As I’m about to return to the US after another year abroad, I am reminded of my reaction to returning from my first year abroad in China. For several weeks I struggled with speaking. For one thing, having spent a year speaking broken Mandarin and English mostly with my ESL students, I struggled to find the words I needed at the speed that native speakers speak with each other. I also became very self-conscious when talking in public. I was acutely aware that almost everyone around me could effortlessly understand what I was saying, unlike the year previously when I had to make a conscious effort for anyone to understand me.
On this return I am not anticipating much language adjustment. There are small ways that I’ve changed my English to be more easily understood here. I’m sure those changes will take some time to fade and my American English will reassert itself. What I’m actually worried about is reverse culture shock. As I prepare for my departure, I am torn between two strong emotions. On one hand, I am excited to return. I’m excited by the food variety I am returning to, for hot showers, for reliable electricity, clean water, and not having to greet every person I meet on the street and during my day. On the other hand, I’m also anticipating missing many of the very things I’m looking forward to returning to my life. Not having hot water, not having any reliable water, not having reliable electricity, and not having food variety changes the way you see and act in the world. For me anyway, these changes in perspective have been for the good. But how long will I be in the States before hot showers are expected rather than feeling like a luxury? How long before the selection in the grocery store goes from overwhelming to everyday? How long before I’m no longer compelled to greet every person I encounter in my day?
My adjustment to resource scarcity is something I particularly do not want to abandon. Take water. In Ghana, you don’t know when the water tank will be empty and how long it will take to get someone to fill it–particularly during the dry season a water refill can take days. The volunteers had to wait two weeks at one point during the year. So you use as little water as possible. You turn the water off when you are soaping your hair in the shower. You collect rainwater when it rains. You don’t flush the toilet when you pee. In front of my house in Yendi there is a borehole that many people in the neighborhood who are not connected to city water walk to in order to fill their jerrycans with water. This borehole is deeper than most in town and therefore continues to have water when most of the other boreholes in town are dry at the end of dry season. The rest of the year the borehole is active at dawn and dusk–the coolest times of day to be carrying heavy loads of water home. During dry season there was a line all day long (Pictured above.)
You can’t live in rural Northern Ghana and be unaware that not just clean water, but water at all, is a valuable and scarce resource. Even though clean water is readily available in much of the US, it’s still a scarce resource in parts of the US. (Ask Flint, Michigan residents.) If and when the US sees its true place on the planet, its people will see that the US has as much to lose from wasted and contaminated water as anyone. But it’s harder to see. When I can turn on my tap any time and fill my glass to drink, it’s easy to forget what a privilege it is. I do not want to lose my water habits when I return to the States. In fact, I want to do better to lower my environmental impact than ever.
Another aspect of my life in Ghana–that I will lose if I do not try to retain it–is being an active part of the community fabric. Two things are working against me. The US leans toward an individualistic based society, and even within this individualistic society, I am personally inclined toward hermitage. While the forms that social investment take in Ghana are a real struggle for me to participate in, I recognize their value. And I believe they are something we can learn from in the US. Not necessarily the exact forms that the social investment takes in Ghana, but the underlying reasons for them. For example, in Ghana it is vital that you greet your friends as you pass through town. Jude has written about what a revelation it was for him to learn that what is behind these greetings is an acknowledgement of the person’s worth. For him, this understanding made the greetings a welcome part of his day rather than an annoyance. I wish I could say that I had such a full swing about the greetings, but I didn’t. I was, however, able to remember, while frustrated, what was behind the custom, and I was able to find value in it.
In the States we don’t really greet each other, especially people we don’t know. (Yes, South and Midwest, I know, you are greeters. But you’ve got nothing on Ghana.) I’m not suggesting we become greeters. That’s not really in our makeup. But I do think it’s vital that we start acknowledging each other’s worth, both to ourselves and to each other. Our country is in crisis right now, and a large part of that crisis, as I see it, stems from too many people only acknowledging the worth of themselves and their community using the smallest of definitions. So, while I will not be greeting everyone I meet, because I neither like it nor is it socially necessary where I live in the States, I will be actively and intentionally acknowledging the worth of the other people in my community and nation – especially those who are most unlike myself, and I will be actively and intentionally encouraging others in my nation to do the same.
I must make an active choice to retain these habits and attitudes. They will not stick around by themselves. It’s like working out at the gym. If you stop training, you lose your strength and stamina. I’ve spent a year building up my environmental consciousness and community engagement muscles. In Ghana, those muscles came without trying–like a person with a physically active job. When I return to the states I can’t let these muscles shrivel because now I have to make the effort to go to the gym.