Travel · Uncategorized

Reverse Culture Shock

I spent the month of April back in the US reconnecting with my family after nearly a year abroad, but also slipping away for the weekends to see friends from other corners of America – from Seattle to Leavenworth to Portland to San Francisco and all the way to Boston.

While I was in Berkeley, I had the chance to sit down with my former Health Policy professor to discuss my experiences here in the Peace Corps. She served as an English teacher in Nepal in the 80s, and cited her experience there as the driving force for her to work in the health field. I took her class in the fall of my junior year of college. In one lecture, she shared a story about her experience returning from Peace Corps. After about a year in service, she flew home for a week to attend a wedding. She needed to buy new shampoo after she arrived, so she headed to the supermarket. But after a year in rural Nepal, where she would walk for several hours to get to the nearest shopping town, just to arrive in a small shop with one – maybe two – options for shampoo, the brightly-lit supermarket shocked her. Surrounded by the endless options, each promising ýour best hair ever! or blinding shine! she sunk down to her knees, overwhelmed. Eventually, she left without making a purchase.

Although Ecuador is a middle income country, considerably more developed than Nepal was over 30 years ago, the image of crying in front of an aisle of shampoo options resonated with me. Ecuador uses the US dollar, and after months of honing my bargaining skills to the last centavo, American prices were shocking. What do you mean, $4.50 for a latte? I could get 45 oranges for that price! Or at least 30 mangos. Or a romantic almuerzo lunch date for two.

I felt lucky to be able to spend such a significant amount of time at home, so that I could ease back into my normal routines. Normally, when I go on vacation, I go into a flurry of activity. When I was in France last spring, I would wake up for a sunrise run, try every new food I could, and wander ten miles around the city before collapsing in bed at the end of the night. Instead, on this trip I slept in late, tagged along with my little brother on his dog-walking duties, and went out to get my nails done with my grandma or Starbucks lattes with my grandpa. It was exactly what I needed to recharge. I returned with my passion reinvigorated for my second year of Peace Corps service, with the emotional resilience and cultural competency necessary for the individual HIV casework in my new role.

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Matt and I enjoyed the cherry blossoms in bloom just before a rare March Seattle hailstorm
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My family threw me an unbirthday party before I left, I will celebrate my real birthday this Friday in Ecuador

Although all of my trips to see my friends while I was home were fun – I tagged along on a sorority reunion weekend in Portland, and spent six days in the Bay Area seeing everyone I could – my favorite was the four days I spent with my closest friend, Mehek, in Boston. Because her two years at Harvard overlapped with my two years in Ecuador, I didn’t think I’d be able to visit her during that time. But, thanks to a cheap JetBlue deal, I found myself on a redeye to the East Coast on one of my last weekends in town.

The morning I arrived, I was on the “A Day in the Life of a Harvard MPP First-Year” tour. Our culminating stop was “Beers, Peers, and Careers” – a self-organized roundtable presentation where 3-5 students in the cohort could present on anything they liked. What does a random sampling of Harvard students present on?

  1. A kiwi goes abroad! A policy journey from New Zealand to England to the US.
  2. Talk your way into anything: How I raised millions of dollars for the charity I founded in undergrad and what Sheryl Sandburg taught me, a white male networking story.
  3. The wheels on the bike go round and round; Why I fell in love with bikeshares in Philly, and why you should too.

Spending the past year in Ecuador, I had been geographically isolated from my academic peers and forgotten how engaging I found the university atmosphere. I made new friends at the bars Mehek brought me to and joined them at IHOP until 3AM just so I could hear more about their stories and passions. Each student I met was driven to improve the policy world in their own niche community, and I wanted to learn everything about it. Ultimately, that weekend reaffirmed my desire to pursue a Master’s degree, and my commitment to diving into a GRE study guide so I could have a chance at an equally competitive, challenging program.

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Boston’s North End
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Mehek & I on Acorn Street
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Walking the Freedom Trail

Now that I’ve spent two full weeks in Cuenca, I’ll be sharing my experiences here in the upcoming week. Cuenca is the third-largest city in Ecuador, which has given me a drastically different experience with the culture and country than my original posting in a rural Amazonian town.

Here’s a few more highlights from Seattle, San Francisco, Boston, Portland, and my 9 hour layover in Miami on the way home…

 

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