Our last day living in Kenya, after sixteen years of living in Africa, my colleagues threw a going-away party for me. We had sold our cars, and my husband, Brian, was completing the spatial relations Jenga that is a moving container. While he worked with the movers wrestling the detritus of our life into that metal box, I jumped on the back of a motorcycle taxi, and wound my way down the hill of our suburb and then through the (epic) Nairobi afternoon traffic to the party. The clear Nairobi sun was warm on my face and the tops of my thighs, and I savored the perfume of frying meat, diesel exhaust, mimosa blossoms, and lush greenery. When I got to the venue I dug a little black dress and stilettos out of my backpack and changed in the bathroom. Red lipstick pulled out of a pocket polished off the look. I was honored that night by the all-Kenyan staff and my beloved Kenyan mentor/boss. My team group-hugged and wept together. We had a dance party and made speeches, and ate chicken and greens and corn-meal ugali, and I felt very connected, so alive. The heat from the chilies in the food tingled on my tongue and warmed me inside. Brian and I fell head over heels in love in Kenya, and had our wedding there. It felt like the perfect send-off: joyful, human, and very African. The next evening, we were on a plane and winging our way to summer in DC.
How I Ended Up In Africa
Seventeen years previously, my mom had told me that I wasn’t the sort of person who did the Peace Corps, because I wore too much lipstick (among other things). I defiantly told her that we are who we decide to be, and, by God, if I decided to do the Peace Corps and did it, then I was the sort of person who did the Peace Corps. And truth be told, I did have a somewhat more glamorous approach to the Peace Corps than some of my compatriots. I found it served me well; West Africans are some of the most stylish people on the planet. Even the smallest villages have a great tailor in town, confecting miracles from a manual sewing machine. Lipstick travels, and in the end Africa and I were a surprisingly good fit.
And for many years, Africa continued to be a good fit—professionally and personally—right up until the point it wasn’t anymore. In 2016, I landed my dream job back in DC, and that summer we all came “home.” I was as excited about it as I was apprehensive. I couldn’t wait for summer sweet corn and fireflies, the ballet, jars and jars of pickles at the grocery store, functional roads, and help with my daughter’s learning challenges. I knew that I was going to experience some culture shock, but armed with Google Maps, a super-solid marriage, and trust in my resourcefulness, I threw myself into Operation: Adjust.
That first summer was so great: Sweet corn?! Check. Amazing grocery store outings? Check (I am obsessed with Wegman’s). A craft store five minutes from the house? Are you kidding me? F-ing check y’all! The days were long, the air was sweet, the grill was sizzling, the electricity was always on (!), and I felt very much like my twenty-something self who had ridden the subway in New York City, and strutted down the sidewalk feeling on top of the world. Brian and I enjoyed going out, exploring DC, and setting up our new home (he was so hot using power tools…). School started well—the day the yellow busses pulled up to take my girls in their new outfits to the beautiful public schools in our area, I wept tears of joy and relief. This was going to be great!
And then it started getting colder, and darker. Brian started travelling for work a lot. The grace period of newness at work ended—along with the automatic cutting-of-slack for the new girl. I didn’t have any clothes for the cooling weather, and didn’t really have the budget to build a fall and winter wardrobe for me and my girls now that our rent was so much higher. It took me seven monthly trips to the DMV to get my drivers’ license sorted out. My older daughter started struggling in school. Donald Trump was elected, and suddenly I had no idea what country we were living in. Feeling happy or optimistic felt like some sort of acceptance and political betrayal. I wallowed in the social media and news vortex. My daughter’s immigration stuff heated up. I had thought that by the time we’d been here a year we would be pretty much adjusted (I am a great believer in time healing all). But a year into the transition I felt worse, more exhausted, and more disoriented than I had earlier on. In August of 2017 I had a breakdown.
While it was terrible, it was also a watershed event, and in the last few months things have started looking up. And now that they are looking up, I can look back on what happened with a little perspective and think about how I will advise myself to handle any massive-ass change in the future—even something less dramatic than an intercontinental move.
