In November 2016, I returned home to my family and friends in Argyle, New York after a little more than two years in Cameroon as a Peace Corps volunteer. On my way home I stopped to visit my Aunt in Switzerland and met up with friends in Paris so I had about a week in Europe to begin my process of re-integrating back into what we know as western society. My fellow Peace Corps volunteers and I dove into the Paris food and drinks while enjoying the atmosphere of just “throwing our cares away”. We were in the middle; out of Cameroon and the hardship of life there but also not yet home and ignoring the question of “what do I do next?” The culture shock did not really hit me until I went to Switzerland. I remember walking into a grocery store with my Aunt and being overwhelmed by the variety of food choices. My Aunt wonderfully listened to all my stories of Cameroon and gave me a sense of comfort in their old but beautiful house near the mountains.
Traveling with two suitcases and a backpack full of not clothes (left all my old clothes in Cameroon) but beautifully handcrafted gifts made by my Cameroonian friends and of course homemade peanut butter from my Cameroonian host mom; it was a struggle just to get on the train. My mind was numb and empty as we flew the 8 hour flight over the ocean to JFK airport. I had been dreaming for months on how this scene of reuniting with my family would go. I would start crying when I thought of it yet in reality I was so overwhelmed with my baggage and passport control that by the time I saw my family at the exit gate, with their welcome home sign and tears starting in my mom’s eyes…I was just ready to get out of there. Oh I was happy to see my family and thrilled to see the sign they had made for me, but I was just so tired. The exhausting life of two years in another culture, traveling, and culture shock was in my bones and all I wanted to do was get in the car and breathe a sigh of relief.
I did it. That is the one piece of advice I can give to Peace Corps volunteers: they can do it. Two years in another culture is doable and we all can do it if we really want to. I had made a commitment to give my time to another culture, to learn, and to love. Two years is a small portion when compared to the time we usually have on this Earth. And let me tell you: it is worth it.
|My Dad, Mom, me, Lily kitty and Finn with the sign they made for my homecoming|
Funny, I was never a person that ate a lot of junk food, but man, did I crave Doritos! After two years of bland food, I wanted to taste zazz! For Thanksgiving I ask (well demanded) my Grandmother bake her famous apple pie. Pretty much I gave myself the okay to eat anything I wanted for at least a month. Starbucks and more Starbucks coffee. Yum! Although it took me a while to get used to this type of food again. I had many stomachaches and my weight fluctuated during that first month. Even though I really loved taking long hot showers, my body and hair became dry since it wasn’t used to regular intense bathing. And I finally cut my hair- 10 inches!- donating it.
I always wondered what my dog would do when I arrived home. I made sure that I was the first to walk in the front door when we got home. He started barking but eventually realized I was not an intruder although he did not recognize me! He figured out that he liked me and I was nice but it took 15 minutes for him to all of a sudden realize that I was Renée!
Back to the reverse culture shock; as I write this it is now March 2017 and I am still dealing with it. The last few months have had its ups and downs. I came home and went through a period of happiness. It was great to just be hugging everyone!! At first I was scrambling for words to describe my last two years and I was pleasantly surprised that many of my friends asked me great questions rather than the usual “How was it?” Eventually I came up with my “go to” answer for “How was Cameroon and your Peace Corps service?” Many of you have probably heard my answer of “amazing, un-regrettable, very difficult, new perspective, all my questions were answered”, and that I was ready to come home but not ready to leave my Cameroon family. All of this is true and if you asked in-depth questions, well you got in-depth answers! It was great to share stories about Cameroon and even the local newspaper did a story! I must say the fame might feel weird at first but you get used to it haha
December was filled with holiday spirit, parties, a dog show with my mom, and a county/state fair conference with my dad. It was great to see so many friends and I only had a few times where I was overwhelmed. In those instances my parent were understanding, listened to what I was feeling, and gave me a hug when I needed it. All that time I was really only thinking about my positive experiences in Cameroon but I will let all Peace Corps volunteers know that eventually you remember the negative experiences and they are usually triggered by something negative. It was almost Christmas when someone said something really mean to me and I experienced bullying for the first time in my life. It was something small and quite frankly I would usually just let it brush off my shoulder, but it triggered all my negative memories of Cameroon and revealed more of my sadness about leaving my Cameroon family. Thankfully I really try to control my mind and emotions so they do not get the best of me. I forgave this bully and tried to take a positive outlook. Thanks to this event, I now understand bullying first-hand so I can better connect to those who are bullied and I was forced to really deal with all my memories and experiences in Cameroon.
