Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Back in the New York Groove

At the New York Botanical Gardens
I have now been back in New York for more than two months (again, time flies) so I suppose it is time to wrap this thing up.  The second most common question I get about my Peace Corps service is some variation on "How is it to be back?" and, as with everything else related to the Peace Corps part of my life, the answer is not a simple one (I'll get to the most common question later).

I was asked recently for some "tips" on reintegration following Peace Corps service and I am sorry to say that I have no great insights as I have not really found it difficult. I can honestly say that I have not had "reverse culture shock" to speak of since being back - maybe because I am pretty adaptable, maybe because of the way I came back (easing my way back to "civilization" as I traveled), maybe because New York really doesn't change much.

I have heard stories of people being overwhelmed by the choices available in supermarkets, or by the ability to hear multiple conversations that you understand, forgetting how to speak English (I don't believe that one) or depression caused by not being the center of attention anymore.  I'm not sure why but I didn't have any of that.

By my second day back, I found myself getting impatient with slow-moving tourists, navigating the subway with ease and sitting in Starbucks reading on my iPhone. I woke up in the middle of the night once and wondered if the time in Armenia had actually happened (I concluded that it had) and I did have a dream one night that I was back in Gyumri. I am not feeling home-away-from-home sick although I did take a trip out to the new-ish Armenian bakery in Brooklyn to get some lavash and gata (both delicious) and have been cooking some of the things I cooked often there (but not Armenian food which I never learned to cook).

So, the short answer is that it feels good to be back.  The longer answer is that, even without the glaring examples of reverse culture shock it can be a bit disconcerting. First, here are the things that are really nice.
  • Family and friends. I suppose I would be a horrible person if I didn't list this first. While my apartment was painted, I was hosted very comfortably in a deluxe penthouse in the sky. I got home in time for Thanksgiving and had a real turkey dinner for the first time in three years (we had a full-blown Thanksgiving dinner at the All-Volunteer conference in 2010, but it was in a dining hall rather than a more homey setting, so I am not counting that).  We had a very nice surprise party for my brother's 50th birthday.  Christmas and New Years were low-key affairs with friends and did not involve drinking from jars or having to substitute things because they were not available in-country.  I have had a chance to catch up with most of my friends and continue to do so each week. I have also seen a few of my fellow returned volunteers. My nieces and nephews are all grown up and it is good to see them again after missing a significant portion of their lives, and seeing the great people they are becoming.      
  • Language. It is also very nice to be in a place where I speak the language fluently. This first hit me when I reached Vancouver on my way home.  Being able to understand all of the signs you read, being able to ask questions about the menu in a restaurant, being able to start a conversation with someone without the strain of wondering if you will be understood - it is wonderful.  I was able to communicate well enough in Armenian and some countries I visited have a lot of English speakers, but I didn't appreciate the amount of strain on my head from not being in a primarily-English-speaking country for 2 1/2 years. As I mentioned above, I was not overwhelmed by the ability to understand - I was more relieved by the ability to do so.
  • My shower. While I had running hot water most of the time in my Gyumri apartment, the water pressure was sporadic so there was often a question about whether it would be high enough to produce a comfortable shower (and the bathroom itself needed to be heated up first).  Here I can take a very nice shower any time I want for as long as I want.  In the first two weeks that I was back, I was in the shower for at least 20 minutes at a stretch - just because I could.  While I have heard of others returning to the US and forgetting that there was running water, that never happened to me.  In my mind, that would be like traveling to Paris and forgetting that there are restaurants. 
  • My bed. I once again have a bed that I fit in, with a real mattress. I still have lingering back problems but at least my feet don't hang off the end. 
  • The weather and central heating. New York is having an unusually mild winter so far. Meanwhile, I see pictures on Facebook of ice caked roads and snowdrifts in Armenia and I think "I don't miss that right now". I don't need to sleep in a sleeping bag anymore while in bed. Knowing that virtually every destination of mine is well heated makes it much easier to go outside when it is cold.  And when I go out and can walk confidently without constantly worrying about falling on my ass. 
  • Movies. I got used to watching movies on my computer screen but I really do prefer going to a theater. Since being back, I have seen more than 20 movies on big screens plus a few from Netflix (some on my computer, so I am glad I got used to that). Hollywood is happy that I am back.
  • The gym.  I am back to the gym I used to go to, where I know what the hours of operation are, I can use the cardio equipment, the machines are not rusted and nobody challenges me to arm-wrestle.  So what if it costs more than 10 times than the one in Armenia?
  • Laundry. It is SO nice to have a washer and dryer available again. My clothes get clean, they dry in less than an hour and they fit the way they are supposed to afterward.    
  • Diversity and anonymity. It is nice to again be in a place where I am not the most unusual person for people to stare at.  Nobody cares about what food I buy, which store I go to or why I am walking. I like seeing people of other ethnicities on the street without people chasing them to take pictures. 
  • No GI problems. I had heard stories of people who got sick from eating the food in the US after being away for so long. I didn't really have any problems when I got to Armenia and luckily none in reverse. And my Peace Corps-provided parasite test came back negative (woo hoo!)
 Having said that, there are some things that are not so good about being back.
  • This place is expensive.  I was born in New York and have lived here most of my life.  I have traveled to enough places to know that most places are less expensive, and I was fully aware that everything here would cost more than in Armenia. Still, I find things much more expensive than when I left ($50 dollar restaurant entrees, half-price theater tickets for $77, $5 gallons of milk, $20 to take a cab for 3 miles). Luckily I have always been pretty good about living modestly and having time on my hands now allows me to ferret out the better places to shop.  
  • Things come and go. This is nothing new, but a favorite restaurant may no longer be open, bookstores are gone, and a vacant lot now has a multi-purpose building in operation, my local supermarket moved (but is now closer!).  A few double takes and some wandering in circles has resulted but I like having a Trader Joe's reasonably close (even if the lines are still stupidly long).  And I like the ever increasing bike lanes.
  • Health care. One of the great things about being in Peace Corps was the ready access to doctors.  If you're not feeling well, call them up and you can talk to or see them almost immediately.  When you need prescriptions refilled, you rarely have to wait. No forms to fill out, no co-pays. Now, I have access to a post-service plan that is not unreasonably priced (all things being relative) but the paperwork is kinda ridiculous, the in-or-out-of-network considerations are a nuisance and errors on the part of the insurance company don't help (typo on the insurance card - oops!).  But at least I have insurance to gripe about.
  • The beers look so small. I got used to half liter bottles (that also cost the equivalent of a dollar or less, but I covered that point already). While I could have also bought 1/3 liter bottles, they looked child-sized.  So when I go out in New York, a beer bottle feels too small to me.  Okay, maybe I am experiencing reverse culture shock.
Baltika beer is in fact available in New York supermarkets!
The parts that fall in between the good and the bad are the things that are disconcerting.  Everyone I meet is very welcoming but it is hard to gauge how much someone really wants to hear from me about the Peace Corps experience.  When I get the "What was it like?" question (the most common), I tend to answer very briefly because it is such a broad one and not easily answered without the risk of boring someone half to death.  If there are more specific questions, then I get into more detail. So far I have managed to avoid saying "You weren't there - you wouldn't understand (man!)."

