Going back to American has been a total mind fuck for me, sorry for the language but I seriously can’t think of anything else to describe it…. I knew when I joined the Peace Corps that I would be here in Armenia for 2 years and 3 months. Never did I think that during that time I would make my way back to America, nor did I want to. Not because I don’t love my family or miss them, but actually precisely because I do! I knew that going back would put me back into the American mindset, get me used to being around my family, and make it extremely difficult to continue my life here in Armenia. But my brother got married, so what choice did I have? And while I am so happy to have been able to spend time with my family and friends who I love and have missed so much, it has made returning to Armenia very difficult for me.
People always speak about reverse culture shock, that you will go back home and see it differently, and be a bit shell shocked by it. I never really truly believed in this, I mean I lived 26 years in America and only a year and a half in Armenia, so how can I feel odd in the place I spent most my life in???
Well I am not sure if I experienced reverse culture shock, but there were things that I just couldn’t get over! First and foremost America has really changed, especially with technology. Every single person has a smart phone now, and tons of people have IPads. When I left, iPhones were all the craze, but most people didn’t own one. While at church the pastor told us to take out our bibles or our electronic devices… I looked around to see if he was serious. I must have looked pretty confused as I saw people pulling out iPads and their smart phones to look up the bible verse, because my sister took her hand to my face and put my jaw back into place… I just couldn’t believe he was serious!!! Also while at church I couldn’t help but to be amazed at how tall Americans are. I have always known I am short and most are taller than me, but I never truly saw how tall our people are until my return. I guess living in a country where I have never once felt short, distorts your perception a bit. All I could do was scan the floor to see if the women were wearing heals, which they weren’t. I couldn’t understand how everyone could be so big!!! Church was really the most confusing experience I had all together. At church people of course smile a lot! As we were leaving the church people would smile as they walked by me and all I could think of was do I know that person? Why is she smiling at me? This brought me back to my first few months in Armenia, I would smile and say hello to everyone, and they would look at me confused or with disdain. I would think to myself how rude they were and want to go home and cry about it. I remember telling my mom, no one here wants to be my friend!! Now it’s just natural to me, if you don’t know someone you don’t talk to them or smile at them… how quickly I let go of my American ways!!
There were tons of small things here and there that took some getting used to again. For example while I was at a Starbucks a man stood behind me as if I was in line, though I wasn’t. So instead of me telling him oh I am not in line, I directed him to the line with my hands. I touched him. He looked back at me as if I had just made a pass at him, huge smile on his face, but I couldn’t figure out why until my mom told me, well you touched him… Americans enjoy personal space. Once again somewhere along the way a habit that I hated when I came here has become my nature. I didn’t even realize I got used to it, as I still hate when people touch me here!! I also stared at people as if they were aliens, something I hate when people do to me here, but I couldn’t stop myself back home. One guy was all tatted up and pretty scary- looking, so my eyes were just drawn to him. I kept thinking what the hell did he do to himself as I stared at the tattoo going across his eyes! He turned and gave me a dirty look, and I wasn’t even fazed, I kept staring. My mom gently reminded me that things like that can get you shot in LA… oh yeah...
I don’t really feel that this accounts for culture shock, because all of these things I knew somewhere inside of me, it’s more that I just forgot them and had to readjust to them.
Things that I couldn’t readjust to when I got home included American’s love of mean tabloids, something I use to enjoy reading. Now it just seems so cruel and evil to me. It disgusted me to see them lined up in the grocery stores. Also our obsession with weight, especially in Los Angeles. Most girls gain about 10 pounds in the Peace Corps while the men lose about 20, something about the way we handle stress, and I am no different. But I have never felt overweight in Armenia. I knew I had gained weight but I didn’t really feel like it made a difference. All of a sudden back in LA all I could think about was my weight. I don’t know why or how it automatically switched back to that mentality, but it was scary to me. Everything is weight centered in Los Angeles, even at the supermarket you are flooded with diet products which are basically telling you be careful about what you eat or you will be fat, and fat is ugly. Armenians don’t feel that fat is ugly. Sure there are girls with eating disorders here that strive to be skinner, but women here come in all sizes and shapes and the general view is a pretty girl is pretty no matter how much she weighs… Looking through magazines was the most shocking thing to me. Not a single girl looked normal to my eyes. They were all sooo skinny. I really could not get over it, and talked about it to the point where my family was pretty sick of hearing it, but it really just got to me.
One of the most surprising things that I discovered while back home was just how much I identify with the Armenian culture now. A number of times I caught myself explaining, “my culture” to people, as if I were truly Armenian! I longed to meet Armenians and speak to them in Armenian, and to listen to Armenian music and to share the Armenian culture with my family and friends. I wanted to shake people and tell them no listen to me, learn about my country, ask me questions and I will tell you how amazing it is, but for the most part no one really wanted to listen. It was difficult to see that no one really cares about this different life I live over here, they kind of just expect you to be the old you, but how can you be?? Every time I would hear someone complain about life, I wanted to tell them why they should be happy to be American, and about how difficult life is for the Armenians.
One of the happiest moments I had back home was while shopping at a jewelry store I looked up and noticed the man had a bunch of evil eyes hanging over the cash register. I looked at him and immediately knew he was Armenian. I asked him if he was and we just erupted into conversation. He couldn’t believe that I lived in Armenia and that I could speak the language. He called his grandfather and sister over and we all just began talking about Armenia with such joy. My mom and cousin stood by probably pretty confused as the whole conversation was in Armenian. I have never really had confidence in my Armenian skills because though I know the language and understand it, people here have a hard time understanding me, but this couldn’t be further from the truth in L.A. They understood everything I said, and even complimented my accent. I think that they learn Armenian out of Armenia and speak it with an American accent so they have the same ear for it that I have which makes pronunciation difficult. Anyways, suddenly a ten minute trip turned into 2 hours and I couldn’t have been happier just to spend my time with them talking about the old country =)
Armenia has really become a part of my soul, and I indentify with her and her people in so many ways, but somehow all of this was intensified while back home. I am so thankful for this experience that the United States government has given me. I am so thankful for the Peace Corps for selecting me to be an ambassador of my country to the Armenian people, but also for allowing me to give a voice and a face to the Armenian people for Americans. I am really very blessed to be where I am doing what I am doing, which going to America only reaffirmed for me. Sure I miss having hot water at my fingertips, (really I miss it quite a bit) or having a heater that actually keeps me warm, but coming back to Armenia and having a Armenian best friend greet me at the airport, a school who rejoiced in my return on my first day back rushing to hug and kiss me and tell me how beautiful I got again (yes implying that I was ugly for awhile here), and people in the streets of Spitak calling out bari galust to me (welcome) is second to no other experience in the world and I couldn’t be happier to be back and to complete my service.