Reverse Culture Shock, or, Learning How to Make Lemonade

I’m not going to lie – coming back to the States has not been easy.

I haven’t written for a long time because I’ve been overwhelmed. Overwhelmed not just with classes starting the day after I landed, but also with the commitments and responsibilities I’d already set up for senior year, unfinished drama and tensions with family and friends, and that unpleasant, gnawing gut-feeling shared by job-searching seniors of the looming Real World ahead. As if adjusting to life weren’t difficult enough, returning to a world where the stressful and unpleasant things I had so eagerly left behind suddenly reemerged made it that much harder.

It’s difficult to acknowledge that it is the same world – my world – which I’ve known all my life. In fact, the most overwhelming factor hasn’t been the stress of resuming my post-Rwanda life. It isn’t the papers, the research, the interviews, the meetings, etc., etc. No, the most stressful factor has been coming to terms with the fact that this is my world.

I am rather behind in uploading all the remaining posts I have left over from Rwanda, but I wanted to pause for a moment and reflect on the question that everybody keeps asking me, “What has been most difficult to adjust to since coming back?”

I’ve given a variety of responses. Sometimes I say, “I really miss my friends in Rwanda.” Or, “I’m having trouble being a student after teaching for two months.” Or even, “I really miss writing.”

But when I really reflect on what it is that has been nagging me and causing me to be home-sick for Rwanda, it comes down to this: I miss the sense of purpose.

I never met a single person who was bored in Kigali. It seemed that there was always something to do – friends to visit, people to meet, events to attend. I saw people stroll – not walk briskly with a destination in mind – but stroll, with no purpose other than life itself. I learned to not run after the mini-bus and not to dash through the streets when I was two minutes late to a meeting. It wasn’t that I learned to tolerate tardiness, but I learned that if I run too quickly through life, I will miss out on some of its best parts. You never know what life will hand you, and instead of sulking over the lemons – the traffic jams, the missed opportunities, the conflicts – enjoy and take advantage of the new opportunities that open up – the new friends, the impromptu trips, the refreshing discoveries. MAKE LEMONADE. So many of the fascinating people I met and the friendships I forged in Kigali would not have happened without some initial disappointment.

I met Alex when my friend didn’t show up at Papyrus and I heard Alex’s life story over croissants. I met N, now a sponsor for the Learning Centre, when a Papyrus waiter spilled an entire bottle of Primus over my dress. N brought me some napkins and we started talking business. I met M, now an employer of one of my students, through my love of ice cream at the 2010 Business Expo.

You never know what will happen or who you’ll meet.

Perhaps that is what I miss most – the energy, the optimism, the excitement. Every morning when I went to work, I could see visible signs of change – a new street paved, a new building constructed, new lights along the roads, new faces at Papyrus, new guests at Novotel. Perhaps it is because Rwanda is a developing country and it is moving at such a fast pace right now. But I like to think it is also part of the culture. People have a zest for life that I find lacking here. It isn’t the sort of zest that sends people rushing about in a hurry. It’s the zest that comes with every breath, resounds in every step – an appreciation of life and all that life has to offer.

When I returned here, even the air at O’Hare tasted stale and stressed. People are so busy. They run about Chicago rushing to work, window-shopping, running errands, meeting in coffee shops. On campus, they go to classes, attend meetings, study for hours on end, and party to music that throbs with the same senseless desperation until they wake up moments later to repeat it all over again. The days blur together in an unsteady haze punctuated by occasional birthdays, deadlines, concerts, romance, fiascoes. Why are we busy? Why are we rushed? What are we running towards? Or from what are we running away?

As seniors, we begin to feel the heaviness of the haze and finally, we start to see it. But for most of us, it’s too late. Or at least it feels that way. For three years, we ran around campus eagerly lapping up the opportunities – it began with free food, classes, frat parties, and attention. Over time, it shifted to double-majors, course overloads, internships, boy friends, and recognition. Now, we start to question where we are going, and often, that leads us to question where we have been: What have we been doing this whole time?

And after that, we wonder: Was it worth it?

We are nervous, excited, and anxious – but also, weary. Very weary. Even after we have achieved all that we ever hoped for and we stand at the pinnacle of our success surveying the magnificent structures we have constructed, and the wealth of opportunities before us, we feel emptiness. And fear. What comes next? What was the meaning of all of this?

Is this it?

The clarity with which I viewed my day-to-day activities in Kigali is completely obscured by the haze of Chicago. I feel listless and mechanical, my life waning in fading shades of gray drained by the loud, glittering, brass hues of everything around me. The life here is exciting and flashy but a completely contrast from the rich, vibrant hues of my life in Kigali, where I absorbed the light and vitality of the air I breathed. There was something real about everything, as if life had returned to its fundamentals without all the unnecessary embellishments and adornments.

Perhaps that is a little dramatic. But I’m not sure how else to describe the disconnect that I feel here.

It is hard to realize that this is my world, but I am uplifted by the fact that Rwanda is my world too. The daily phone calls, facebook posts, messages, and emails that I continue to receive from my friends and students in Kigali, remind me of the life that is still waiting for me an ocean away. I don’t know how long it will be – maybe half a year, five years, even two months – before I return, but this I know for sure: I am coming back, Rwanda, and it won’t be long before you will see me at your doorstep with a kiss for both your cheeks and a smiling “Amakuru.”