I’d been home twice during my Peace Corps tenure in Nicaragua. The first time, I went after serving just a little under a year and the second time was after living in Nicaragua for a year and nine months.
What I remember about the first trip was worrying about not staying too long so my Spanish wouldn’t revert while I was gone. I didn’t worry too much about anything else and when it was time to return, I remember hugging my parents and leaving again with no difficulty at all.
This second time however was beyond difficult. I remember with distinction the moment I set foot in New Jersey. My layover in Houston was easy. I spoke in Spanish the entire time I was there from ordering food to returning to my terminal. But New Jersey felt foreign, from its artificial lighting to the incredible amount of white people and the absence of Spanish. I remember thinking to myself, “I want to go home” and I didn’t mean North Carolina. I meant Estelí, Nicaragua with Madre Vilma and my little cement bedroom where I’d been living for almost two years. That home.
I ended up missing my flight and having to spend the night in the airport. No, that wasn’t fun, but it gave me silence to think. I really consider Nicaragua my home now and the thought made me instantly feel guilty, like somehow I had betrayed my country.
How could the country of my birth feel like a too tight skin? It was itchy, uncomfortable and hot. I didn’t like the way all the air was controlled. I felt either too hot or too cold. I hated how everyone was on their phones and not interacting. I kept forgetting there was a sewage system and it was safe to flush my toilet paper. There wasn’t any smell of food I recognized or Latin music playing in the background. The entire country felt eerily quiet. And the one that is most selfish is that I missed how people acknowledged me.
In Nicaragua, I am seen. Whether for my foreignness or the respect I received for my membership in my community, there is no time when people walk past me and ignore me. But in the United States they do. Here, I feel valued and accomplished. I am both respected for being here, working hard in my community, having a degree (which 90% in my community don’t have) and my intellect.
In America, I’m just another black girl.
Going back, I felt the coolness of being a nobody again and I didn’t like it. I don’t think that makes me egocentric at all. It’s just the truth.
My family, on several different occasions, looked at me strangely while I was home. Or told me, “You are not Nicaraguan.” But I feel like I am. From my Nica-isms like pointing at things with my lips to not understanding American pop culture references to the random times I would try to translate something directly from Spanish to English and it didn’t translate well. For example, we were talking about me knowing someone and, to try to remember, I asked, “Is she pale?” My family immediately looked at me strangely and laughed. “Pale? Do you mean is she light-skinned?” I felt embarrassed and tried to explain. Being pale-skinned in Nicaragua is a way of identifying someone. They’re chele. It’s more than being black or white.
But how can I explain an entirely different culture? Or how much that culture means to me?
My holidays have been spent somewhere between feeling like an imposter and feeling guilty for using things that are of minor convenience like taking a bath, knowing that amount of water could give my family in Nicaragua clean water for a month.
I’ve embraced the Nicaraguan ways. Pointing with your lips is faster than pointing with your hands. Saying “how” (como) instead of saying “what?” (que) is more polite when you don’t understand something. Knowing your actual neighbors and being a large family is economically better and it means you don’t ever have to worry about not having enough to live on.
Things in Nicaragua makes sense to me while the only other place I’ve known in the entire world is starting to make none… and I have to reconcile that with myself in the next three months because I’m about to close my service. That makes me scared and nervous. How will my first home welcome me? How will I feel knowing I won’t return to my second home for, at the very minimum, a year?
I have heard from other Peace Corps Volunteers that your community never forgets you, that serving gives you a permanent home in the country of your service and I am both grateful and heartbroken that I will be leaving soon.
I can remember first arriving in Nicaragua and feeling like a sticker that has been awkwardly pasted somewhere it’s not supposed to be. I remember confronting how I felt about my blackness, people touching my hair and never being able to hide. But those things have made me face myself and now, I feel more myself in Nicaragua – from my natural hair, my looks and my acceptance of two tongues – than I have ever felt in the United States.
Who knew reverse culture shock would be this hard?