Date: Wednesday April 15, 2020
Location: Honolulu, Hawaii
Part 1: Reflecting on evacuation, the short story
Evacuation is uniquely challenging for volunteers because it’s not simply a welcome ticket back home to all the comforts and wonders of American society, it was a depressing order that forcibly removed us from our second life outside of America. There are two main challenges that have come from the COVID-19 evacuation: reverse culture shock and emotional separation.
What exactly is reverse culture shock?
Reverse culture shock, or repatriation, is the process of returning back to your home country. In my case, it’s coming back from Uganda to Hawai’i. For most people, they would argue that it’s great to come back because I no longer have to deal with the hardships and struggles that I’ve shared from my experience in Uganda thus far.
No electricity, fetching water, walking and biking everywhere, packed public transportation and having my guard up 24/7 from petty thieves, these are the only qualities of the Peace Corps that people would see. With the striking images portrayed from mainstream media coming from Unicef, seeing the impoverished child as the prime example of what a “3rd world country” is supposed to be, it’s a blithe disregard for the richness that these countries has to offer.
Explaining my living situation time and time again, I hear the same kind of responses of admiration for persevering through these struggles and gaining kudos in coping with these difficult living conditions, and truthfully, I don’t really feel like people understand that kind of struggle.
Trying to explaining the quirks and simple lifestyle that I once had, and the respect and knowledge gained from living out in the countryside will not garner the genuine appreciation for what we have, like electricity and running water, unless you’ve experienced yourself. Compare it to the respect gained from your colleagues in your PhD program, the high rollers at the poker table, your favorite athlete or professional players in sports–to get their level of respect means they can truly empathize with you on your hardships and struggles that no one else can understand.
Grad student to grad student. Poker player to poker player. Athlete to athlete.
That’s the level of empathy that you just can’t get from your friends and family. They mean the best for us, but it’s just not the same.
Because of that, reverse culture shock is a unique experience for us volunteers that have recently returned from our posts. Having everything back to the way it was prior to Peace Corps, I’ve experienced an intense appreciation and humility for all the luxuries that I have in America, luxuries that are the basic standards of living that we all have: food, shelter, water, and electricity. Consequently, it sets the ground for the second reason of the hollow and empty feeling that comes from this evacuation: emotional separation.
Separation, from everyone
Being evacuated meant more than just losing my position as a volunteer in Uganda, it mean losing the friends, companions, mentors, pupils, projects, and opportunities in the blink of an eye.
We spent our entire time in Uganda finding and setting up these relationships with the villagers and organizations that we wanted to work with. One of the closest relationship I developed were with my neighboring family in Nawanyingi village.
In the beginning, small talk was hard because I couldn’t speak the local language enough, but I had to get to know them anyways, after all they were my neighbors. And in Africa, you don’t ignore your neighbors, you have to make friends.
When I first got my bike, the family that I neighbored never trusted my ability to ride in the muddy roads when it rained so they would always call when the storm was looming about. I’d always make sure to come home on time. From there, they taught me more words in local vernacular to describe the weather, traveling, where I am going, and so on.
These kinds of relationships flourished over time, and with the many awkward meetings that I would have with my Ugandan friends, it’s a personal milestone to see how far we’ve come after a few months. The bike rides, the trust with my family, and my language skills all developed over time. Afterwards, the people that I got to met introduced me to their friends, their parents, their family, and you start getting deeper in to the community network. People know you. You’re not the outsider anymore, you’re their friend.
From the day that Peace Corps Global announced evacuation, I was devastated.
You want to say goodbye to everyone, give them all the thanks and praise they deserve for treating you with unmatched hospitality and candor, but there just wasn’t enough time. In that 24 hour span, I had to pack, move, say goodbye, call everyone that I knew, dropping the bomb to everyone that I was not coming back.
One of my best friends was my neighbor Derick.
I wanted to teach my neighbor Derick how to type on a keyboard and show him these new movies that he’s never seen before. In exchange, Derick would have taught me more of the local language and help me learn about Uganda. Every night we’d go look at the constellations and I’d tell him the stories of Orion and Cassiopeia. He would tell me of the legends and myths of Ugandan folklore, of the animals and beliefs in their culture.
But Derick was at school, and I couldn’t even say bye. Multiply that feeling with the many people I’ve got to meet. Families, churches, fellow colleagues, all of them, some of them I got to say goodbye but for the most part it was too fast, too soon.
It’s not easy.
It’s a strange time for many evacuated volunteers, we’re stuck in this purgatory space where we want to go back but we can’t return, where we have returned to America but we can’t adjust, it’s all a process that is going to take time. If you know any volunteers, give them their space and allow them to decompress. Assumptions and empty compliments would only denigrate their service and experience, it’s best to save your words of comfort and simply have an open ear for them to speak.
This is part one, reflecting on my experience on evacuation at site. In my next post, Part 2, I’ll write about my experience on leaving my Peace Corps friends, the organization, and my steps forward towards my next step towards graduate school.