Reverse Culture Shock

Coming home after an extended period overseas can be an emotional shock. I should know; this is my third time doing it. After just 10 months in Southeast Asia, I’m returning to the USA with fond memories and a fresh perspective of my own culture. Re-entry shock is real, but the adjustment is a little easier this time.

There was no down time my first week back. I hadn’t driven a car in almost a year and suddenly I’m merging into Beltway traffic at 55 mph. With people cutting in front of me, rushing to get somewhere, I gripped the steering wheel in fear. It’s not that I forgot how to drive; I’d just forgotten how to be aggressive. Driving in the DC metro area is not for the faint-hearted. I walked to my local Starbucks so I could sit and relax. In Laos, sitting in a coffee shop alone was something I learned to enjoy. Here, nobody said hello, not even the server. It was all a business exchange. Even though I was dining in – do we say that any more? – I was served in a paper cup with a plastic lid I didn’t use, and a plastic fork for my muffin. I thought the USA was a developed country! Laos was way more advanced in terms of ecologically-sound practices. Typical American consumer habits have appeared to me in a new light.

I drove 400 miles to visit my mother at her home along the Ohio River. That area of the United States is its own micro-culture. Re-entry is easier when you can see your own country as a tourist. I used to be shocked by the amount of personal space that strangers seem to need when interacting there. At the gas station minimart, people apologize for bumping into one another when they are five feet away. You can imagine what the supermarkets look like. My first visit to a Kroger left me overwhelmed by the vast warehouse of choice. Two long, wide aisles were devoted to nothing but breakfast cereal. Who needs a mile of options?! In Laos I was lucky to find one familiar grocery item in the local market. At Kroger, rows of open refrigerators offered up frozen fish, chicken, pork chops, cut green beans, packaged waffles, and frozen items I’ve never heard of.  Who buys those things?! I reached for some gum while waiting in line at the cash register. The man in front of me jumped as if I were a snake in his peripheral vision. “Oh sorry,” I apologized. I have to re-learn the cultural rules of shared physical space.

It helps that I’m returning to the same house, with the same people living in it, in the same neighborhood. My husband has kept the grass cut short, and my son has reorganized all the bookshelves. I’m rediscovering the luxuries I once took for granted: hot water in the kitchen sink, a garbage disposal, ice cubes directly from the refrigerator, and mail delivered to the front door! I’d almost forgotten how much I love cool morning walks in the neighborhood. Petunias, roses, daisies, and black-eyed Susans punctuate the perfectly-manicured lawns. I admire tall trees in the woods. Black squirrels. Deer. Couples walking dogs. “How was it?” my neighbor asked enthusiastically my first morning back. I knew to expect this question, but I wasn’t quite ready to summarize an entire year into one short answer. The first time I returned from overseas, conversations rarely got past “What did you eat over there?” I knew to have a pat answer ready. “Great!” I managed. “I’m jet-lagged but it’s good to be back!”

Already I miss the fresh food from Laos – the pile of leafy greens that arrived for each delicious shared meal with new friends. I miss the smell of ripe fruit sold on the side of the streets – pineapples, bananas, dragon fruit, rambutan, mangoes. I miss riding my bike past families whose living quarters spill outdoors each evening when the air cools down. I miss seeing Lao students in their neat school uniforms, monks in orange robes, smelling of incense from the temple. I miss Lao music and the sound of roosters waking me up in the morning. I miss frogs singing at night. I miss the pointed roofs of ordinary houses, with a bird sitting at the peak, chirping to the world. I miss colorful  sunsets on the Mekong. I miss meeting people from other countries in my everyday activities.

In Laos, I was used to being the outsider. At first I struggled with it. Then it became part of my identity. As an older woman and a teacher, I got instant respect. I liked being treated with deference. But until all my paperwork was signed ceremonially, my affiliation with the U.S. Embassy got me nowhere jobwise. That was okay; I learned firsthand that Lao people are very warm, welcoming, and friendly. The Lao bureaucracy, however, is mind-boggling. I learned to separate the Lao people from the Lao government. I was happy that this particular lesson was reciprocated. My best experiences were when I could relax and be myself, not an official representative of the U.S. Department of State. Upon reflection, I see now that in reality my personal and professional lives could never truly be separated. It’s a little bit of a let-down to come home after being such an easily-recognizable “other” and treated well because of it.

