Re-entry, Round Two: Run, Run, American Runners

Look at that poor orangutan that can’t get along well with its orangutan friends anymore! This post is going to be about reverse culture shock and what has been stressing me out lately, “lately” being since July 9th, when I arrived in the US from Indoland.

It has been nearly three weeks since I left Indonesia; I had been in-country for 10 months, with no trips back to the US and but one brief trip out of country. I’ll be home in the US for the next two months or so–visiting friends and family, enjoying the Midwestern summer, partaking of various gourmet cheeses (alcoholic beverages, oven-baked breads, spinach salads, pasta dinners…) while waiting for my sister’s wedding in September. Two days after that, it’s back to Java for me!

The first time I “came back” after a significant amount of time out of the States was when I returned from Peace Corps service in mid-2012. I had been out of country for twenty-seven months by that time, and I figured that the “reverse culture shock”–the culture shock and eventual (re)adaptation process one experiences when returning to one’s own culture from time in another–would be substantial. Butt wasn’t! I had heard of people returning to the USA from Peace Corps service standing in places like Wal-Mart and bursting into tears because of the wealth of options and the opulence of American consumer capitalism, and I had heard too of people being traumatized by leaving behind their friends and families in their host countries and not being able to fit in with their old friend groups at all because nobody could relate to one anothers’ experiences. I didn’t go through much of this type of thing, and it’s probably because I made the (questionable) choice to sit on my mom’s couch drinking beer all summer after getting back from Java after service ended.

For me, the reverse culture shock at that time came in a form I didn’t really expect–just seeing how much everyone had changed, especially my younger sister and my two closest friends. My sister had gone from 19 to 21 and had experienced a lot of big challenges in her life that I hadn’t been there to help her through, and my two dear friends had had a first and second child each. Of course, I went with the flow, but it was hard to realize that what I had dreamed of coming back to–the life that I left behind–wasn’t something I’d be able to actually find. Of course, I had changed, too, and I knew that the USA wasn’t just waiting for me to get back. But that knowledge didn’t change the fact that I had to face the emotional realities of not being able to come home to lots of what I had been homesick for. So, I had to work on my relationships and focus on what I could do to move forward together with my friends and family in light of everyone’s big changes and developments. And that’s what I did, and by and large it was fine–I lost a few friends by becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer because sometimes you just can’t keep your bonds as strong and moving great distances apart changes things, but the people who stuck by me during my tough times in Peace Corps were easy for me to stick by with in the States, and putting the “work” in was an easy thing.

[Astonished aside: Sometimes I’m amazed by just how radically Peace Corps service has affected my life. I’m still processing everything that I experienced, not only in terms of in-country adventures but also in terms of what moving abroad in your early 20’s for a relatively long period of time does for your social and personal life, both at the time and in the wake of it.]

So, what has me thinking about all of this again now is my present experience coming home from Indonesia after ten months as a Fulbright student. Having been through re-entry once before, I knew a little more about what to expect. The second time ’round was bound to be easier; I knew that people would have changed, I knew what my feelings would be, and I knew I wouldn’t be “coming home” to what I left behind me last summer.

Because I felt ready to deal with the challenges re-entry would inevitably pose to my family life and other relationships, what ended up striking me during my first couple of days and weeks in the States this time seems to be more on the cultural rather than interpersonal level. I had big-time culture shock when I came back from my first trip overseas to Europe at age sixteen, and my current reaction to coming back home feels more similar to that than when I returned from Peace Corps service.

The first things I noticed are connected, I think, because of what they illustrate to me about some basic elements of the everyday American cultural reality, whatever ‘everyday American’ may mean. I’m referring to the general sociocultural feeling of being in America–not necessarily even being an American–if a “sociocultural feeling” can be considered a thing. I really don’t want to use this language, feeling, but I think what I’m tuning in to is indeed the energy of being here, which presents itself to me as a feeling. And it’s worth noting that much of what I’m feeling is coming from people rather than the land itself.

I can hear my grad advisor groaning as he reads, but I think that “vibration” might be the best term to describe what I’m getting at. Cultural, political, and religious differences influence one’s experiences in various places, that much is clear, and I think the cultural, political, religious, social (etc etc) realities of a place/people/culture are what people are getting at when they talk about a “vibration”; Java and Midwestern American have different vibes, and Americans and Javanese have different vibes. It’s all sociocultural–all related to worldview and language, religion and spirituality, ways of knowing and ways of relating to others, concepts of self and friend and family in individualistic and collectivistic cultures, etc. etc.–and taken together these form the sensory atmosphere in which we experience the “feeling” of a culture as well as the “feeling” of culture or of culture shock / reverse culture shock.*