Change, Loss, and Grief
I honestly don’t know if I’m good or bad at dealing with change. I tend to seek out novelty and risk and run toward new experiences, so I think of myself as good with it, but now I’m not so sure. We were really ready to leave Kenya, so I was surprised at how acutely I felt a sense of loss, and how deep my despair was. A great therapist helped me to frame the emotions I was dealing with as mourning and grief. I wasn’t mourning Kenya, exactly, I was mourning a loss of identity, a beautiful time in our lives, my children moving out of childhood, easy adventure travel experiences, and just plain old familiarity. I was grateful for where we were and crying anyway. I didn’t know how to be special and useful in DC; I was paradoxically afraid I was exactly like everyone else here, and also too different to ever fit in.
I also found didn’t want to “let go” of anything, so it also helped me to think about coping with grief as a process of moving from that bleeding-wounded place of feeling like you have lost what you had and getting to a tender but strong place where you have what you’ve lost.
Our family sought ways to honor what we loved about our life in Kenya and tried to re-create experiences that would help hold on to the feelings we had most loved there. Some things we did that helped were to carry over some foundational rituals from our Kenya life to stay grounded. Family Dinner was a big one. An after dinner walk when the weather is good was something we loved in Kenya and that we do here. I was so happy to find a great African grocery store with all of my favorite products. I made a bunch of picture collages of our past adventures and put them up all over our new house. I put out all of our tchotchkes and African folk-art. We all crack up watching YouTube videos of Nigerian voice-overs, and my older daughter just started taking Afro-pop dance classes. Finding a way to honor the experience we were leaving helped. It helps me feel that I am still all of what I was in Africa.
The EXHAUSTION of Culture Shock
Once the honeymoon and euphoria wore off, I was so exhausted for a really long time. Disproportionally exhausted. Part of it is having a big job in a culture that values productivity above all else, part of it was having less sunlight than life on the equator, and part of it was supporting my family and kids through the change, while dealing with my own grief. And a good deal of the fatigue was due to me bleeding energy doing very quotidian things. Habits are huge mental energy-savers. Routines—including conversational scripts—allow us to go into autopilot. It took me a long time to establish habits and mental algorithms for even the most mundane tasks like getting dressed for constantly changing weather. Heck—I had to listen closely just to understand what people were saying since they talk so fast, mumble, and use slightly different language than they did sixteen years ago (everything is AMAZING! And in “buckets” now…). I drove on the other side of the road for ten years—even getting into the car takes some thought.
Spending so much energy on getting through the day didn’t leave much left for the intense resourcefulness required to figure out the hard stuff. I dug deeper and deeper and deeper until there were no more reserves. While time and repetition will definitely remedy habit-forming eventually, if I had it to do again, I would build in a lot more prophylactic rest, down time, and proactive self-care. I would plan more three-day weekends, check out of email early in the evening, and spend more time figuring out the mundane go-tos: dinners, outfits, scripts, chore rotations, etc.
The upside of this sort of “break state” (as it is called by behavioral economists) is that it’s a unique opportunity to establish awesome habits or kick bad ones. Laying down the grooves on your groovy new life takes effort and energy, but being deliberate about it gave my future self the gift of some awesome habits.
When You Don’t Know “The Rules”
Culture shock isn’t an actual feeling of being shocked (though the aforementioned election and some of the racist shit my kid has heard at school was pretty profoundly shocking). It’s an accumulated fatigue that comes from literally everything requiring effort to understand. Part of this is knowing, and automatically following, The Rules. Of course, moving across continents is the extreme version of this dynamic, but even different towns, workplaces, and social groups have subtly different rules. When you don’t know the rules, it feels like wearing a pair of glasses that aren’t quite the right prescription. You can see the contours of what’s happening, but you have a little headache between your eyebrows and miss some of the signs.