When I came home after five years in West Africa, it was a much more difficult transition. We had to find a home, buy a car, and enroll our two children in an U.S. school for the first time. They’d both been in a French school. Outside the home, we’d been speaking French for most of their lives. Much of my culture shock then was related to relearning our own place in society. We were no longer the privileged American foreigners. We’d lost all our status the moment we stepped off the airplane at Dulles. Once while standing in line with my husband to pay for groceries, I made a negative comment to him about the woman in front of me, something about her clothing choice. She turned around and lit into me – angrily, rightfully. I felt terrible – I’d forgotten that English was no longer our secret language. 

In the Peace Corps, they taught us cross-cultural awareness. In matters of culture, they said, there is no right or wrong – just different. In Laos, the neighborhood streets are buzzing after the sun goes down. People sear meat on open grills near the sidewalk, elders walk with babies on their hips as motorcycles zoom down the dirt road zigzagging around potholes. Children are playing, dogs running loose, chickens scratching, and loud music is spilling out onto the street. Some nights early in my Fellowship, this burst of evening activity just emphasized my aloneness. Later, I joined in and felt more alive than ever. In my neighborhood here in the DC suburbs, I take a walk on a warm summer evening and see nobody outside. Families are shut away inside their houses with the AC blasting and the doors closed – not even the dogs or the children are visible. I’m trying not to be judgmental; but how is the Lao way not so much better?

I expected to feel sad about leaving a beautiful country like Laos; I was ready to return home. Just as I once incorporated aspects of West African culture into my American identity, I now celebrate parts of Southeast Asia that are internalized within me. In Laos, for example, people don’t shake hands when greeting. They place their palms together as if in prayer, and take a little bow while saying sabaidee. I adapted to this tradition so well that it’s taken me three weeks back home to stop doing it reflexively. Sabaidee is also the way to say thank you or goodbye. It is with this practice in mind that I re-enter my own country – buoyed by a rich, new cultural perspective, full of gratitude, humility, and an open mind.

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Using my gifts

My superpower is to see someone else’s point of view as easily as I see my own. This is a gift when it comes to working with people from different cultures, as I have been doing most of my professional life. It has helped me be an effective English language teacher, and it has helped me adapt to life here in Laos, Southeast Asia, where I have been living since September.

However, this same ability is a curse when it comes to other things. For example, when I was a student, I hated multiple-choice tests, because I could always justify more than one correct answer. It’s also a curse when dealing with linear Americans whose expectations bump up against my polyvalent nature. I feel much more comfortable in the high-context social setting of Laos than with Americans who bludgeon you with their directness.

The other day I invited an American colleague out to meet some of my new friends, teaching associates at the university. They had asked for help with teaching materials for English classes. After brief introductions she asked to look at the textbooks they were currently using for English classes. Without any preamble, she told them it was the wrong textbook for that course, effectively causing them to lose face. This criticism would be normal in the USA for visiting consultants, but here where relationships are more important than the actual work, it seemed a huge cultural breach. It was uncomfortable to be caught in the middle. I am certainly no diplomat, but my ability to see both sides so clearly allows me to explain one side to the other, to patch things up, to move forward in friendship.

When my job description changed for the third time in four months, I just smiled and rolled with it. I can sacrifice my individual need for a routine schedule in order to focus on the softer skills. I may not be teaching regular classes, but I am building connections with people. Family, food, clothing – these are all areas where it’s easy to find something in common. I’m learning to sit quietly and listen to what’s not being said, and to accept what is offered. It’s slower than I’d like, but I’m earning the trust of Lao people I work with by accepting their culture wholeheartedly.

I met another American woman who’s lived in Southeast Asia for a number of years. We met over coffee, and I felt like I was being interviewed for a job. She extracted more information from me in 30 minutes than I usually share with colleagues over several months. I quickly adapted to her communication style, answering her explicit questions honestly, and stating what I needed. I must have won her respect because we exchanged valuable information, and now we’re friends. At least on Facebook.

In Laos, Facebook is another cultural phenomenon that I’ve had to adapt to. People use it for everything: apartment rentals, restaurants, small business advertising, even Ministry updates. Businesses of all kinds will have a Facebook page but no website. Of course it’s also used for social networking. I expected to keep my separate spheres, as I did in the USA. But when work and social life are so strongly interconnected, sharing personal photos and videos is a must. Lao people love to take pictures, and we’re all friends on Facebook, so it looks like I’ve got the most exciting job surrounded by groups of happy people, dancing, singing, and drinking Beer Lao. In reality, these relationships are my job, not the 9-to-5 teaching.

