September has turned to October, and November will soon be upon us. For a PCV in Cameroon, this means it’s Close Of Service (COS) season. The volunteers who began a year before me are now wrapping up projects, packing their houses, and trickling back to the United States to start the next stage of their lives. It’s a bittersweet time, as I’m losing many of my friends. Between evacuations back in March, voluntary requests for site reassignment, and early terminations of service, the North region is hemorrhaging volunteers; after this group COSes, we will be the few, the proud, and the lonely up here. We’re slated to get replacement volunteers from the most recent training class come December, and having met the trainees, I’m sure it’ll be a good group; still, it’s hard to see people I already know, care about, and have worked with move on.
Watching my friends prepare to leave is a reminder of just how transient our services are. It’s an impetus to work harder and faster, as in a single year, it will be me giving away clothes and boxing up books to take back to the transit house library. In the last few weeks my mind has been turning frequently to thoughts of what comes next. One night, in a frenzy of productivity, I drew up a spreadsheet of grad school programs, although I won’t be entering for another two years at the soonest. When I let my mind wander, I find myself thinking about jobs, wondering if I’m nervously jumping the gun.
But mostly I wonder about repatriation. Every volunteer has heard the apocryphal story about the RPCV who, their first week or month in America, starts crying in the toothpaste aisle because there are just so many choices, and what the hell’s the difference between Brilliant White With Breath Strips and Advanced Oxidation With Bursting Mint? Can’t we just be happy that people care about dental health at all? I’m excited when people in my village chew on sticks. A volunteer who recently left Cameroon posted that he started losing it in the grocery store because the ginger was so large and clean (I mistakenly read his update as “a ginger”, and thought he was panicking over an uncommonly tall and well-groomed redhead, which would also be reasonable after two and a half years here). Reverse culture shock can be a doozy.
More than the physical adjustments of America—paved roads; parking lots; said parking lots being hosed down with cleaner water than is available here to drink—I worry about adjusting back to Americans. Someone told me before I left for the Peace Corps that all the RPCVs he had ever known were socially awkward. I thought this was an odd comment, and wrote it off, but now it makes total sense. We’ve been through an experience that has changed us in ways that can’t really be explained—and to make things worse, very few people will have the patience or the interest in what inadequate explanations we will try to give.
I started to experience this when I was home in June. It was hard enough talking to family and friends who were genuinely interested in my service; I didn’t know how to fairly convey what life and work here are like without being reductive, or cynical, or overly flippant. Volunteers become inured to certain elements of hardship—you have to be, or go crazy—so we fall into the habit of speaking casually, even jokingly, about the facts of daily life. Death happens. Diarrhea happens. We’re all habituated to this. For friends back home, death in the Third World is an unmitigated tragedy, and talking about your poop in detail is disgusting. Thus we become socially inept.
It was worse talking to strangers. A few times while visiting old roommates in DC and in New York, I was swept along to happy hour or an apartment party with these friends’ current colleagues, none of whom I knew. Things would start well enough, and then I would be asked, “What do you do?” or, “Where do you work?”, the social qualifiers by which we Americans group and rank those around us. Reluctantly, inevitably, I would explain that I was home on leave from the Peace Corps. I don’t doubt that these young urban professionals were mildly interested, but “mildly” is the key phrase here: they didn’t know what follow-up questions to ask, and didn’t really care about the answer. What I was doing was different, and they felt obliged to make some recognition of this—but it came out in sweeping questions like “How is it?” or “What’s Africa like?” (What’s it like? It’s the world's second-largest continent, made up of 54 sovereign states with over a thousand spoken languages. It spans ecozones from desert to equatorial rainforest to snow-capped mountains to highland steppes. I’ve never been to about 98% of it. Saying anything about “Africa” as a whole, other than “It’s between South America and Southeast Asia”, is bound to be reductive and probably patronizing.)
This came to a head in a bar in D.C. I wound up in conversation with a girlfriend somehow attached to my old roommate Sruti’s social circle. As the two of us walked to the bar to get a second round, she asked some vague question about Development and Aid. I began to try to give a thoughtful, honest, comprehensive answer—but I should have known better. These are not qualities we value, least of all in a casual social setting. As soon as the bartender pushed our drinks across (an IPA for her; seasonal draft beer for me, a revelation after months of lukewarm 33 Export), she picked hers up and walked off, leaving me mid-sentence with my mouth hanging open, feeling foolish.
We in America live in a soundbite culture. We like our ideas in neatly compactable, polished catchphrases, even if in so doing we sacrifice the truth and nuance of reality. “Peace Corps: The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love!” “The Developing World: You Learn So Much More From Them Than They Learn From You!” “Africa: They Have So Little, But They’re So Happy!” This, and this only, is what is expected of me—and never mind that these are hopelessly pat answers that do not ring true with my experience. Keeping it simple, keeping it surface level, is easier for everyone.
I realize I’m beginning to get preachy and holier-than-thou, and that’s not fair. Perhaps I’m being too hard on IPA Girl. For all I know, she’s fully aware of the complex nature of intervention in non-viable economies, she just (understandably) didn’t want to get too deep into the weeds with someone she didn’t know, on an evening when she was trying to relax with her boyfriend and his friends. Fine. But I—we, as volunteers—need to be prepared that this is not an anomalous response. Somehow, we have to stifle our need to explain, because we can’t.
And then there’s the other side of the coin: do we volunteers want to get into deep, sincere discussions about feminism, Islam, and family planning—or addiction to foreign aid, and how it stifles community initiative—or what our Biggest Challenge was—with everyone we talk to at a bar or in line at the grocery store for the next six to twelve months? Probably not, which threatens to transform these indignant paragraphs to hypocrisy: I lament the fact that no one wants to listen, and all the while I don’t want to talk. It’s exhausting to plumb the depths of this experience daily; what’s more, I had the nervous feeling every time I opened my mouth that I was now expected to be an expert on the subject. On the contrary, most of the things I have to say aren’t that deep or original, and I’ve lost certainty about anything at all since coming here.
This is an emotional, critical diatribe, and yet it lacks any resolution. Since I just acknowledged that everyone’s in the wrong, I’m not even sure what point I’m trying to make, other than that going home again isn’t easy, and social re-integration is likely to be bumpy for everyone involved. On the bright side, I have another year to ponder this, to prepare myself, to figure out what comes next and to try to pre-formulate digestible, bite-sized explanations for the Top Ten Most Commonly Asked Questions.
COSing friends who have weeks or mere days to think about all this: Ashia. Du courage; my thoughts, sympathies, and jealousies (coffee shops! Public parks! Yoga classes! A job with a boss, clear expectations, and deliverable goals!) are with you.
Meanwhile, I’ll be here, nervously working on this spreadsheet.