Sunday, February 26, 2012

'Coming [Home] to America'

"I am King Jaffe Joffer, ruler of Zamunda."

In trying to find words to describe America I realize it's as hard as describing Ghana. I suppose I could use a list of adjectives, things like 'clean' and 'vast,' or 'deafening' and 'delicious,' but that doesn't tell you anything real, does it? A tumbling list of adjectives says very few things; and I'm just as afraid of saying too little as I am of saying too much.

Two weeks in America was too short and too long; 'overwhelming' is probably the appropriate word - the extent of which I'm finding hard to verbalize. After twenty consecutive months away from home I was completely unprepared for it's complexity. I tried to steel myself, I did, but against my best efforts everything was foreign  How could it not be? The first time I tried to use my best friend's phone - a touch phone not unlike one I used to own - it was like typing with my elbows. No one on the receiving end would have known the difference.

Except her, of course, watching in abject horror.

Characterizing my experience in Ghana has always been a challenge; describing abstract ideas and emotions is the bane of my existence (I am a writer, after all), but I've never found it difficult communicating with myself. Knowing this, I gave no thought to the possibility that I'd become a stranger in my own life.

America isn't necessarily different; I am.

It would be no exaggeration to say the minute I stepped onto solid, American soil, I completely shut off my brain. Sure, I followed the polite, well-lit signs pointing me to an EXIT, but coping with the amount of motion going on around me required me to stop processing it. Until I sat down and observed individuals (*eh hem* their outfits, let's be honest here), I was like Terminator - determined to find a bench at all cost, without impediment and at pedestrian risk.

The first thing I noticed was a quiet anonymity, a feeling both blissful and isolating. Physically, being inconspicuous despite color, religious affiliation, or nationality was liberating. I closed my eyes to the stillness and took it in completely; car horns floated over the wind, a fast-moving highway hummed quietly in the distance, and not one person interrupted me or asked me what I was doing sitting alone with my eyes closed. And yet, having grown so used to a culture so thoroughly present I immediately felt Ghana's absence. Like my first months at site, I was completely aware of being separate from my surroundings (and if there's a place to throw twenty months of volunteerism into sharp relief, it's LA).

Usually volunteers notice how quiet America is immediately. Not all of my time in Ghana has been filled with noise, but the quiet is of a different kind. I didn't realize how acclimated I'd become to African sounds until my brain tried to over-correct them by reproducing the noises electronics make when they're confused. The airplane, the car, the houses I visited - all eerily quiet; my sense of comfort and familiarity had entirely changed (the ringing in my ears was just the proof).

Truthfully, I don't think I made one decision while I was home; I couldn't have handled the pressure. Heather and I were a disaster. We sounded like the vultures from Jungle Book: "Whadda you wanna do?" "I dunno, whadda you wanna do?" "I dunno, whadda you wanna do?" "I DUNNO! WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO?"

I didn't even care; I was so happy to be sitting next to my best friend that we could have watched paint dry, crack, and peel off the walls. There were so many different options, so many possibilities, that my only coping mechanism was to stare vacantly and pretend I didn't understand English  I forced everyone to make all of my decisions for me; this happened with movies, clothes, accessories, conversations, even a sandwich menu. I felt like a child - slightly frustrating, but only when people looked at me like I should know what kind of sandwich I wanted.

I felt obligated to explain my life in Africa, to thank everyone behind me for adhering to the social construct of a line, to randomly ask them about their sleep, their morning, their family, their house, their day, their job, their car, and their kids in quick succession. I was completely socially awkward, but without an obvious excuse. My line of thought, my type of conversation, my general life experience was totally inapplicable.

Writing a charming blog about volunteerism is one thing, being completely unable to relate in conversation like some hermetical cat lady is quite another.

In the Peace Corps we often talk about 'the glaze.' It's a look 'normal' Americans get when they've reached their limit in Corps-talk. This usually happens when they stop being able to empathize; it could mean too much detail or too little, too boring or too fantastical, and sometimes it just means too much. Some people last longer than others, but it always happens - at some point my experiences will just be too different to visualize. This isn't something I take personally, but it is something I recognize. Vigilance is key. If I'm going to catch the glaze soon enough (and save myself a mental wound), I've got to stay on my game.

Naturally, this makes conversation kind of a task. I don't think I realized how exhausting it would be to talk to people. It took a lot of mental preparation, continuously reassessing what was an appropriate topic; it was like exercise for my brain. (I didn't spend twenty months in Ghana to tell people about the mundane, culturally misunderstood, and sometimes depressing segments of the curtain-raiser called my life in Ghana, did I? No!) Still, I caught myself Ghanaian clicking mid-conversation; worse, I found myself engaging in Ghanaian English. I had to brace myself against things like materialism and melodrama, but also against the fact that I would inevitably 'glaze over,' too. (Just like that delicious chicken dinner on the KLM flight to Amsterdam - when did airplane food get so good??)

Near the end of my trip, we visited Quinn's (Downtown Colorado Springs) on a Saturday night. I forgot, completely, any reverse culture-shock I might be experiencing and jumped right in, belly exposed and arms spread wide. I found that my limit for group activities is roughly a dozen people; and the thought of more people coming caught me like Peter Rabbit with a carrot in my teeth. I felt my eyes go wide and the thoughts dropped from my head faster than I could pick them up again; I panicked so fast I didn't have time to recognize where the feeling came from. Anna, a friend recently nominated for the Peace Corps, squared her face to mine and asked if I was okay.

Ah. I remembered where I was, I realized why I'd started to panic - the sound of a hundred conversations rushed back into my head, a dozen of which were directed at me; live Irish music, drink orders, and general merriment came at me in layers as I realized, once again, that I was technically a visitor. This was not normal for me.

I had to reassess, and quickly. I realized it was easy to fall into a pattern of retreat; playing the role of an observer in my village had made me vulnerable to overload. I was vigilant, damn it. VIGILANT.

You know what else? I was lucky. Not only was I surrounded by some of my closest friends and family, I was actually enjoying being a visitor. Absence has this funny way of making the heart realize how lucky it is, how important certain things will always be, and how great it is to see life through fresh eyes. It sounds gooey and mushy and dripped-in-pink, but it's true. Feeling foreign to America means good things for integration, for my growth as a person and, most importantly, the opportunity to really appreciate my life. Both distinct parts of it.

Both distinct types of silence; both distinct types of 'queues;' both distinct types of conversation, friends, and experiences. It all came together sitting at the airport in Amsterdam. I was people watching, as usual, and I decided to run to the restroom. Not wanting to trek my bags back and forth, I turned to the Ghanaian woman next to me and asked if I could leave my bags with her. "Yes," she replied, "you go and come and then when you come, I will also go." My heart fluttered in my chest: finally, someone I understood.

I always miss America. I miss America because my family and friends are there, because Pikes Peak carved a giant ridge into my heart, because it's my home. Until a stranger spoke Ghanaian-English to me in a Dutch airport, I didn't realize how much I'd missed Ghana, too.

What better feeling is there than realizing you're coming home?

RIP Gimpers; my home was you, too.