Coming to America Pandemic Edition: Hard Landing

I have struggled to write this post, to describe what it is like to come back to the US after four years in Malawi. I think of what some might say — I mean, I am American, how hard can it be to come back my home country? Two decades ago, as I prepared to return to the US after three years in Japan, I expressed concerns about the transition to a person who knew me well. After all, I had lived in a small town in rural Japan with one restaurant and few people who spoke English for a significant period of time. The national news in Japan would lead with stories like the cherry blossom forecast or the mating of two rare cranes. The news for Washington, DC, alone would lead with a shooting or a traffic accident. My friend told me it was silly to worry, that I had been “brainwashed” to think otherwise.

I had not been brainwashed, of course. Instead, I was preparing myself for the inevitable culture shock of returning home, to a place that would seem familiar, but not quite. That would seem strange in unexpected ways. Where I would not quite fit in.

Reverse culture shock is not something new for me.  In early 1995, I struggled with the disparities after returning from seven months study abroad in Beijing.  The China of the early 1990s, even in the capital, was not the China of today.  There was one phone on our dormitory hall. In winter, we filled our large thermoses with hot water heated in the coal fired oven located in the shed across from our dorm. I bought my yogurt in little glass bottles from a small store near campus. It came in three flavors: plain, strawberry, and pineapple. I would ride with two of the glass bottles clinking in the basket of an old bicycle to class. I stood out with my blonde hair. People stared at me. If I stopped to buy something, at least ten Chinese stopped to watch me buy that something. I had random people pet my pale freckled arm – usually without asking. Once a proprietress of a small shop suddenly leapt over her glass counter to grab my hair. She had not looked like a person with the reflexes and speed of a panther, but I had been wrong. Back in the US, I found myself often standing stock still in front of certain sections of the supermarket paralyzed by choice or simply wandering the aisles for an hour or so but leaving with nothing.  I became invisible – not a single person seemed to notice me at all. For months on end, I also refused to get my hair cut because the prices in the US were so much higher than in Beijing, where I not only would get a decent cut but also a marvelous 30-minute head and neck massage.  American salons could not compete.  And it pissed me off for a few months.

But later I either spent less time in the U.S. between my overseas gigs – a direct transfer from South Korea to the Philippines, only three months between the Philippines and Japan, or following my three years in rural Japan I opted to spend a year of backpacking around the world before grad school in California, to lessen the shock – or maybe the cities I found myself in overseas were increasingly developed so that the “shock” between them and the US lessened? Or maybe I just grew more accustomed to the differences?

But this time it was different.  Not only had we spent the past four years living in one of the world’s poorest countries in southern Africa, but also with the COVID pandemic we had not visited the US in two years.  We had not traveled off the African continent in a year and a half, with the vast majority of the time spent not only in Malawi, but just in and around our home in Lilongwe. 

After a month of home leave in Florida, during which we had no real schedule and, despite some paperwork and medical appointments, was largely unstructured and restful, it was time to settle in some. Once we arrived in Arlington, Virginia, to check into our State Department provided housing for my training though, things changed. And some of those things that had seemed so spectacular in the initial weeks began to feel less so. I boiled down the adjustment to a few key categories.

Drastic Differences

No surprise here, but the level of development in Malawi is far lower than that of the US. In Arlington, we moved into our apartment in a 21-story building surrounded by buildings of a similar size. In Malawi, the tallest building in the country, the Walmont Hotel in Lilongwe, stood at 12 stories. The country might boast a few other similarly sized buildings at perhaps six or eight or 10 stories, but they are few and far between. Where they stand, they stand out. Four lane or even six lane roads are the norm in the US; I can see the junction of two just from my apartment window. Yet, in Malawi these are rare. When after taking nearly the entire four years we were in Lilongwe, the Malawian government at last completed the Area 18 interchange and “dual carriageway,” it was the first overpass and cloverleaf roadway in the entire country. Though the country’s second city Blantyre and third city Mzuzu also have one or two roads that are more than one lane, these cover short distances. The Area 18 project stretched only 4.6 kilometers, just short of three miles! And the developmental differences are everywhere. From sidewalks to streetlights, what may be ubiquitous in the US is often rare in Malawi.

Something as simple as drinking water for example. Many Americans take it for granted they will turn on their taps and clean, potable water will spew forth. Though some may dislike the taste and will opt to further filter or flavor their water, one can just drink it straight from the tap. This is not the case in many places in the developing world. And emergency services! We might complain about how long it takes for an ambulance to arrive (and I realize that what community you are calling from in the US may certainly impact when, and maybe if, one comes), but generally they come. Moving into our apartment, C and I immediately found ourselves irritated by the regular sounds of ambulance, police, and fire vehicles. We seemed to be surrounded by emergencies day and night. But the issue for Lilongwe was not that there were not emergencies, of course not, but rather that the emergency services had limited capacity and resources. I read, for example, there only four fire stations in the whole of Malawi. FOUR for a country of 19 million. Arlington County in Virginia has nine fire stations and nine fire engines for a quarter of a million people. There might be seven fire engines in the entirety of Lilongwe – urban and rural areas – and at any given time, maybe half of them are working. The same can be said for ambulances and the police. Once I realized this, I was no longer irritated at the sound of the sirens. I am grateful they are there.