Then there are the things that I can't find. When I left, I tried to be very organized in giving things away, throwing away things I no longer needed and packing things up (I rented my apartment unfurnished and had to put everything I kept in storage).  Naturally, things got less organized at the very end and no matter how quickly the time passed, I was gone a pretty long time.  Now, as I settle back in, I sometimes look for things and can't find them and can't remember whether I gave them away, threw them out or if they simply got lost somehow. There are also the pleasant surprises in finding things I forgot I had, so it is not all bad. One of my fellow volunteers lost all of his belongings when wildfires in the Southwest a while back destroyed the place where he had his things stored.  I try to remember that to keep things in perspective. 

The most disconcerting is figuring out the extent to which people have changed in your absence (while recognizing that others need to do the same with you).  I knew to expect this, but it can be difficult trying to fit back in when interpersonal dynamics have shifted. It is not as difficult as moving to a new city and having to make new friends, but I did hear once "I keep forgetting that you are back".  And as I noted above, the 2 1/2 years I was away was a sizable portion of my nieces' and nephews' lives so that changes things a lot.  

While I don't think that I have changed significantly while away, I am sure that I have but can't see it objectively.  I can say, however, that some things are easy to see. I am continuing to cook for myself in large quantities that I can eat over several days rather than eating out all the time. I am less aggressive with strangers than I used to be (although some more time in New York will probably cure me of that).

And, most of all, I have a reinforced appreciation for what we have here. I have become a more conscientious consumer and have (thus far) avoided buying things that I don't really need. It's not only because I am not working right now, but also because the time away made me understand more how wasteful we can be. So I will continue to do a lot of things for myself, not throw things away without considering if they can be used somehow, somewhere and try to remember the lessons I learned. This country is far from perfect, but when you have people asking you constantly for help to move here, see how many doors open for you internationally with a US passport, and can take advantage of a program that will send you overseas to gain a life experience like the Peace Corps, you realize how lucky you are.


So, that is all for this blog.  As I said in my first post, I had not originally intended to write one, but I am glad that I did.  It gave me a way to process what I was seeing, feeling and learning and I am glad that I was able to share it with others.  Thank you for your interest, and thank you for your support.