footprints in sand

Quick life update: We just got back from two days in Kingston doing our final check out process with Peace Corps. We have only 4 days left in country! Wowza. Our upcoming travel itinerary is posted on our new travel blog if you’re interested.

We haven’t even left Jamaica yet, so how can I tell you what to expect from a returning volunteer? I guess I’ve experienced “re-entry” a few times before, albeit from shorter stints abroad. And I’m also basing this on some of the things we’ve been told through our Close of Service process and past volunteers.

First, I’ll share with you the abstract side, in poetry, then the practical, in bullet points. (I’m not really a poet but was compelled to compose my thoughts into a poem because it didn’t sound right any other way.)

Going Home: A Poem

A new place is a new world.
A blank canvas.
Before you experience it for yourself,
its image in your mind
is mostly empty.

The first time I went to a Caribbean island,
it was little more than a black hole
of wonder.
I tried to see into it,
but there was nothing there yet.
Coming to Jamaica,
I pictured the movie Cool Runnings
and the familiar colors of Caribbean islands.
But still, it was two-dimensional snapshots.
A pile of postcards.
Pictures without personal meaning or context.

Immediately upon arrival in that new place,
when you see it for yourself,
the blank canvas
starts to form a few nebulous sketches.
The longer you stay
and the more you experience,
the black hole transforms
into a world of colorful details.
Just as you can walk through your own bedroom
with your eyes closed,
you can picture so many now-familiar corners of your new world
without actually being present to them.
Now they are full of history,
meaning,
memories,
and nuances
that color them deeper.

A “new world.”
Although sharing the same planet
and the same humanity,
it does feel like you’ve been transported
to an altogether different place.
Going between the two
is so unreal
you almost have to forget the one you just left
in order to function.

Going home.
Your mouth is incapable of translating
the world you hold in your mind.
You try speaking in text
to people who see only in postcards.
It becomes like a distant memory
or a story you once heard second-hand.
But if you take the time to remember,
to step out of the home that immerses you as if you’d never left,
it’s not a black hole
or a pile of postcards
that you recall.
It’s a whole world
and many stories.
This world of nostalgia
may haunt you
in the most unexpected moments-
the colors,
the faces,
the familiar nooks and crannies,
… the simpler life.

Practical Ways You Can Help a Returnee

  • Don’t expect everything to be exactly the same
    Returning home “should” feel comfortable for RPCVs (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers). But in reality, it might not. Because we may not even realize how much we’ve changed on the inside, Returned Volunteers may feel conflicted or confused even when things are familiar. We will be seeing our former life from a different vantage point, good and/or bad.
  • Support us by showing interest
    Whether you see it or not, we’ll be processing the experiences we’ve had in Peace Corps for a long time coming. It’s a huge part of our lives that we don’t want to forget or minimize. If you do want to hear about our experiences, it can help to carve out a time and space to really talk. But we don’t have to sit down and hash it all out at once. Ask genuine questions that you’re curious about, as you think of them. Or, just hang around and our stories will come out naturally in conversations. However it happens, we’ll definitely appreciate your interest.
  • Please try to ask specific questions
    It’s basically impossible to answer the question, “How was it?” As my friend Brandi put it so well, this is as good as you’re going to get: “There were some really awesome parts, but honestly, there were some really awful parts. Most days were something in between.” Could you sum up the last two years of your life on the spot? Again, if there’s something in particular that you’re truly curious about, ask. (What kind of resources do the teachers have access to in Jamaica? What are the most common meals people eat? What was your apartment like?) If you don’t know where to start, ask to see a few of our videos- they’re a short and sweet way to share an overview of our experiences with you.
  • Include us
    Yes, we’ve lived apart from each other for two years, so we’re no longer in the habit of hanging out. And true, we may not be around on a regular or permanent basis even after we return. But we could sure use some friends to make home feel like home again! We’re leaving a highly relational culture and re-entering into a very independent one. Let’s reconnect!

Fellow RPCVs, what was your experience re-entering the U.S.? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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