It’s taken months to build these relationship and I cherish them because I’ve worked so hard to build connections.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Learning to be alone again

It’s not just the rains that force me to stay inside my Vientiane apartment. Every time I step out the door I’m reminded that I am The Other. I look different, I have strange habits, and I don’t speak Lao. The people around me are used to foreigners, though, and speak enough English to make me believe they’ve understood, but in reality it’s complicated. “Where you going?” the security guard asks me kindly. “Working?” “Yes, working,” I reply. I can’t explain that I don’t have a regular schedule yet and my unpredictability is throwing him off. In reality, I’m heading to the local coffee shop. I’ve learned enough about this collectivist culture to know that people are wondering why I’m always alone. These days I’ve been asking myself the same question.

Except for two years in the Peace Corps, I have never lived alone. I left home at age 18 and went from roommate to roommate until I got married and had children. It’s hard to believe. I began a teaching career and spent years thinking that snatches of adult conversation between classes was the norm. As my own children grew up, we stopped having family dinner together. I took on extra work, coached a high school rowing team, joined a writing group, and stayed out later and later. By the time my husband got home I was usually too tired to exchange much more than perfunctory greetings before we’d retreat into our separate corners of the house, exhausted. “Don’t ask me to make a single decision!” I remember saying on more than one occasion. I was too busy to work at improving relationships. I spent decades surrounded by people, living the illusion of togetherness when in reality I’ve been alone all this time and never embraced it.

The physical hardships of being in a faraway place are the easy ones to get used to. The heat and humidity hit like a thick velvet curtain every morning, causing my hair to frizz and my clothes to go limp on my body. I sweat through two outfits a day and show up anywhere looking like a marathon runner in sore need of a towel. I’ve gotten used to biking home in the dark, past the dusty market, where breathing in exhaust fumes from motorcycle tailpipes is a hazard. Maybe I’ll get one of those ubiquitous face masks that Asians seem to wear everywhere. I’ve accepted that hauling groceries in a backpack from the minimart is better than taking an expensive taxi. It makes me look ridiculous, but it’s a humility I can live with. Since I can’t drink the tap water, I’ve figured out how to get the five-gallon jugs delivered to my apartment. I’m doing pretty well.

Then there’s the rain. It was supposed to have stopped already. But it keeps on raining. Twice in the last week, torrential downpours have forced me to stay inside my apartment for most of the day. I looked into renting a car, contacted several places and got price quotes. But since I don’t have to be anywhere in particular most days, why bother? I started reading a good book, looked through some teaching material sent by the B. Council woman I might be working with, I reorganized the shelves in my bedroom, I made myself a sandwich, and I posted way too many comments on Facebook. I started thinking about my husband, my sons, my mother, my sisters and brothers, my friends, and my colleagues back in the States. There’s an 11-hour time difference, so I couldn’t really speak to anyone in real time. I started writing. When forced into solitude, I admit that I am lonely. It feels a lot different over here.

By far, the most difficult adjustment for me – an American used to individualism and agency – has been the wait. I’m waiting for the higher-ups to sign the necessary paperwork for me to begin my official job, the one I was brought over here to do. Bureaucracy is not for the faint hearted. I’m used to a well-defined role: Teacher, Coach, Teammate, Writer, Wife, Mother. It’s been a real stretch to find purpose and fulfillment in a work-around environment. But it has an up side: when someone reaches out in friendship, I jump at the opportunity to make a connection. Because I really need it. I have to remind myself that building relationships takes time. In the U.S. I took all those things for granted. Here in Laos, I am having to work harder at the softer skills than I ever expected.

A little solitude is good for everyone. Being alone again has allowed me to examine what it means to have meaningful work, what it means to have friendship, and how important it is to reach out to people and share thoughts and feelings, even the uncomfortable truth. I have never been very good at that. But I am good at reaching out to people and am rewarded when they respond. Aloneness doesn’t necessarily equal loneliness.

Pretty soon, I’ll look back on this experience and wonder where the time has gone. It’s going to get busy very soon. The rains are about to stop, and the cool season will begin. I can feel changes in the air already. What has happened during my forced solitude is that I’ve had to face the pain of disappointment, my own self-doubt, and the belief that I was totally in control. I am reminded that I chose to be here. Personal growth can only come when one examines and accepts the harsh realities. I accepted this Fellowship to challenge myself and get away from the predictable routines of my life.

Being alone has allowed me to explore new thoughts and feelings, and to connect with a deeper desire to gain a different cultural perspective. Maybe next time the guard asks where I am going, I will stop pretending I’m hurrying off to work, and take the opportunity to practice my emerging language skills with him. Maybe solitude is the true reason I accepted this Fellowship. I needed to learn to live alone again so that I could reach out to people authentically.

“One of the greatest discoveries a man makes, one of his great surprises, is to find he can do what he was afraid he couldn’t do.”

  • Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company

School Choice is a Lie. It Does Not Mean More Options. It Means Fewer.

When I taught at a Title I elementary school from 2001 to 2006, we were labelled a “failing school.” Under NCLB students were given a choice to attend a “good” school. Only three students (out of nearly 700) made the leap, and two came right back to their neighborhood school. School choice is an artificial name to open the way for profiteering off the backs of students and their families.

Source: School Choice is a Lie. It Does Not Mean More Options. It Means Less.

Baw bpen nyang

There’s a Lao expression, baw bpen nyang, that loosely translates as “no problem.” It’s used in a variety of situations to mean anything from “don’t worry,” – as in the tuk-tuk driver saying, “it’s the wrong change, but don’t worry, I’ll give you Thai baht” – to “you’re welcome” – as a response to letting a student at the American Center join a class even though they didn’t register. Baw bpen nyang seems to be a way of life that I have no choice but to accept. For a Westerner used to taking charge, it’s got some advantages.

Riding a bicycle loaded down with water bottles from the minimart can be a challenge under any circumstances. But riding after dark, with motorcycles criss-crossing in front of me, while sandwiched between two cars jockeying for the same lane can raise it to a different level of stress. I’ve got a fierce determined look on my face and a bright beam of light to mark the potholes. Traffic seems to move around me in an effortless dance that I don’t understand. Baw bpen nyang. I make it home drenched with sweat just before a torrential rainstorm floods the street. Relief!

During my first week in Laos, the U.S. Embassy staff introduced me to some officials at the Ministry of Education, where I am supposed to be working with Lao teachers of English to help develop a curriculum. I knew that I wouldn’t be starting my job right away; it’s not like the U.S. where schools start in lock step just before or just after Labor Day. It’s the first time an English Language Fellow has been asked to do this work so I knew it would take some time to get all the paperwork completed. While I’m waiting for my official job to begin, I’ve been getting out to meet teachers informally. Baw bpen nyang. I’m resourceful and resilient I tell myself. Okay, I’ll admit it’s been a little stressful not to have a real job yet. But as soon as people learn that I want to visit their schools, they invite me to observe or teach a class. It’s been fun to be back in a classroom doing what I’m best at: teaching English language learners. It turns out I’m pretty good at networking, too. I’m excited to meet Lao teachers, to see them trying new methods and to watch students brighten up when they get a sentence right. I can feel the energy and enthusiasm of the young people here, and it’s a little bit contagious.

Yesterday I invited one of the Teaching Assistants from the American Center out to lunch. Today he’s invited me out to his school to meet some teachers. It’s Teacher Appreciation Day, so I’ve got a couple of boxes of American candy to offer the head master. His cousin is coming to pick me up in an air-conditioned car. I’m wearing a traditional Lao skirt, a sinh made of silk, and waiting for rain to stop. I get a message in perfect English, with a smiley face, “My cousin is in the temple and I’m waiting for him to come back.” You know what I’m thinking: baw bpen nyang. I’m trying to convince this guy to enter the ASEAN Youth contest. He’s got the skills to make it work, and I can help him craft a strong essay. If he doesn’t meet the deadline – well, I guess there will be other opportunities.

Sometimes when I’m beginning to feel a little lost and confused, a new person shows up to help me. This week one of my dreams came true: I got to go out on the Mekong River in a long boat. It’s a few days before the Boat Racing Festival, Boun Xuang Heua, one of Vientiane’s biggest events of the year. It’s understandable that Ms. S didn’t really want the responsibility of an extra falang woman when she was trying to launch an international crew safely before sunset. But my new friend, JC told her I was “a professional” and since I just showed up, baw bpen nyang, she let me go out in the coaching boat. What a thrill! It felt at once foreign and familiar to watch 48 people paddle in sync in a gorgeously decorated boat, counting the rhythm in Lao: nung, song, saam, sii, haa

It will take a while for me to find my rhythm in this new place. My experience tells me that it’s best to be patient and wait for things to happen instead of trying to force them. I’m learning that something magical and uniquely Asian happens when you simply plant an idea, then sit back and let it grow.

Eleven days

They say that for getting over jet lag it takes the same number of days as there are hours of time difference in the new place. In other words, if you travel from New York to Los Angeles, it takes three days to get over jet lag because there’s a three-hour time difference. I’m now eleven days into my new life in Laos, a time zone with an eleven-hour difference from Eastern Standard Time. I should feel right with the world, but I am still actively adjusting to a new culture where very few people speak English, it smells funny, and I don’t have a car.

