*This post was originally written on 8/11/2012*
“So, you get your picture taken…go back to your life…and all of this, this will be stories you tell your friends.” Machine Gun Preacher (Movie)
I slipped off my flip flops and piled them into the plastic bin, along with my wallet, watch and phone. The green straps on the sandals were dyed red from the Ugandan dirt. Wow, I did not realize how dirty those were, I thought to myself. Then again, I am pretty filthy overall. I had on the same long sleeve, red, Uganda soccer jersey which I had worn the previous two days and I definitely had not washed my khaki shorts in a few weeks; a layer of the red dirt had encrusted itself to my body several weeks earlier which never went away, and I had not shaved in more than two weeks. Oh well, TIA…
…except that this was not Africa, I was standing in line at a security checkpoint in John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. I had spent the entire previous day either flying on a plane or hanging out in various airports. New York City meant that I was entering the final leg of my journey home. It also meant that for the first time in seven weeks, I was back in the States…back to the land of the free…back to the country I was blessed to be born in…back to reality? I looked to my left and saw four different men wearing suits; all four were simultaneously thumbing their cellular devices, trapped in the world of the smartphone. I looked over to my far right and saw two overweight kids standing with their parents, each child holding their own 20 ounce Mountain Dew. Breakfast of champions, right? …this was not reality at all.
As I was unbuckling my belt to place in the bin with my other belongings, the man in front of me turned back over his shoulder and we made brief eye-contact. His eyes slowly drifted down to the print on my jersey. He was wearing a brown sports jacket with nice dress pants that matched the coat in color. “Uganda?” he said to me as he slipped a Rolex off of his wrist and placed it in a bin. “How long are you going there for?”
It was 5:00 in the morning, I had been traveling for the previous 24 hours and just spent the last four hours unsuccessfully attempting to sleep at JFK; in other words, I was not really in the mood for a polite conversation and it did not help that he asked how long I was going to Uganda for when we were not in anywhere near an international terminal. Nevertheless I put a smile on and responded, “I actually just arrived back to America. I was in Uganda for almost two months.”
His eyebrows rose slightly as he followed suit and began to take off his shoes and belt. We were inching closer to the metal detectors and I was hoping the conversation was over. My new friend placed his laptop bag onto the belt and I did the same with my hiking backpack. That is pretty disgusting too…going to have to do some major washing when I get home. “So what were you doing in Uganda?” he asked me without the slightest sense of curiosity in his tone. I could see where this conversation was going…
“I was teaching in a school that was greatly affected during the war that went on in the northern part of the country,” I replied without trying to sound overly self-important or condescending.
The business man looked back at me again, this time with slightly more interest, and said, “Yeah…So did you make a profit?”
Attempting to hide the disgust from my face, I responded, “Make a profit? No…I was a volunteer…at a war-torn school…”
“No profit? Bet you won’t ever do that again then, huh,” he remarked as he passed through the metal detector and away from me.
“Actually I am already planning my next trip,” I shouted towards him. Jackass.
Since I have arrived back in America, I have really been struggling with reverse cultural shock. It did not happen during the first few days, probably because we were getting everything ready for dad’s memorial service and I was constantly surrounded by my family and close friends. There were also things I missed about America, such as a real mattress, shower, toilets, and my mother’s cookies which all played a role in part of me being ready to come home. The shock did not even happen the first time I stepped foot into a Wal-Mart Super Center, although that experience was shocking for its own reasons (at least in Muncie, Indiana).
I started to feel a sense of reverse culture shock when partaking in simple conversations with people or overhearing the conversations of other’s when I am out in public. What set off this notion of reverse cultural shock in my brain the most is the fact that in a first world country, such as America, we are used to certain conveniences. Many of these conveniences are not available to people around the world, such as running water for example. Yet, they have been conveniences for so long that they are no longer a privilege but now a right.
Most of the topics that people in our society talk about, complain about, get upset over, are not real; these so called difficulties are complete first world problem, made-up, bullsh*t. For instance, I was standing in line at the gas station this afternoon to prepay my gasoline when the person in front of me began loudly complaining in an irritated tone to her friend that there was not crushed ice, only cubed. As I was standing there, I thought about the nine-year-old boy named Wilfred who I met in Layibi vilIage. I thought about how every time I we met he was wearing the same slightly torn t-shirt. I wondered if Wilfred had ever, even once, experienced a drink with ice in it.
Another example occurred this week at softball practice. All of the girls were excited because it was schedule pick up day and as they were stretching I heard various conversations in which someone was upset because she did not get the teacher she wanted or that she got a hard teacher who gave a lot of homework…I even heard a girl complain that she had to take swimming class first semester instead of second. I thought about my friend Godfrey and how he told me that during the war he and the rest of his classmates could not keep up with their homework because at night they were not allowed to have any light in the hut due to a fear of being kidnapped by the rebels. I thought about my friend Patrick who was at Sir Samuel Baker School when it was attacked by the rebels and over 30 of his classmates were abducted. I thought about all of the boys at SSBS I met who were on legacy scholarships and could not be more thrilled to work as hard as they could in the classroom, regardless of their schedule or teachers.
I will not even get started on the fact that Americans still believe Joseph Kony either does not exist or many think that the whole thing was a scam. I’ve seen and heard too many personal stories, stories from people I now consider my family, to deal with those ignorant thoughts.
Those are just a few very tiny examples…the list could go on and on but hopefully you get the picture. I am not calling anyone out by any means. I know that most people are not complaining on purpose; we have conveniences in this country and many people work hard in order to enjoy those privileges. I do not blame anyone at all. I am not even saying that I do not get frustrated when something simple happens, like Subway having every type of bread except Honey Oat. I however, have been really struggling since I have gotten back from Uganda with having any sympathy with people who are whining about a first world issue. These situations are where the reverse culture shock hits me in the gut…It has gotten to the point where I have stayed in solitude for much of the last few days because I cannot stand to be around spoiled, overindulging, ignorant people; I cannot stand that I was one and still am (just for coaching softball I have been given four t-shirts, two polo-shirts, a jacket, and a hat…I officially own more clothing that says Arapahoe Warriors Softball than most of the kids in David’s village have in their entire collection of clothing).
It is all about perspective. Until one experiences true poverty with his/her own eyes, the perspective will never change. In some cases perspective won’t change even when that person has been given an opportunity to witness this poverty. I do not want to be the person that came back and fell right back into the routine of everyday life in America. I do not want to be the person that tells a few stories and flashes a few beautiful pictures around of where I went in Africa yet be unaffected by what I saw and who I met. I do not want to be some business man in an airport who only thinks about himself and his money.
In a way, I guess I am glad I am struggling with reverse culture shock. Maybe this struggle means I have changed. It is however, extremely difficult at times. I have not felt this lonely in a long time. Friends, family, colleagues and even former students have been absolutely wonderful in inquiring about my trip this summer. Many have even read my blogs and asked questions specific to something I wrote. Nonetheless, whenever I try to talk to anyone about my experiences I can never actually paint the real picture; I cannot connect it on a level with them as to where they will understand what I have seen and heard. My trip was much more than rafting down the Nile and playing soccer with kids in a village.