Minute with Mike - Back Home

This article submitted by Michael Jacobson on 1/5/99.

I havenít been very good at writing lately. Iíd like to claim that I was busy, but itís a weak excuse.

In my last year as a Peace Corps volunteer in Papua New Guinea, I kept busy. I taught mathematics at a rural government high school. We had 350 students in grades 7 through 10, all boarders because of the lack of transportation. We started the year with only eight teachers, not enough to even cover all the classes. The high point for the year was having 13 teachers at once, but I think that lasted about two weeks. We had other teachers who did not perform their jobs, leaving the core teachers feeling overburdened and overworked. That seems strange now, because even though I also organized the library in my free time I didnít work very strenuously by Minnesota standards. I had adjusted myself to the slower pace of life though, so I felt really busy.

I stayed until our grade 10 graduation in October and got back to Minnesota just before Thanksgiving. This is when I just got lazy. Iíve been trying to motivate myself to write for several weeks now, but havenít got it done. Until now.

Since I got back Iíve been asked frequently about culture shock. I have a difficult time answering it. Certainly the physical environment is vastly different to my home in PNG: roads, food, electricity, televisions, computers, phones, stores, clothes, shoes. It is strange to compare things here to PNG.

Letís take some examples about the telephone. When my sister met me in San Francisco, she had 27 voice mail messages after missing two days of work. I doubt if I talked on the phone that many times in the 30 months I spent overseas. Or at my friendsí house, they barely answered their phone in the evening, not wanting to be inconvenienced by telemarketers.

A working phone as an inconvenience? In Lumi, there were five phones, but they rarely worked this past year. Some landowners disabled a relay station in a compensation dispute and that cut us off for months. A Telecom worker would have had to come by plane, so repairs were few and far between. Imagine my astonishment when my aunt could get her phone hooked up at a new location with the same number in a matter of hours.

I guess they call it ďreverseĒ culture shock, and itís not the same as adjusting to an entirely new culture. I mean, how shocked can you be by a place where youíve lived for a quarter century? I havenít been gone that long. Something may puzzle me at first, but if I jog my memory normally I can place it. Driving through the student parking lot at the high school and counting 100 cars seemed absurd when Lumi has maybe a dozen working cars, and thatís using a loose definition of ďworking.Ē But I had a car there when I was in high school. It wasnít really a surprise.

One surprise is all the people who have asked me about the wastefulness of our society. Itís not exactly a secret, but itís harder to change. Weíre incredibly rich, and that can be incredibly seductive. Iíve overeaten for two straight months. Iíve enjoyed television, my car, and my electric blanket.

Another shock is the weather. I enjoyed that warm spell in early December, not quite sure how I got it in my bags in PNG and through customs, but if I figure it out Iíll let you know so you can bring a warm spell back with you from that January trip to Cancun. Anyway, mine didnít last long enough. Sunday I spent shivering in the house wearing sweatpants and long underwear, and I just about roasted my mother out of the house with a roaring fire.

One major difference between coming home and leaving home is the company. I went to Papua New Guinea with 46 other volunteers. Our sense of adventure was high, and we faced the same challenges together. Coming home was a very solitary experience. First, I had to say goodbye to all my friends in Lumi. That was hard because they were such an important part of my life for two years and because maintaining those friendships was going to be so difficult. Then I came home to a busy world where I felt like an outsider.

I felt numb as soon as I left my site. I was no longer a teacher, a volunteer, a resident of Papua New Guinea, and a respected member of the Lumi community. My identity was stripped as soon as I boarded that Twin Otter plane and left Lumi, leaving my students waving along the airstrip. As hard as it was to be across the globe, as frustrating as school mismanagement could be, I didnít want it to end, to become a former teacher.

ďIím jealous,Ē Val Aas, a Paynesville native who had just returned from serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon, told me before I left two years ago, ďbecause youíve got it all in front of you.Ē Now I fully understand her envy.

Iím having a hard time putting it behind me. Iím having a hard time cutting my ties to PNG, which are largely mental. When I think about my students--cutting grass by hand at 6 a.m., eating rice and fish 14 times a week, living away from home, busting their butts to get ahead and receiving only part-time teaching--I want to be their math teacher again. Thatís easier desired than realized, and itís not a wholehearted desire.

Iím readjusting slowly, deliberately. First, I need to convince myself itís really over.

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