I came across this article (Life After the Peace Corps: How to Adjust When You’re Back Home) through a Facebook friend and fellow RPCV and it got me thinking…
When I finished my Peace Corps service I couldn’t wait to get home and experience all the things I had been missing desperately. Some things were simple and universal, others were more personal and complex:
- Seeing and spending time with my family.
- Ordering a pizza or any other kind of takeout when I was too tired to cook.
- Speaking the same language as the waiter, bank teller, cab driver, grocery clerk…
- Peanut butter.
- Clean sheets that smell like fabric softener.
- Being able to wash and dry my clothes using machines. No more knuckle-rub in a tumpun (bucket)! No more freeze-drying my laundry in the winter!
- A fast internet connection.
And so much more…
However, my return came with a few issues. Jet lag, for one, but also a big dose of culture shock. The Peace Corps does what it can to prepare PCVs for the culture shock they’ll all experience upon returning the their home country, but there’s nothing to really prepare you.
In the seminars leading up to any PCV’s Close of Service (COS) many topics are discussed, including:
- Sharing your experiences during your service with friends, family, and strangers without becoming annoying. Unlike this guy: Conversations
- How to utilize your service in a job interview/resume/application.
- What to do with yourself when you get home.
- Culture Shock. Yes it happens, and it’s often in the most unexpected places at the most unexpected times. (I guess it wouldn’t really be a shock if it were otherwise.)
I ended up having a miniature breakdown in the shampoo aisle of Fred Meyer on my first day home. I had mentally prepared myself for the shock of such a humungous store, particularly compared to the tiny delguurs (shops) back in Mongolia. It was so huge! There were so many things I could buy!
Fighting jet lag I tagged along as my mother went to the store for some basic groceries. I needed shampoo and conditioner, and was worried if I stayed home I’d crash on the couch at 4 in the afternoon and wake up at 2 AM.
Even in Mongolia there are several different brands of hair products to choose from. There are a few Mongolian varieties and international brands like Head & Shoulders and Pantene are easily recognizable. However their labels are often hard to read as they are often in Russian. Did you buy shampoo? Conditioner? 2 in 1? The world may never know…
So, after I gawked in wonder at all the produce (apples, oranges! Grapes! TOMATOES!), the variety of products (paper towels, Peanut Butter! DRYER SHEETS!), and all the other well… junk that it was possible to buy, Mom and I made it to the grooming section of Freddie’s.
I stood, completely shell-shocked for a moment; just how many different kinds of shampoo are there? Trying to be helpful my mother pointed out that cheaper brands were towards the front while the good, expensive stuff was toward the back.
“Uh…um…” I stuttered. Then, to my embarrassment my eyes started to well up with tears. How could I make a choice? There were so many to look at; I didn’t even know where to begin such a daunting task as picking one. What if it was the wrong choice?
Seeing my distress my fantastic mother took my face in her hands and said “Woah, it’s okay sweetie. What do you want your shampoo to do? Curl, straighten, de-frizz…?”
“Clean my hair?” I replied on a bit of a sob.
“Okay, we can do that.” Almost blindly my mother seized a bottle from the relative middle of the aisle. “How’s this? Aveeno. Good stuff.”
“Oh, I know that brand, I like their lotion. Okay. I’ll get that one.” Alas, it wasn’t so simple. Even after picking a brand I still had a few options to choose from. Moisturizing? Oily hair? Curly hair? In desperation I opened the bottles and just chose the ones that smelled the best. Dumping them into the cart, I said. “Can we go home now? I’m no sure I can handle much more of this.”
“Of course. Let’s blow this pop stand!” Mom cheerfully replied. (She’s always used the most colorful expressions, I’d really missed that about hanging out with her.)
It wasn’t until I got home and into the shower that day that I realized that I’d bought two bottles of shampoo instead of one shampoo and one conditioner.
For some good advice on readjustment issues
check out the link that inspired this post:
from The Daily Muse.
It’s often amazing to me how quickly life can change. It has happened to me quite a lot in life, so it shouldn’t surprise me any more; but Fate has a way of turning my life in the oddest directions.
As a child of an international banker and a homemaker I started living overseas at the age of four doing time in Hong Kong, Prague, Warsaw, and Madrid all before I turned 13. This makes me a third culture kid of the first order.