I think that I’m probably a little “off” a good deal of the time. My tolerance for bright colors seems to be higher than most, and I am prone to wear glitter eyeliner or sequins to the office for special occasions—like Tuesdays. I don’t know how to talk about my yoga teacher’s body in a way that simultaneously respects and honors her and myself while being appropriately self-deprecating the way the other moms do around here. I regret ever joking about gluten-free. I need to be careful who I tell about our more free-range but also strict parenting style. I didn’t know that when a possible friend dropped off her daughter for a play date with my daughter that I should have had a bottle of wine ready and the crumbs swept off the counter. I’m prone to take a water-cooler “hello” and veer into deep discussions about life. I often leave these discussions knowing that I over-shared and feeling that I probably made the other person slightly uncomfortable. My perception of time is more leisurely—a thirty-minute meeting feels frantic and people talking about their “hard stops” feel rude.
When I moved to my Peace Corps village, I knew I didn’t know the rules, and I found a confidant and guide to help. If I had this change to do again, I’d find someone at work and in the community who looks like they are at ease, invite them to coffee, and ask them to explain “the rules.” It would probably be a great opening move for a friendship. Also, Brian and I pretend to be Anthropologists. We joke about being strangers, undercover in a strange land. We treated the first Back to School Night at the high school as an ethnographic data-collection exercise (we also cut sixth and seventh periods and went to get a drink and co-conspire). It was one of my favorite date-nights yet, and made us feel close to each other and more aware of our special—and unique—connection.
I’m also just accepting that being quirky is part of having what I’ve lost. I hope the oddness make me charming and interesting—and, honestly, anyone who is judging and/or hating can suck it (unless they are gluten free—then they shouldn’t suck it).
The Courage To Make Friends
Which brings me to the last thing that is beginning to make things feel better: I have started making a friend. Three actually, but one especially. Our daughters are friends, and these women live very nearby. They were kind enough to make overtures, and even though I felt sad, exhausted, odd, and awkward, I said “yes” to those overtures—including an invite to Thanksgiving, since Brian was traveling over Thanksgiving. It’s goofy, and I felt shy about it, but I sent some texts, and got up my courage to extend an invite to the ballet, and then a lunch. We got invited to a post-Christmas family jammy brunch—and went. I’m going to host a little “hangout with wine” in my living room to keep the momentum going.
It feels hard to me to make friends in my community (much harder than making friends at work, or in the expat community where everybody has a ton in common), but it matters—a lot. The other day, Brian was traveling and I nearly missed having an accident. When the adrenaline faded, I realized that a year ago, had I had been hit by that car, there would have been nobody to call. Now I have someone I could call, who could be there quickly, host kids, etc., until my mom could get here. And I would be there for her too. She is funny and smart and different from me, and I enjoy learning from her. Finding things we have in common helps me know I can belong and be happy here. I’m starting to have my own little village, and I’m glad I had the courage to send the goofy texts and say “yes.”
We Are Who We Decide To be
I thought that after twelve months, I’d be done adjusting and ready to hit year two like a pro. But really, the first year was about just surviving and getting ready to adjust.
Eighteen years after I defiantly told my mom that “we are who we decide to be!” I’m not sure I believe it the way I did when the words sparked off of my tongue. I think who we are drives what we decide, and the things we decide lead us to the experiences that shape who we become. Adjusting doesn’t hurt because we are whittling ourselves down or carving off parts of ourselves to fit into a new place. It hurts because we have shed a shell that’s too small, and then, naked and raw, stretch and expand into who we are going to be next.
I was always the kind of girl who would do the Peace Corps, and that experience forged me into the public health specialist who loves Africa to the bone. And since we have decided to be in the U.S., we will become what we need to become to thrive here. And until the U.S. feels just as warm, full, and easy as Kenya did the night before we moved, I’ve got a great tube of lipstick in my bag, a little black dress in my closet, and a partner who makes anywhere we go feel something like home.