Riding a bike home to my little apartment surrounded by tuk-tuks, SUVs, and motorcycles without getting run off the road was a major accomplishment. Then I figured out where the little supermarket was and how to load up groceries into my backpack. Water is really heavy. Yesterday I met with Ministry of Education officials and didn’t understand 99% of what was being said. I need to learn Lao. But I looked good in a long traditional silk skirt that I borrowed from another American woman and had ironed by the lady who cleans the apartments. She also helped me figure out how to put it on. I’m pretty good at speaking via gestures – what would you expect from a lifelong English language teacher?

A surge of self-confidence wells up in my head as I cross each new challenge off the “firsts” list. Find a place to live, tell the taxi how to get there in the dark, find the bicycle that M. left me, pay for a meal, get the Embassy badge in just the right color, and talk to the little boy who lives in my building – hey he speaks English! I can’t complain: I’ve got air-conditioning, CNN, and a swimming pool. Who cares if I’m a little too far from the American Center to walk?

My job is a little slow to get started but that’s okay. A woman who’s been here for years told me that P.D.R. does not stand for People’s Democratic Republic – it stands for Please Don’t Rush. I’m happy to pace myself, recognizing that I am privileged to work in this amazing country and eager not to be a pushy American.

How to make 140 new friends in 5 days

When I accepted the English Language Teaching Fellowship back in March, I knew that I would be giving notice to my public school district and setting off on an exhilarating new adventure. A lot of teachers my age are counting down the days to retirement, but I have taken a leave of absence to travel alone to the other side of the world. (My husband might come visit, but he isn’t moving to Southeast Asia with me.) I was thrilled to be matched to Laos, the country I fell in love with as a tourist in 2015. The natural beauty of Luang Prabang makes it one of the top World Heritage sites. The Mekong River, whose name punctuated my formative years, would soon be at my front door. The warm-hearted Laotian people would welcome me and tie friendship bracelets around my wrists again. It is fate I told myself.

A little nervous anxiety kicked in, however, when I realized I’d be going as an independent contractor, and not a U.S. Embassy employee or an employee of Georgetown University, who actually runs the program. I would not be a Peace Corps Volunteer, as I was in 1982 in Niger, with the weight of the U.S. government behind me. Nor would I be “the wife of ~” as I was 22 years ago when I followed my husband to the Comoros Islands as a trailing Peace Corps spouse. I wouldn’t even have the wonderful tour guide who led our group of teachers in 2015. Who will tell me where the good larb salad is? I wondered. How will I know who to contact at the Ministry of Education? Who will tell me if I’m too old to go rowing? Who will have my back if something goes wrong?

I ignored the sense of apprehension that settled into the pit of my stomach. My support network would be just an email or a Skype conversation away. Right? I spoke with the outgoing Fellows leaving the country, and got some good logistical advice. Too bad they wouldn’t be in-country to greet me when I arrived. I started to cross items off my To Do list. All my burning questions could wait for the Pre Departure Orientation in Washington, DC. Well, the orientation took place last week in Washington, DC and I met 140 other English Language teaching Fellows going to 70 countries around the world.  Now I know that I will not be truly alone at my post.

The Pre Departure Orientation (PDO) involved an intense five days of lectures, workshops, discussions, and receptions at the historic Mayflower Hotel. And coffee. I did not realize that the U.S. Department of State would be out in force – sharing resources, teaching strategies, and a network of connections to help in my professional growth. I didn’t realize that the Georgetown University team would be working so hard to put together an outstanding conference. Now that PDO is finished, I can say that a lot of people want to see me succeed.

But more valuable than anything else during PDO, was the group of Fellows themselves. I did not realize that there would be so many talented teachers – in the flesh – offering recommendations, jokes, and a hand of friendship. It was remarkable that we all had a certain openness in common, which made breakfast conversations flow as easily as the coffee. At every session, I spoke to Fellows of all ages – some even older than I am – from all regions of the world. I was impressed with the level of international teaching experience, even among teachers who looked like they were 18 years old (they weren’t). I was delighted to meet the Fellows going to the countries where I’d lived decades ago. So many new and renewing Fellows were willing to go out of their way to welcome like-minded colleagues. I left certain presentations feeling inspired by my new community.

During PDO, we exchanged phone numbers, Facebook invitations, and offers to visit. I got invited out on several occasions by Fellows much younger (and more fun) than I am. “No, thanks. I’m too old,” is not an answer I plan to use again. It’s not just fate that total strangers turned into friends so quickly.

During PDO, I learned that 140 characters is not just a Twitter word count; it’s the number new English Language teacher friends I’ve got in 70 countries around the world. We’ve only known each other for five days, but we are here to guide each other through the 2017-2018 Fellowship year. I can’t wait!