Peace Corps volunteers get reverse culture shock

Nicole Ethier, center with her host family in Indonesia. Credit: Nicole Ethier
Nicole Ethier, center with her host family in Indonesia. Credit: Nicole Ethier

— Peace Corps volunteer Nicole Ethier, 25,  had stood out during her two-year stint in Indonesia, simply by “being white, looking different and dressing different.” Local women wore a headscarf, she didn’t. But when she returned to the states in 2013, she noticed something that seemed quite foreign to her soon after she landed at LAX airport.

“Breast implants! There were women who had breast implants. You don’t have those things there (Indonesia). Then there were dogs around everywhere and people walking dogs,” she laughed.

Everyone seemed to be walking faster too. In Indonesia, people considered her a fast walker. “I would be halfway down the next block and my friends would just be crossing the first one,” she said. “But in LA, everyone was walking at my pace.”

Ethier is one of  9,095 volunteers, the highest number in the Peace Corps since 1970. Her observations upon coming home aren’t unique. Many Peace Corps volunteers, some of them posted hours away from major cities, find themselves in a kind of reverse culture shock when the come back.  Life suddenly seems different to them; siblings have had babies, friends have married, new trends have popped up or they’ve simply forgotten the older ones. They sometimes feel, they say, as if they’ve come back to a different world. Even life’s small conveniences here seem like luxuries. And often loved ones and friends don’t have a clue how hard it is for them to readjust.

“You have options even at the grocery store (here). But people are sometimes unable to understand what you went through,” said Alisson Lee-Villanueva, 27, who served in Indonesia in 2011-2013. “The time there  is slower and life is more community oriented. It just takes time to get used to life here.”

On her return,Lee-Villaneuva decided to pursue her graduate studies and is now a student at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University. But many former volunteers struggle trying to figure out what to do with themselves once they come back.

“It’s a common question for people to ask, where does this leave me?” said James Kostenblatt, a Peace Corps recruiter at New York University, who served in Mozambique from 2005 to 2009.

But Kostenblatt quickly adds, the experience is usually an invaluable one. “It’s not about delaying the real world. It’s learning a new language, managing projects, leadership, serving others,” he points out. “These would look good on any resume.”

Coming home tales

Erin Fitzgerald
Country of Service: Indonesia

Erin Fitzgerald in red shirt, with her host family in Indonesia. Credit: Erin Fitzgerald
Erin Fitzgerald in red shirt, with her host family in Indonesia. Credit: Erin Fitzgerald

Erin Fitzgerald, 35,  had been troubled by her lack of anonymity in Padangan, her East Javanese village. She would go running and people would stare at her.

“Once I was riding my bike to school and I almost caused an accident as the driver kept staring at me,” she said in a phone interview. “I was a celebrity for better or for worse.”

But coming back has been the hardest part of the experience for her.

“I had two years of people walking up to me. Then I was so excited about getting anonymous again,” she said. “But then there was the feeling of ‘Oh! I’m anonymous.'”

Once she was back in New York, she started jogging again.  And  she kept wondering why people would keep staring at her. It took her some time to figure out though. In Indonesia when she ran and saw another white person, she would figure she knew the person and would try to meet their glance.  She kept doing it here too.

“So everyone I was passing, I just kept staring at them,” she laughed.

 

Gretchen Upholt
Country of Service: Ukraine

Gretchen Upholt, center seen with women dressed traditionally in traditional Ukrainian. Credit: Gretchen Upholt
Gretchen Upholt, center seen with women dressed traditionally in traditional Ukrainian. Credit: Gretchen Upholt

Gretchen Upholt from Connecticut, had travelled quite a bit with her family before she headed to Ukraine for the Peace Corps.  After her two year stint, she  continued onto Thailand where she worked for two more years.  By the time she got back to the United States four years later, she remembers one thing that really struck her as odd:  the huge  ‘American portion’ sizes in restaurants. In Asia, portion sizes were much smaller.

“It was something like Applebee’s or one of those chain restaurants,” she said. “There was just so much food.”

It took her a couple of months to adjust to the serving sizes here,  but now, four years later, she wishes she hadn’t grown accustomed to big portions.

“I often wish I hadn’t gotten used to it because now I’m like that’s normal,”  she added. “Let me just eat all that food on display.”

 

Erik King
Country of Service: Panama

Erik King sitting on the porch of his hut in Panama. Credit: Erik King
Erik King sitting on the porch of his hut in Panama. Credit: Erik King

In San Francisco, Erik King had a house on the beach, but in Panama he had bats in his house and cows on the beach.

After he joined the Peace Corps in 2011, his concern had been his inability to find a partner to be with. But during his stay in Panama, things changed.

“I met a woman down there who lives right here in Park Slope and we are getting married in July,” he said.

While he said has not had trouble adjusting to life in New York, he has noticed that he has become increasingly  annoyed.

“I can’t find a job. I want a job with responsibility, where I’m managing people and have access to leadership; a decent salary,” he said.

He has over 10 years of experience managing people in three languages, but most prospective employers have the same question.

“They ask did you have a supervisor? Um…no.,” he said. “So that’s an issue.”

8 Comments

  1. I’m anticipating reverse culture shock when my husband and I return from service at the end of the month. I know that having a plan, even just a next step, can help get you through. I recently put together some job search resources, including out-of-the-box ideas (which might help in Erik’s situation), for returning Peace Corps Volunteers that I hope will be helpful:

    Where to Find Sweet Jobs After Peace Corps http://simplyintentional.wordpress.com/2014/03/24/jobs-post-peace-corps/

  2. Michelle, don’t worry so much about it. I know some volunteers who seemed worry themselves into adjustment issues because they had been warned about it so much. Remeber you lived 98% of your life here, then adjusted very effectively to an entirely different country, language, culture, etc. So compared to that you will have no problem re-adjusting to the culture were all your roots are; just many things will seem silly & relatively trivial.

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  4. Thanks Michelle. And thanks Anugya, great article. I too have noticed that people walk fast here, and drive fast and sleep not that much….

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