On coming back

Out of the window of my Royal Air Maroc flight into New York last week, one of the most exotic things I saw below was red-colored leaves. We seemed to be flying over a suburban area of Long Island. Little houses, knitted together with streets and autumnal trees, reminded me of the feeling I get about New England: thoroughly “American” but from my perspective, never quite “home.” I was flying in from Casablanca after having changed planes from Dakar; almost everyone on the plane was Moroccan. As I’ve experienced from other plane rides I’ve taken in developing countries, everyone clapped when the plane landed, myself included. Perhaps it was to thank the crew. Or to rejoice in the end of a cramped situation. For me, it was for being alive and back in New York.

My first night back, my friend Jessica acted as my stylist as we used her wardrobe to pick out some updated, weather-appropriate clothing for me to wear so that we could go out to dinner in Brooklyn. I was like a clean slate—not used to the cold yet, no pulse on fashion yet, and only hesitant memories of which train stops where. I had lived in New York for the same amount of time I had lived in Senegal. I was an American on reset.

The cheese selection in the C-Town grocery store in Bushwick.

Of course, I’m still on reset—and it’s a blast. I believe this feeling is one of the greatest gifts I could ever give myself—the chance to experience something I love and know quite well (in this case, the United States), as if it’s new again. Rite Aid. Cheddar cheese. New Jersey accents. Cafes. Good booze. Babies in strollers instead of on backs. Brunch. Public parks. Anonymity. I’m that person walking down the street gazing at everything, eating lunch alone just because the food’s really good, agreeing to meet friends in absolutely any part of town they want, agenda-less.

I’m wondering if the whole reverse culture shock idea is overblown. Some of my friends who are returned Peace Corps volunteers say it was like a hoax the way people advertise it and then it never materializes. Maybe it’s like amoebasI was convinced I’d contract them in Senegal, yet I never did. And maybe being away for two full years allows a person to come full circleyou’re coming back at a point when you’re truly ready to come home, rather than still being high on foreign adventure.

Yesterday, after hearing about the midnight police raid on the protesters in the Occupy Wall Street movement, I went down to Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan to see the scene. I’d heard so much about these protests for months from abroad. Then, it was as if the minute I returned to the United States, the park was swept clean like nothing ever happened.

A police officer staring me down in Zuccotti park.

Except, of course, things weren’t normal in the park—police were now occupying the space. I took pictures of the officers behind their barricades, many of them wearing riot helmets. I talked to protesters and bystanders. Demonstrators marched around the perimeter, yelling at the police. There were little clashes everywhere. A man was arrested, wriggling behind a cop as dozens of cameramen leaned in to take snaps.

What a sight! No dumpsters. Not a trace of the tent city and all its inhabitants that had been there hours before. Police officers allowed me to approach them with cameras and talk to them, something I wouldn’t expect to go over well in Senegal. The yellow trees were flawless. Amid the tension; despite the injustice of police blocking anyone from entering a public space; in face of the mounting anger with which the Occupy Wall Street movement would now move forward; in my eyes, an alien swiftness to everything.

I realized once I arrived at Zuccotti Park that I had once eaten lunch sitting in it, more than two years ago. It was for work; I was attending an arbitration that my law firm was involved in. It took place in the large black skyscraper adjacent to the park, One Liberty Plaza. Back then, I thought I wanted to go to law school and accompanied the lawyers in my firm to any interesting event that they would let me attend. The lawyers and I ate lunch at least twice in Zuccotti Park during our breaks from the arbitration. Our client was a woman bringing a gender discrimination claim. We had worked hard on her behalf. We lost.

• • •

By now, I’ve gotten used to wearing socks again. I’m still startled though, when I crawl into bed and notice that my feet aren’t cracked and dirty like I’ve been used to. I plug my electronics straight into the wall instead of wiggling them into an adapter. I switch lights on from the inside wall of a room. I tip waiters. I’m more friendly to strangers than I ever was before. I’m excited to keep meeting new people.

But I know, as a huge adjustment from Senegal, that I’m not supposed to greet random people on the street.

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3 thoughts on “On coming back

  1. Hi Maya – I stumbled across your Huff Post article today – really beautifully written and rang very true of my experience in Mongolia as well. Welcome home – and yes…reverse culture shock is totally overblown…those stories about RPCVs having breakdowns in grocery store? Please…bring on the cheese!

  2. I just read your article on failure, and I’m not computer-savvy enough to actually be able to find an appropriate place to comment about it. But, here it goes anyway. That article was the most accurate portrayal of Peace Corps I’ve found. I feel like people who haven’t done Peace Corps (I’m PC Suriname) would find it incredibly cynical, but it’s just true, and I don’t think learning to fail needs to be seen as a cynical view. Anyway, great work on writing an honest and eloquent portrayal of Peace Corps.

  3. As a RPCV from Lesotho, southern Africa,in the late 80s, I remember how big houses and rooms seemed when i got back to the states. Don’t forget the African sky, Maya, and the smiles of Africa, that are not as poor as people think.

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