Peace Corps admin tries very hard to prepare their volunteers for re-entry. When the end of our service nears, they even pay for us to spend two days at a nice hotel plying us with resources to help us with re-integration. These resources are supposed to help us wrap up our service into nice little boxes and one again become functional cogs in American society.
After all, it would be bad PR if returned volunteers were constantly breaking down in the cereal isles of their local grocery store or shouting foreign profanities at city bus drivers.
Re-integration is hard. And while Peace Corps has done its best to prepare us, I’ve struggled with a few obstacles that I wasn’t expecting. Becoming an American African is harder than I thought…
First, I cannot believe that no one mentioned the reverse toilet paper shock. For two years my bottom felt nothing but the trickle of lukewarm water and the soft African breeze. No toilet paper means my butt was–well–soft as a baby’s bottom. So, you can only imagine my behind’s discomfort at being wiped with rough, chemically treated paper. Luckily with time my butt has rebuilt the callouses required for survival in the toilet paper obsessed western world.
Oh, and then there’s the cars. Automobiles have become my personal nemesis. I hate driving and I hate being a passenger. These huge chunks of metal are nothing better than American deathtraps. After surviving two years in Africa the last thing I want is to die in a run-of-the-mill auto collision. And the more often I am in a car the more likely it becomes that this is the way I am going to bite the dust. Is it irrational? Sure, but I have never claimed to be a rational human being…
And there is the loss of adventure. When you are in the Peace Corps, just getting out of bed and taking a shower is an unpredictable and exciting. The most boring and mundane days still have obstacles and challenges. Even after 2 years you are still learning a new language and gaining insights into a new culture. Life in America is boring in comparison. Sure, hot water, English speakers and an endless variety of food are nice—but life here feels too easy and dull by comparison.
And of course the climate readjustment. I don’t know if you realize this—but America is freezing. Or at least my little corner of the Pacific Northwest is pretty damn cold. My body’s internal thermometer thinks 90 degrees is “room temperature” even a well-heated house is cold by my standards. To top it off, I don’t have any warm clothes. I have seriously considered investing in one of these, but then I remember that I am a broke, unemployed, recently returned Peace Corps volunteer and I stop myself.
And finally, while Peace Corps does a great job of training volunteers to answer that inevitable “how was the Peace Corps” question with a quick 30 second elevator-pitch response, what Peace Corps really doesn’t prepare us for, are the people who simply say, “Thank you for your service.” On the rare occasion I encounter someone who actually appreciates my work, I get overwhelmed, tongue tied and incredibly emotional. Yeah, super awkward for everyone involved…
Being a Peace Corps volunteer is a thankless job. The organization is misunderstood, underfunded and overstretched. The volunteers who give up two years of their life to represent the best of the United States while doing difficult grassroots development work deserve so much more. At the very least, they deserved to be thanked.
Oh, but if you are one of the few people who actually do thank volunteers, don’t be surprised if one busts into inexplicable tears. Don’t worry, that’s perfectly normal.