I’m 2 months into the re-entry process! It’s not that hard, but it can be. I’m not crying every day, but sometimes I wish I was because it’d be easier to explain. It’s been a mostly wonderful time, speckled with some really difficult interactions.
Most of the culture shock subsided pretty quickly, and now I’m left with these internal changes that are here to stay. I learned things and saw things that changed my worldview. Most people are quick to focus on the patients I worked with and the afflictions I saw in West Africa. However, I also interacted with the local culture outside of the hospital. That affected me just as much as the diseases I saw left untreated.
My view of poverty
There are rich and poor in every country. Not only that, but just because someone is poor doesn’t mean they live in squalor. It’s possible to be poor and take pride in where you live. It’s possible to be poorer than the average American and still have a wonderful family, go to church, participate and engage with your community, or otherwise live a life of meaning. Not every “poor” person wants to live like you do. It’s possible to live in a grass hut and be confident that your grass hut is the most kick-ass hut on the block. Just because someone lives in a way that looks “poor” to an American, doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with it.
My knowledge of geography
I have a MUCH better sense of geography. It’s embarrassing how little I knew about other nations before I joined Mercy Ships. I had no idea where Madagascar or Benin was. I couldn’t have told you a single African nation, except Ghana, and maybe Egypt. Now I have a much better idea of the countries within Europe, South America, and Africa, although I still have a long way to go with Asia.
We are all the same
Traveling helped me see how much people have in common. I don’t see others as “the other” as often. I accept that there may be many parts of their culture that I don’t know or understand. But I also recognize that they are probably proud to share their culture. In spite of the obvious differences between us, I find it easier to recognize the similarities. Finding work, providing for a spouse or a family, being accepted in a community, joy for new babies and sorrow for deceased relatives, discomfort at not understanding the cultural norms of a new community, isolation when you feel like the “other”… these are all universal and cross every culture.
I hate plastic
There is something about seeing piles of trash everywhere, and noticing that most of it is plastic… that made me sick and hopeless about the state of our precious planet Earth. I lived in the port, on a ship, and when it rained, I’d watch waves lap against the side of our ship. These waves were made up entirely of plastic bags, plastic bottles, and more. Plastic takes decades to break down, and many plastic items are marketed as convenient and disposable. The more plastic trash I saw piled high in poor communities that had virtually no options for plastic alternatives, the more I felt compelled to make a difference. I haven’t made any drastic changes to my lifestyle yet, but I’m hypersensitive to the ways we could be using less plastic.
more than a cool trip
One of the frustrating parts of coming home after a long time experiencing a new culture is the way people categorize my trip. One of the most frustrating questions someone can ask is, “Did you have a good trip?” because it indicates that they don’t see it as a part of my life. The 4 lessons I learned above are going to be a part of my life forever. I left one way and returned 3 years older with a host of new experiences to process and learn from. It was so much more than a “trip”. So much better, in fact!