By January I was doing okay with everything. Meaning I pretty much responded to my parent’s inquires with “I’m okay”. I was job hunting, giving presentations on Cameroon to different groups, and just trying to keep busy. Peace Corps had given me health insurance for a month but nothing is ever easy with Peace Corps so I spent much of my time trying to receive healthcare and also trying not to spend too much of the small of amount of money that Peace Corps had paid me. Peace Corps pays volunteers around $300 a month for their service. One good thing that came out of this situation was that Planned Parenthood really supported me when nothing else was working. So thank you Planned Parenthood! Now I can relate to people who have gone through similar situations and need this organization!
|Presenting to the public at the Crandall Public Library|
|Demonstrating archery with my traditional Cameroon bow (I mailed it home!)|
|Presenting to a high school French class|
|Wonderful group of students at my presentation! They asked brilliant questions!!|
Everyone supported me through this transition and kept saying that finding a job, a good job will take time. I will admit that I was beginning to not feel okay, losing strength to keep myself busy, and wondering what will happen. I could take any job but I really, really wanted to do something I believe in and make a difference. Three months at home really felt to me like six months. My parents were wonderful and never lost faith that the best job/the right fit would come along. So just like in the movies: as I began to think that it would never happen, THE JOB came along!
After several interviews and applying to over 20 jobs...I can now say that I am hired! I start March 6, 2017 as the Assistant Director of Public Policy at the New York Farm Bureau in Albany, New York (only an hour away from home!) I am so excited to work with the public policy team to improve how our government supports agriculture and meet with the different members of Farm Bureau! Members of Farm Bureau are farmers or anyone that is connected to agriculture.
Being a Peace Corps volunteer was a brilliant and life-changing experience but it is an important decision for anyone interested in doing it. It is not for everyone but if you do choose to do Peace Corps please keep an open mind and remember that afterwards, you are the only one that truly has to deal with your experience. Peace Corps will record your achievements during your service but after you finish, they will not think about you. YOU will remember what you did and the people of that country will remember you; keep that in mind when you are working as a Peace Corps volunteer. When you apply for jobs afterwards, many employers will think highly Peace Corps but most will not understand what you did. Be prepared to describe your experience in a mostly honest but positive and appealing way. Commitment, strength, communication, resilience, and thinking outside the box are what came out in my interviews. Employers will want to know why you did Peace Corps and how you will transition to your new job. I had to state that I wanted to learn in another culture and that I accomplished that goal but now I was ready to work in an office atmosphere again and help my community at home.
Reverse culture shock is real and will happen but I think it is different for each person. For me it was remembering how to socialize at a party at home, not to hoard all my coins (we had to do that in Cameroon), not to be embarrassed when I say “bonjour” or “merci”, how to share the Cameroon culture honestly but not too honestly, and remembering that I did it, that sense of accomplishment does not get erased over time. I finally truly understand why we have what we have, why we need to not take it for granted but also not feel bad about having it. I can enjoy my wonderful rural life with the big screen TV and Starbucks coffee as long as I remember how we are able to have this life and not forget about the Cameroon culture that taught me so much.
The culture shock will continue and at this point I still cannot go through all my Cameroon photos; not ready yet. For now I will go back to what we call regular life. I will keep sharing Cameroon with my community. Americans can forget that each of our states, our regions are different cultures and not only do we need to learn about places like Cameroon but keep in mind that there is still rural and urban America. We have so much to share with each other. Hopefully by sharing stories about Cameroon with Americans along with sharing my rural farm life with the people I met through Peace Corps, we all will become wiser, more open-minded, and better human beings in this diverse world.
Whether you are reading this blog because you know me or just found it on the internet, thank you for following my story. For more information and links, go to the "About Me" page on my blog. Please reach out if you want me to present on Cameroon to a group or you are thinking of becoming a Peace Corps volunteer. Peace Corps is worth it and you know what…you can do it!