Spoiled for Choice

There is so much choice in America. Take apples. Do you want Gala? Red Delicious? Fuji? Honeycrisp? Golden Delicious? Or maybe Granny Smith? Do you want to pick them out yourself or buy pre-bagged? How about regular or organic? Or maybe you are looking for yogurt. Which brand do you want? Yoplait? Chobani? Fage? Stonyfield? Or Danone? Will you want Greek style? Are you in search of the regular flavors like strawberry, vanilla, coconut, raspberry or perhaps something with more pizzazz like key lime pie, strawberry cheesecake, or piña colada? Full fat, low fat, or fat free? Pre-mixed, fruit at the bottom, or perhaps with a side of granola? It is not as if Malawi had no choice – there were a few types of apples, there were yogurt options. But no where near the dizzying choices facing one every day in an American supermarket. And then which supermarket? And how will you get your groceries – will you go to the supermarket yourself or have it delivered? And if delivered, by whom?

And it is not just the supermarkets. There are the transportation options: personal car, taxi, subway, bus, bicycle, scooter, or a ride hailing company – and even in this last category one must decide if Uber of Lyft is more your speed. There are so many cuisine options and restaurants serving those cuisines. Or services delivering the restaurant foods to you.

And it feels ridiculous to write all this out. Americans know they have access to these options. And I AM AMERICAN. Yet it feels so bewildering. Indulgent. At times even indecent that we have so much available to us.

Loss of Identity / Fear of Missing Out

This feeling may be harder to explain. I am currently being paid to be in long-term training. Taking functional and then language training for my next assignment is my full time, paid, job. I am even provided housing, nice housing, in fact (see photo of apartment building above). This is a really, really, really nice perk of the job. It is also important to help me to prepare to do my job well.

But boy did I start to miss my old job. For four years I was the political officer at the US Embassy in Malawi. And politically, it was an exciting four years: campaigns and campaign machinations, a national election, demonstrations, a constitutional court case that overturned the presidential election, an unsurprising appeal, then a landmark Supreme Court decision upholding the lower court’s ruling, more campaigning, more machinations, a historic election, and the Economist naming Malawi the 2020 Country of the Year. I had a front seat to history and these elections were only a small part of the work. Work that was challenging, with wins and losses, but largely satisfying. And then suddenly, I am no longer the political officer; I am just a student.

This feeling was further augmented with the sudden and very dramatic US departure from Afghanistan. A colleague I served with in China posted her status to friends and family as she and others departed the Embassy in Kabul and then the airport as the Taliban took control. Another I served with in Mexico headed to Kabul for the final airport evacuations. Other friends and colleagues volunteered to provide support at Dulles Airport and Fort Lee in Virginia, and in Washington or in locations such as Abu Dhabi and Doha. I know there will be analyses and commentary on the handling of Afghanistan for years and decades to come, but the work of those I know was nothing short of extraordinary in incredibly trying times. I am very proud of them. And I know 100% that nothing associated with Afghanistan is about me. And yet, it felt incredibly odd, even wrong, to sit on the sidelines.

Then a few weeks later the military staged a coup in Guinea, my next assignment. I could close my eyes and understand how my colleagues there were jumping into action. But I had no involvement; I am not yet there and I had classes to attend.

There has also been an opening in some places, a return to travel. I see friends back in Malawi heading out on safari or to Victoria Falls in neighboring Zambia. Other friends, having arrived in Cambodia for their new tour a few months before, visited Angkor Wat. A friend in Egypt visited the pyramids around Cairo and then headed down the Nile to Luxor. Others when to Italy or the Maldives.

I really miss travel. Deeply. I miss the trips that we were to take that were cancelled. The trips I had yet to put into action that could not happen. And while in training at the Foreign Service Institute, the policy is that students cannot take annual leave for time off, so there will be no travel during our time here.

It is not just a “Fear of Missing Out” (or FOMO). I AM missing out. My identity as a political officer and a traveler are currently on hold.

COVID-19 Effects

Honestly, I am not quite ready to travel again. With C yet unvaccinated and rules for who can go where and what they need to test for or prove beforehand change regularly, even travel planning does not yet again give me the joy it once did. Our home leave was spent in Jacksonville, Florida, when the city became the epicenter of the surge in the Delta variant. C started school in northern Virginia in this climate. I am grateful my daughter can attend school in person, but the daily survey sent to us by text and email is a stark and regular reminder that the pandemic is still very much here. As the US deaths from COVID-19 approached 600,000 a friend of mine in Michigan reached out with a request: a friend of a friend wanted a flag placed in memory of a loved one in an art installation on the Washington Mall. Would I be able to assist? An hour later I found myself kneeling in the grass on the Mall surrounded by the sight and sounds of hundreds of thousands of white flags as I placed one more into the soft ground.

And normally when returning to the US for training, one would run into friends and colleagues in the cafeteria and halls of the Foreign Service Institute. But with training still virtual I am not running into anyone. For an introvert, it is somewhat freeing. But it is also continuing the isolation.

I do not mean all or even any of this is negative; it just is. There has been reverse culture shock. It has been a harder transition than past ones. It is taking time to readjust. I do miss the responsibilities of my old job. But I am still a diplomat. I am still a mom. Instead of an expat, I am now a resident of the US; I am now a student. I am getting used to doing other things. There are so many great things about being home. And by the time I start feeling pretty comfortable, it will be time to make another move.

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