We moved back to the States when I was 13, and I hoped my globe-trotting would continue. Alas it was not to be, and I could no longer follow my father around the world. So upon graduating Central Washington University I took up the challenge and joined the United States Peace Corps. I was posted to Mongolia and spent two years living in the small town of Moron, in Khuvsgul Aimag. (For more, see That time I lived in Mongolia…)
Those two years were some of the most difficult times I may ever encounter in my life. I lived in a yurt (a felt tent) that had no running water and was heated with a wood-burning stove. I did have electricity, and oddly enough, 24 internet service. Such is the oddity and duality of life in Mongolia. During my service I met other world-travelers like myself, along with numerous tourists, adventurers and welcoming locals. I also dealt with crippling diarrhea, sand storms, drunken Mongolians (who are a lot like zombies, lurching around in the dark in search of more vodka and sex), having to haul my own water and chop my own firewood, and a teaching job where I struggled to make a difference. Though it was incredibly difficult, I wouldn’t trade my tenure in Mongolia for anything. I would do it all over again for the things that I learned about myself, about the world, and about what I am capable of.
That aside, after my service ended in the summer of 2011 I was a bit rudderless. Ready to be home, find a job, do what normal people do, I suppose. I wasn’t sure anymore that global living was really what I thought it was. In Mongolia I learned the harsh truth that living overseas with your family is VASTLY different from living abroad alone. (Thanks again Mom and Dad for everything you did to make my childhood awesome and livable!)
After bumming around and working a few babysitting and nannying jobs for 9 months in Seattle, I had had enough. I went online and began trolling the web for job listings. I started my search on Tuesday night, by Wednesday morning I had a Skype interview scheduled with Disney English. A week later I was asked to pack up my life and move to Beijing, China to teach English for the next 14 months. I was so excited!
I am now nearing the end of my contract with DE, and again, I wouldn’t trade my experiences here for anything. I’ve learned so much, and gotten the chance to do some pretty amazing things here in Beijing. (For more check out previous entries Bungee Jumping in Beijing, Vacation: Shaolin and Xi’An, and Bungee Jumping in Beijing, Again.) But now the time has come for something new. In January I started looking for positions in international schools around the world without much luck. I had resigned myself to another year or so bumming around on my Mom’s couch looking for temporary work before applying to graduate schools for the fall of 2014.
When the unexpected happened. I received an email from a school headmaster asking for a Skype interview. I had to backtrack and figure out just who this head of school was. In the 6 months since January I have sent my resume and qualifications to just about every school on the planet with an email address. Turns out an international school in Egypt is looking for a 5th grade teacher and they’d like yours truly to teach all twelve students!
EGYPT! I’m moving to EGYPT! In about 50 days, no less! A week ago I was despairing at staying in my mother’s attic and job hunting all of the schools in the Seattle area. Now I have just 10 days to see friends and family in Seattle before I’m due in Cairo to begin my life as a 5th grade teacher.
Have I mentioned that I’m THRILLED?!?!?!
Fate had me on the edge of my seat staring into an abyss of menial babysitting jobs for at least a year, and now… Now, I’m starting a job in a new school in a new country with a slew of adventures yet to be discovered. Fate sure is one fickle bitch!
Thankfully, I have not needed to go to a hospital in China due to any illness. I think living in Mongolia as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) strengthened my constitution. When the nearest Peace Corps Medical Officer (PCMO) is a 14-hour bus ride away, you really start to reconsider the true meaning of ’emergency.’
This does not mean that I have not had the opportunity to visit a hospital, unfortunately. In fact, on Christmas Day I got a crackly phone call from my very good friend asking me to please meet them and go with them to the hospital. That was an experience, but I won’t share it here to protect my friend’s privacy.
More recently, yesterday in fact, I had the opportunity to travel with my friend back to Japan-China Friendship Hospital, though this trip was much less emergent. Patient X’s digestive tract is waging war against their body causing them to rush to the rest room moments after having eaten anything. A full week of this had finally been enough and Patient X and I went to the hospital yesterday afternoon.
