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Reverse Culture Shock – A Few Last Thoughts

May 12, 2010

It’s amazing how much sleep your body craves when you aren’t feeling well. I want to be able to feel, to taste, to touch, to experience life in Kenya like I did in those first few weeks – to soak up as much as possible so that I’ll never forget what it’s like. It’s not as easy as it sounds of course; I have to consciously force my self to observe now that Kakamega life has become somewhat of the norm. It’s even harder given whatever illness I have as it seems that my mind is constantly focusing on what my body is doing wrong. With only 5 days left in Kenya, I don’t have time to be worried about myself – I have to live.

I want to remember everything… from the way the air smells in the morning, to the feeling of gritty, blood-red dirt caked on the back of my legs, to the taste of hot chapati on a hungry stomach. I want to remember the sound of Garry’s laugh when he’s being tickled, the look in Betty’s eyes that says “oh brother”, the smell of Mum’s cooking in a sufuria late at night. I know I’ll never be able to duplicate the simple experience of walking down the street in Kakamega once I return to the US. To go from being so different, to being… well, pretty much the same as millions of other people… I think it’s going to shock me for a bit.

I think about home a lot these days, not in the way of being homesick, but more in wonderment of what it will be like to be surrounded by white, and clean, and mechanized. I guess one could say that I’m consciously trying to prepare myself for a phenomenon known as “reverse culture shock”, the theory of which goes something like this: when you leave home and matriculate into another society, especially if you are able to adjust and accustom yourself to those changes easily, when you return to your home society, you are changed but the world that you’re entering back into has not adjusted as you have. Thus, there’s a discrepancy between expectations (of you and by you) and what reality presents things as.

Honestly, there’s no good way to tell whether or not I’ll experience reverse culture shock. When I came back from living in England, I didn’t have that problem (of course I never really matriculated into English society on my first trip). However, after living in DC for a summer and then being thrust back into the world of Tennessee for 3 days before college began again, I felt disconnected and disoriented. I think the basis for determining reverse culture shock (or culture shock in the first place) has to do with how much an individual has adjusted, how aware they are of that adjustment, and the level of expectations they have of their surroundings. I knew coming into Kakamega that it was going to be a different world – and I forced myself not to imagine what it would be like before I left, knowing full well that I would never be able to imagine the reality of life in a third world country. Not imagining what home will be like is much harder for me. It seems like I can almost taste the late May air, feel the softness of the pillows under  my head, and the joy of seeing my family again. I’m not sure how much my expectations of home line up with what it actually is like there, but I also don’t think that I’ll be able to turn off my expectations entirely.

So,  it seems like the next step is to determine how much I’ve adjusted. I think it’s practically impossible to quantitatively measure the changes in a person after an experience like living in Kenya for three months. Truthfully, I probably won’t even begin to notice the real changes in the way I think and perceive things until I return to the states and begin the reintegration process. So far, all I can say is that I can walk down the street in Kakamega and not question why everything is different. Life works here, not as it does in the US, but I’ve adjusted to it and found my own sources of happiness. I guess that’s a pretty clear indicator that I’ve changed. I see things differently – the beauty in a marketplace without prices that operates only on barter. The organization of a society that revolves around the community and word of mouth is ‘primitive’, by American standards but functions remarkably well.

Am I an entirely different person? No, of course not. I just see poverty and wealth differently now. I understand what it means to be constantly ill in a society where missing a day of work means missing a day of food.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Anne permalink
    May 12, 2010 10:39 pm

    “I understand what it means to be constantly ill in a society where missing a day of work means missing a day of food.”


    As with many of your posts, I’m left thinking of life on a much broader scale than when I sat down in front of the computer to find out “what my lil’ sis has to say today”.

    This sentence brings a whole new perspective to my perception of the AIDS epedimic in Africa or any illness in a third world country. The consequences of something largely beyond the control of an individual has an immediate correlation to their state of well being. I have just never thought of it so succiently; even though I have been told and have said it…”if you don’t work, you don’t eat”; this takes on a whole new meaning. What if you cannot work?

    I can think of so many things that would delay this direct cause and effect relationship in my own life-a job with sick leave, a spouse that works, insurance, family members who could support me, a bank account, etc.-that it seems impossible that this could happen to me, and yet. And yet there are many people, even in our country, that end up in the situation you descibe because their support network disappears in the middle of a crisis.

    “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

    No, dear one, you are not a different person; but you’re horizon has grown much wider and thank you for helping me to see some of the world through your eyes.

  2. Mum permalink
    May 13, 2010 3:12 am

    As i have read your comments about wanting to remember “the way the air in Kakamega smells, the feel of blood-red, gritty dirt caked on the back of my legs and the taste of warm chipati on my hungry stomach”, I think how marvelous to have such different experiences and I can sort of sense how they might be and it makes me want to know what they really are. I guess this is how one gets a wander lust for new and different places–by reading about someonelse’s recollections.
    You have given yourself an experience that will help to shape how you think about life and the world and people for the rest of your days. You will be equipped to better understand people in different cultures.
    That is priceless. I am very happy for you. I am hoping that I will be able to understand and adjust to your feelings about home once they are challanged by your memories of the society and relationships which you have just left. Much love and thanks for your blogs. U.S.A. Mum

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