Well, here I am with another post about going home because, at my 26th and final month of service, it is difficult to think about anything else. I find myself constantly overwhelmed with emotions. With only two weeks left in my site, I am entrenched in a losing battle to accomplish items on an unrealistic to-do list. Racing against the clock to make my peace with this place before I go is not easy, especially because the fact that I’m leaving for good doesn’t yet seem real.
Over two years ago, I had a similar feeling. As I packed up my suitcases in my parents’ living room while watching the Academy Awards and drinking white wine with my mom, it didn’t seem real that I was going to Senegal. I carried boxes of clothes and other possessions up to the attic, trying to wrap my mind around the fact that the version of myself who would open these boxes two years later would be a returned Peace Corps Volunteer, someone that I couldn’t yet picture.
It didn’t feel real until I was sitting on a plane with 50 other soon-to-be PCVs, bound for Dakar. I was excited and scared. I didn’t know what to expect on the other end of that flight. And perhaps my leaving won’t be real until I’m sitting on a plane bound for Chicago.
The emotion that overwhelms me the most at this moment is the desire to not forget. There are so many things that I have learned in this place that I am afraid will be hard to hold on to in a different context.
I have learned patience. I can sit and wait for someone/something for hours without getting upset. I can entertain myself by talking to people around me, reading, or just thinking. I am used to being around people that rely on each other for entertainment — instead of smartphones or other devices. Will this carry through to my American life? Will strangers think I’m crazy when I try to ask them about the weather or how their day is going? Will my friends get annoyed if I ask them to put down their phones and talk to me? And perhaps most concerning, will I assimilate and forget this aspect of myself entirely? Will I too be swept up in the anonymous crowds of American city life and the black hole of unlimited data? Will my expectations slide back into a first-world mentality where I become frustrated with things or people that don’t operate on a predictable schedule?
The answer to all of those questions is most likely yes. It is difficult and not evolutionarily advisable to live in a culture and not assimilate yourself.
But I like the Senegalese version of myself. I wish I could have assured the nervous wreck who was carrying those boxes of possessions that she would be happy with the version of herself who would be opening them. I like being friendly and talking to people, I like sitting for hours and drinking tea, I like being able to be late and still know I will show up before the person I’m meeting. I like that I no longer take so many things for granted. Things like ice water, hot showers, and air conditioning are all mostly mythical things to me at this point that have achieved a status of luxury. How long will that last in a Chicago summer where everyones’ air conditioning is constantly on and where having a hot water heater and fridge/freezer in your home is a way of life?
I don’t want to forget. I don’t want to take things for granted. I want to remember the people here and how they live their lives, and I want to remember how lucky I am. I am lucky that I was born into the situation that I was, and I am lucky that I was taken in by another community here and learned to live a different way.
Something many Senegalese people ask me is why I was able to come see how life is lived here but they don’t have a similar opportunity to go live in America for two years. This, like many questions, is one to which I have no easy answer. It certainly doesn’t seem fair, but then again, what does seem fair about the differences I’ve observed over these years? I try to put all the blame on the government — “It’s the American government that paid for me to come here, and its the same government that doesn’t allow many people to come to America.” This is an answer, but it’s not very satisfying to me or others. It certainly doesn’t change the injustice of the situation.
People say that doing the Peace Corps is a good way to find yourself. A time when one can find perspective and direction in life. I don’t disagree. But I and many volunteers at a later stage in service often find ourselves more confused than when we first arrived in this country. We’ve been introduced to a new group of people and a new way of life that doesn’t have much value in American culture. We’ve integrated into a place that values interpersonal relationships over money or power. We find ourselves entrenched in strong and tight-knit communities.
But where does that lead us? Where is the place for these values in America? I’ve been in touch with many PCVs that have gone home, and inevitably they mention feeling lonely. In Senegal there is always someone to talk to. Failing all else it is completely normal to walk into the house of people you don’t know just to greet them, or to sit for some time.
I read a fiction piece in an old New Yorker that my dad left here when my family visited. It was a sci-fi esque story, and one paragraph really stood out to me:
“If he could store a message for creatures thousands of years in the future, it would be simple. Upon meeting one another in whatever passes, in your world, for a room, a hallways, a road, a field, do not play dead while you are still alive. Just try to say hello.”
And so, this will be my goal. I will not let myself forget what I have learned in Senegal. I will not play dead while I am still alive. I will try to say hello — at least try — and hopefully others will too.