timber" was actually Tinder. I had no idea what to turn down for, I still don't understand the use of the word "ratchet", and I vaguely knew that YOLO isn't a brand of yogurt.

20. Seeing some of the nuttiest, funniest, weirdest friends and relatives I'll ever know and love. I got to see my Dad, who tells jokes so cheesy no one else would touch them ("Okra? You mean like Okra Winfrey?"), my uncle who used to regularly dress up as a gorilla at all of our family functions (totally normal), friends who don't think twice about having a spontaneous dance party in the living room (to the intense embarrassment of my younger cousin) and who still stay up late to have a Harry Potter marathon and talk about our crushes (coolest 25 year olds ever, guys), a brother who's totally up for having a three hour Siblings Sing Along right after taking the MCAT, and a mom who got emotional when her old flip phone finally kicked the bucket and was forced to adopt a smartphone because her old model was no longer made. I love you all more than words can say.

America, distance only makes the heart grow fonder. Even though you're kind of a weirdo. 

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