How To Survive Changing Your Whole Life

To Kenya and back again

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.

Home? Again

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.

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  • Oh, Manya. You have this beautiful, astounding talent to make your very specific life experience utterly universal, and I just love reading anything and everything you write, even if I don’t always agree (I feel Ways about the essay on nearly running away, and haven’t quite come to terms). Thank you, as always, for sharing. The world (certainly the Internet at least!) is a more beautiful place because of your place in it!

    • Manya

      Thank you so, so much. I have truly loved writing for APW. Over the years it has been a special and safe place for me to work through some of the hardest and most joyful things in our life and marriage. That anxiety piece was very intense and I feel a lot of Ways about it too! I’m not sure I have fully come to terms with the vulnerability of making all of that so public. In any case, your comment made me smile ear to ear and encourages me to keep writing.

  • Jess

    I have a whole lot of unarticulatable feelings after this piece. It is enough to say that the idea of coming back to something after changing and adapting to a different world resonated a lot with me and things going on in my life lately.

  • Manya, I really enjoyed this essay and hearing about these new steps you all are taking. Culture shock is hard, and I can’t imagine how challenging it must be after being gone for so long.

  • sofar

    Lots of people assume culture shock is what hits you right away. But I love that this essay reminds us that it’s what hits much later — after new newness wears off — and after the adrenaline wears off and the culmination of everyday frustrations takes its toll.

    A friend of mine just moved back to the U.S. after more than 10 years abroad, and she’s struggled with some of the same issues — the focus on Work and Productivity (as a way for determining life’s value and a person’s value), and the expectations of having a perfectly polished home and appearance.

    I’ve also seen the struggle for community in my in-laws, who moved from a place where one’s social life is knitted into the fabric of everyday life — you live in a village, and everyone sees each other all the time. Here, you have to make formal plans to see each other. And the nuclear-family-home-as-a-private-space dynamic reigns.

  • Gillian

    Manya thanks so much for sharing. This was riveting. 11 years ago I returned home from a 10-month stint in Japan and had a very similar experience – I can only imagine how hard it would be on this larger scale. This is the best articulation of “reverse culture shock” or whatever you want to call it I have ever seen. Again, thanks for sharing this, and all your writings on APW. And all the best in your continued journey.

  • Janna

    Manya, I always love reading your writing, especially because I grew up in Nairobi, and Kenya will always be home. How you describe culture shock is so accurate – I remember almost crying in Target trying to decide on a shampoo and being so overwhelmed by all of the choices. That constant stream of hard choices or moments that are invisible to everyone else. Dave Pollack called this being a “hidden immigrant”- when you look like everyone else, but are experiencing culture (even your country of origin) in a foreign way. Even after living in the states for 13 years, I still have moments when I feel like I’m having to do a lot of translating and figuring out what’s going on, when everyone around me understands easily what is happening. Lots of love- I think it will get easier, and the people who are eager to understand your life and experiences will become the dearest of friends.

    • Yael

      I just was back in the States and spent at least 10 minutes staring at the bandaid selection in Target. Stores in the US are SO BIG compared to Germany. I got lost at least 3 times in 3 separate stores trying to run errands.

  • sage

    This piece has given me much to think about in my own life. It’s not anywhere near as intense of an adjustment as an intercontinental move and the culture shock that goes with that, but in the last 6 weeks I have moved in with, married, and returned from the honeymoon with my now husband. Although work has not changed for me, everything else has and I am actively working to set new routines in place and figure out what life looks like now. I’ve never handled transitions well, so although I’m happy and excited for this new married life, I have to keep reminding myself I am in some ways still in survival mode… for now. Thank you, Manya, for the beautifully written piece illustrating what is taking place during big life changes, and for the reminder of the necessity of self-care during the settling in and adjustment period.

    • Manya

      I love this. This was my hope in writing this piece: that it would speak to anyone in the middle of a big change and give you some guideposts to understand what you might be feeling (giving yourself permission to feel grief and loss, exhaustion around setting new habits, dealing with new rules…) and give you some ideas about how to navigate it (carryover rituals, honoring of your past, proactive self care, connection to others, being in it together with your spouse…). Getting married is a MASSIVE life change. Even joyful changes can be tinged with grief. So much love to you as you navigate this change…

  • stephforeigncountry

    As ever, Manya, this is beautifully written. And for me, it’s one of your most relatable pieces yet. My husband and I are moving to Canada (from the UK) this year. He’s English, and will have to deal with being an expat with ALL that that entails, but I’ve lived here for almost 8 years and am equally terrified/nervous about returning “home” to Canada. You’ve articulated my fears perfectly. I have taken your essay to heart, and am sure I’ll come back to it time and again as we prepare for our own cross-continental, cross-cultural move.

  • macrain

    After over 10 years living in New York City, I uprooted my whole life and left (with no job) over the summer. My family and I now live in a small suburb outside of Charlotte, NC.
    One thing I’ve noticed the most is that all my coping mechanisms (I mean-stuff I spent YEARS working on in therapy) have just all gone to shit. As I’m making my way through this life transition, I somehow don’t have the emotional bandwidth. It’s made for some rough times.
    And yea, that “wearing the wrong glasses” feeling- even when it’s a small thing, that small thing happens like a zillion times and it feels pretty disorienting. It can build up over time, and then something that usually wouldn’t phase you all that much turns into a huge deal.
    It has been 6 months. I’m wondering if things will feel remotely normal at the one year mark. Good reminder that it’s totally fine (expected, even) if they don’t.
    This piece gave me a lot to chew on. Thank you, Manya.

  • WanderWhat

    As a fellow RPCV living in DC, I feel this so much. I’ve been here 6 years and still struggle with so much of what you describe. I think this is a particularly hard place to be since it is so transient and can be hard to make friends and settle into a new life. The work style alone is also exhausting. Since I continue to work in Africa with frequent travel back, I feel like I can never get it right and am always trying to play catch up. I love your writing and can relate so much to your experiences. Since I’m probably a few years behind you, it also gives me a sense of what might be next. Thank you!