Peace Corps Kyrgyzstan

Friday, January 13, 2006

Often in Life, the Reverse is True.

The Shock…oddly not so shocking. Perhaps I overbuilt, over-anticipated and over-analyzed it. Perhaps, since I’ve done this before, the waves from previous shocks canceled themselves out. Or, maybe, I’ve simply grown callus and thick-skinned. At any rate, the event of not experiencing what travelers have tritely termed “Reverse Culture Shock” has, in fact, left me shocked.

Perplexed might be better word for it. Returning to the U.S. from previous sojourns in foreign lands, resulted in shock and awe. I remember arriving home from six months in S.E. Asia and laying on the couch for days, my mouth agape, a pool of spittle darkly expanding into the pillow’s blue fabric as my drying retinas captured thousands of images on CNN.

After another six month trip in Indonesia, I remember looking into the eyes of average Americans and thinking there are whole other worlds and harsher realities that you are free to ignore. And I remember, simultaneously pitying and admiring those who preferred the safety of the shadows in Plato’s cave, over exploring what’s beyond the walls of their coddled world. Sounds harsh and arrogant, I know. But remember, I was in college; young, idealistic and empowered by a new vision of the world, so I don’t think this view was as arrogant as it was selfishly naïve—I had simply wanted everyone to understand and see the world with the same eyes I had.

That was in 1996 and I remember the guilt I experienced for having left behind those on the island of Sumatra who had shared their lives, their food and their friendship with me. The Indonesian people I’d met had shown me that the world was indeed harsher than any reality I’d known back home. Yet, they’d also taught me that their struggle to survive could bring entire communities together in beneficent ways I’d never experienced before. How could I forget them so easily—I wondered one day, while sipping cappuccino and journaling in my laptop at my cozy local café.

And now I journal again—this time from Kyrgyzstan. And I am shocked—shocked at how easy it was to return to my life back home in the U.S. I wasn’t surprised by the oft caricaturized gluttonous consumerism we Americans partake in. I wasn’t amazed at the unreflective ease with which we whisk away our waste: our trash disappears by truck and our turds go down the toilet—easy as apple pie. I wasn’t stunned by the apathy we Americans display towards our government: the gross deficit spending; the federal indictments of politicians on corruption and obstruction of justice charges; or, the executive branch’s impingement on the same Freedoms that we ironically hold up as beacons for other “emerging democracies” to follow.

Reverse Culture Shock? Nope. This time when I returned to America, it was pretty much how I expected it to be. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to sound cynical. I love the United States. I love the opportunities and freedoms it affords me. I love serving my country as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I love my friends, my family, my latte from my little corner café. I love that I don’t have to bribe the mailman to get my mail. I love that I can drink water from the tap. I love that I rarely see used hypodermic needles on the street and that there is little bent rebar for children to impale themselves on. I love that the manholes are covered. These are all really good things about the U.S. that I love and all I’m trying to say is, I wasn’t shocked by the culture when I returned after being away for over 15 months.

Of course, there were the little differences that I will tell my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers about. The choices for diet, low-fat, low-cal, low-cholesterol, low-carb foods seem to have expanded by an exponent of 10.

And then there’s those little blue tooth microphones parasitically attached to an ear of every male between the age of 25 and 40. Wandering through the shoe section of a department store, I thought yuppie schizophrenia was plaguing our nation, “Honey,” one well-groomed man said endearingly as he looked under the tongue of a Nike sneaker for what I could only assume was his imaginary wife. I stared at him for a moment wanting to say, “Trust me pal, if you think your wife’s in there then you’ve got bigger problems than figuring out which pair of running shoes to buy.” He set the Nike down, picked up an Adidas and went on talking, “remember the Shelton’s girl doesn’t eat meat…uh ha…yeah, or maybe we could just order her a pizza.” It wasn’t until he caught my gaze and cocked his head that I realized this was some sort of new communications device employed to induce recently returned Peace Corps Volunteers into feeling ashamed for even thinking that a man who talks to Tennis shoes might be a few California rolls shy of a sushi platter.

But overall, things haven’t changed that much. And in some ways, I am thankful for the stasis. My friends and family are still the intelligent, caring, friendly folks they’ve always been. My girlfriend still amazes me with her emotional empathy, intellectual curiosity and overall excitement towards life. And the beer, oh the beer…it’s as bubbly and belch inducing as ever.

I met a few new people on my visit home; Solena’s parents and her good friends being among the most important—oh, but don’t let me forget the new babies too, Skylar, Will, Max and a few of my old favorites Loren and Fisher.

I got to see Penn State win the Orange bowl in triple over-time and Texas upset USC. The Pittsburgh Steelers walloped Cincinnati and I watched Kevin Garnett (live at the Target Center) dunk on the Mavericks.

In short, things seemed to be in order back home. I’m now back in Kyrgyzstan (AKA Home #2) and things here seem pretty much the same too. Four beautiful, equalizing inches of snow have blanketed Osh. Trash has disappeared beneath the pristine glitter of white crystals and everyone seems more alive, more dimensional on top of that snow—it feels like we are all sketches come to life, dancing atop the same white page we were once penciled onto.

As for the rest of the news back here Kyrgyzstan, well, it looks like I will be on an extended vacation from the Center for American Studies. Osh State University’s campus is closed (meaning no heat) until February 1st. So, I’ve been asked to hold tight till then. Don’t worry, I know how to keep myself busy. We are working on a grant for dictionaries, TOEFL materials and (a long shot) an LCD projector. Grant deadline: 11 days.

Well, that’s all I got folks.

Take care,

Larry Tweed