The whole process this time went much smoother, but was a bit funnier. Having to explain to everyone that you have the shits is no fun. Patient X had no compunctions, but I felt myself go red in the face each time we had to explain what the issue was. Once the purpose of the visit was made apparent, tests had to be run; blood and stool samples needed to be taken. Blood was not a major issue, if you don’t count a band-aid that had been bled-through. Stool was a little harder to come by. Patient X purposely hadn’t eaten because it means they can’t be far from a toilet. Also, Patient X wasn’t exactly clear on how to give and collect the necessary sample. My personal shyness when talking about sensitive subjects led to some misunderstandings, made funnier by presence of Susy, the interpreter so thoughtfully provided by our insurance company. Lots of vague gesturing, meaningful looks, and awkward pauses in the conversation got us nowhere. Eventually I gave up on trying to be overly polite and said something along the lines of: “Shit into the squatter, reach in with the stick to collect a sample and then place the sample in the little container provided. Wash and sanitize hands thoroughly.”
The public restroom was a squatter: no toilet, just a porcelain hole in the floor. Patient X did their best, but after five minutes returned to Susy and I saying: “I just couldn’t go.” The combination of no food for several hours and the unfamiliar facilities led to digestive system shyness. Luckily, I found some chocolate in my purse for Patient X to eat and we waited for their digestive virus to kick in.
While we waited for my friend’s stomach to revolt I told stories of similar experiences I had in the Peace Corps:
When you leave the country you must have a medical checkup to make sure you haven’t contracted any diseases. One of these tests involves stool samples taken two days apart. Some diseased take a few weeks for symptoms to develop, and by taking the samples in country the Peace Corps can determine whether you contracted the disease or virus in country. This is important, because if you did contract something, anything in country, the Peace Corps and the United States government will pay for any and all medical care required. When a large group of PCVs is scheduled to leave, lots of samples must be taken and given to the PCMO, who then mails them to the United States for testing. Our poop travels in first class mail, and we have to fly home coach. Typical.
The sample collection kits that are provided come in a cardboard tube about 8-10 inches long and a few inches in diameter. The kits inside rattle around in the tube and make noise like a frickin’ maraca. So when you take your kit with you into the bathroom of the teeny-tiny hostel that you share with a dozen other people, everyone knows exactly what you’re up to. Oh joy. The logistics of collecting the sample are an oft-discussed legend among PCVs as they prepare to leave the country. Some don’t bother to get two samples two days apart as instructed; instead opting to just get the whole duty over with in one go. The embarrassment doesn’t end there though. After the samples have been collected and are stowed in your backpack or purse (yes, you get to carry shit around in your bag!), then you must turn them into the PCMO. Paul, the world’s coolest PCMO, thought it was funny to ask you all about your samples when you turned them in. He seemed genuinely interested in the consistency, color, texture, and odor of your stool sample… Paul was an odd dude…
Back to Beijing, once Patient X’s virus made it’s presences known we had to move quickly; Susy found a proper toilet for Patient X to use, and we waited. I can’t imagine how uncomfortable it was for Patient X to try and shit and then collect a sample of it. Particularly knowing that two people were outside chatting, trying not to think too hard about what Patient X was doing on the other side of the door.
While waiting for my friend, Susy and I chatted a bit uncomfortably, eventually finding common ground. Turns out Susy is from Inner Mongolia and lives around the corner from me in Beijing. In a conversation much like dozens I had in Mongolia, Susy asked for my phone number, invited me to her house to cook traditional foods, and implored me to help her with her English. An age later Patient X emerged from the bathroom with their sample and we trooped over to the laboratory area of the hospital. After that things moved quickly, the tests performed on Patient X’s samples took less than five minutes each, the prescriptions were written, doled out, and paid for within ten minutes. Our whole hospital visit took less than two hours! Like most Chinese medicines, Patient X was instructed to take three pills three times a day to relieve symptoms. Wouldn’t it just be easier to make the pills bigger or with a higher concentration?
Susy was also off duty and offered to go home with us. Great. One uncomfortable cab ride later we were back in our neighborhood and ready to tackle the world. Patient X’s digestive system is back on track, thankfully, and I hope that I never need to attend a Chinese hospital for an issue of my own. Also, I’m asking Patient X to go with me (they owe me!).
Some photos from my Peace Corps Service in Mongolia.