04 September, 2013

Home and Back

See?! Weird!
One of the many lessons Peace Corps has taught me: America is weird. The Elkhart County Fair serves deep-fried butter... However, before I go on, I should back up…

Since the last time I posted something—at this point, some of you were probably thinking I forgot about this thing—I’ve had to make some decisions. Primarily, what will happen when I am through with my two-year Peace Corps commitment.

Most everyone already knows the answer to that question. I chose to extend. I am extending my Peace Corps service for a third year. I will spend one more year in China; I will be teaching at the same Lanzhou Jiaotong University I’ve been at for the last two years.

Needless to say, I’m pretty excited about it.

One of the perks of extension is a visit home. I was allowed to fly home for thirty days. I learned a lot in those thirty days. Some may say it was as trying as my first thirty days in China. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I did learn one thing: America is weird.

No joke. The weirdest.

For example, were you aware that there are seven or eight brands selling peanut butter at an average supermarket? And of those seven or eight brands, each has at least three, but up to fourteen different types of peanut butter for sale? (And that’s not even including difference in jar size!) Then, with each of these different styles of peanut butter spread, stocked on the shelf are at least six or seven jars.

If someone threw all of that at me as just a series of numbers: what is eight and fourteen and seven compounded together? My initial response would be, “uhh, a lot”. You know what? I’d be right! One of the most overwhelming experiences for me while home was walking down the aisles at Meijer, dragging my jaw on the ground because I could not believe just how much food and how many choices are available to the average American—an embarrassment of riches.

It was the same way when I got to the cereal aisle. I was literally dizzy.

Being home, everyone had the same question: “So what’s China like?” Now that I’ve returned, everyone has asked me a different question: “So what’s America like?” What I’m about to write probably doesn't need to be said, but I’m going to say it anyway: Those are really tough questions to answer, especially in a way that is all at once thoughtful, profound and succinct. Instead of pithy, I usually went with jocose and snarky.

In discussions of reverse culture shock, people have observed that often others are not interested in stories from abroad. Anecdotes longer than a tweet cause a glazed look that I, as a teacher, am very familiar with. Now, my friends and family gracefully listened to my stories for a whole month without giving me such a look, and for that I’m grateful.

After a while, I started to feel like there are only so many interesting stories to tell. It was hard to simply tell people the truth: “China’s amazing and I love what I do”. That’s boring; that WILL get me the Krispy Kreme of looks. I found myself relying on stories that were more shocking, more bizarre, more uncouth, more ghastly. While I enjoyed horrifying my friends, I quickly felt like I was painting China in a very unfair light.

Like everywhere, there is good and bad about a place, or if I could be Daoist about it, there’s yin and yang. For two years, I thought some of the things Chinese people asked me about the U.S. were foolishly inaccurate and misinformed. But you know what? I got equally uninformed questions from people Stateside about China.

People often quip that ignorance is bliss. One of the many lessons Peace Corps has taught me: understanding is paramount.

Friends don't let friends eat deep-fried butter.

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