I can’t even consider myself to be an independent variable in this whole situation. I’m different when I’m in the US and when I’m in Indonesia; what’s interesting to me is the way that my perceptions and senses have apparently changed after spending time overseas, outside of my ‘native’ culture. So, a few generalized but from my perspective fair statements, with the usual caveat that these statements reflect my own specific experiences in certain physical locations and within specific sub-cultures of the US and Indonesia: Javanese culture is outwardly more sensitive and empathetic than American culture, emotional sensitivity and emotional intelligence (especially the ability to empathize and sympathize with others) tend to be more highly valued as positive and dare I say essential character attributes, and inability to empathize leads to social problems. It seems that in some ways in the US, empathy is the worst trait one can have! I’m thinking specifically in terms of money-lust, capitalism, business/office/boardroom culture, etc etc. I think I’ve always been a sensitive person and perhaps by American standards slightly above-average on the sensitivity/empathy scale, and it’s been something that for some time has made me feel bad about myself: it’s weakness. That’s not very fair, is it? But our culture prefers and rewards the alpha male type personality, and empathy is not part of his mental framework or at least isn’t what he displays openly to those around him. So, living in Indonesia allowed me to feel valued for the characteristics due to which I’ve often been made to feel inferior in the States, and this means I’ve been able not only to reconsider my feelings towards these characteristics but also to cultivate them even more deeply as positive behavioral traits that reap social (and economic) rewards. And when I’m in the States, I mentally displace myself even further because I feel less “in place.” When I’m in the Javanese cultural environment, I feel a little more socially at ease. I’m not the first person to ever experience a better “fit” in a different culture than that in which they were raised, but still I like to tease out why precisely for me I am so attracted to the deeper elements of the culture (i.e. not “just” well, I like the food, I like the dress, I like the music…). And of course I wonder what my Javanese friends would say about whether I “fit” or not, but the number of times I’ve been called an American Javanese is an indicator that by and large they are surprised by how well I jive with what’s going on over there–how well I respond to or reflect the vibe. Of course, I’ll always be an American and certain things about my cultural personality (especially social values) will never change–if I can say “cultural personality” is a thing–and I’m actually an American, but the point remains: cultural code switching is a thing, and aspects of each persona can be affected as the other develops or withers in various ways. Plus, there are things about being an American that I like and things about “being” Javanese that I don’t like so much. Basically, the point of this paragraph is to say that I’m not a neutral instrument which can measure the “vibe” of a certain place, and I don’t even want to start to talk about something as wishy-washy-woo-woo as a “vibe” without pondering the instrument that’s receiving or reading the environment, i.e me.

Maybe it’s just the essence of culture shock: we start at point A, experience something new and move to point B, and then point A isn’t a thing anymore but it’s rather something new–point C–and this is because our worldview has changed, our personality has changed, and much of what we’ve come to realize is that nothing is ever as it seems (or at least we can never get full understanding of the world) and that what we gained and lost while at point B will influence what we see, experience, and reflect about regarding both points A and C. Sometimes I think I spend a lot of the time stating the obvious for myself in these blogs, but I gotta say I like working through stuff on my own, even if all of this isn’t news to anyone else. Blog = therapy these days.

What has been shocking me lately, anyways? Eighteen hundred words into this post and I haven’t even started discussing it yet. The two things that hit me–I think I mentioned two things being the focus earlier in the post–were the TSA people in the Detroit airport and every single runner I saw in Charlotte during the week I was at my folks’ place.

Perhaps the Detroit airport TSA staff thing doesn’t need much explaining, but I gotta work through it: these people were stressed. Everyone was stressed–irritated, frowny, rushed. They were talking to one another in that weird American way that people do: I’m telling you something nicely and I’m using nice words, but what I’m really saying is “you’re an idiot, and I’m right.” Have you felt what I’m getting at? Condescension! Americans are the best at it. That’s because they don’t know how to empathize and they generally think they’re right! Not listening to others and having be and/or make yourself right all the time? It’s no wonder people are stressed. In individualistic cultures like “ours,” people are held personally accountable for their mistakes and rewarded on the individual level for setting themselves apart from the pack–everything is basically do or die, life or death! That sends the individual into a frenzy of nervousness, and I’m pretty sure that’s because life’s not meant to be like that. It’s nice that individuals are generally responsible because of this–I feel safer with TSA employees than I do with Indonesian security personnel, although that may not be because of strictly cultural reasons but probably has a lot to do with training and preparedness (even though TSA employees apparently are terrible at their jobs)–but it means that each individual “unit” of the culture is more stressed and strained, and collectively what we get is the general feeling or “vibe” of heightened stress. Detroit was my first transit point in the US and my first moment of “re-entry” into Americaland, and boy I felt my blood pressure rise immediately upon exposure to these poor TSA people. I could see others from my flight–especially the crown of Japanese people getting to Detroit from Tokyo, from whence we had departed–stressing out, too. And what’s the use, man?? We’ll all get through our lines. Why can’t you throw me a smile? … because you’re stressed out of your mind, that’s why.

The second thing that’s been stressing me out, as I said, are the damn runners. Fuck those runners! I’ve been getting into a really great exercise routine in Java, and I am gonna go ahead and call bullshit on all the people who say they love running so much and it feels so good and they get high from it! Maybe there are some people that do, but there are surely lots more who do the running and talk about loving it because they really hate it and hate themselves and want to keep up appearances. I used to run, and it was victorious, but it wasn’t anywhere near what I’d call a “fun” activity. I know we all have different goals and values and exercise routines are really personal, but hip hop and belly dance are objectively more fun as exercise than running. Okay, I have to call bullshit on myself because there’s probably not any such thing as objectively anything, but there you have it. My thoughts on the matter. I rarely see Indonesians running for exercise. Much more common are group activities–again, individualistic vs. collectivistic!–such as badminton (which I also happen to play weekly with my Indonesian pals and some other expats/foreigners we know), soccer/futsal, and group fitness/aerobics things kind of along the Jazzercise lines. Exercise is way more fun and relaxed in Indonesia, and people generally seem to do it more for health than for physical appearance, even though it’s my own hater-prejudice towards Americans pushing me to say that we’re primarily doing it for the good looks rather than any other bullshit thing we say we want to achieve (by and large, of course). I got irritated at the runners because they looked so pissed at life. They looked irritated, they looked stressed, and they didn’t look like they were having any fun. (And people don’t generally look like they’re having a blast at the gym when they’re working out by themselves either, but that’s a side note.) People running around angrily make me feel stressed and sad for them as individuals. Seeing them makes me feel stressed about being back in my own culture and facing it’s beauty standards–in Indonesia, I can usually ignore beauty standards because I pretty much fit the model of being light-skinned, pointy-nosed, tall, and basically well-proportioned. (There are issues of power and privilege at play here, of course, but for better or for worse it’s nice to live in a place where I’m not constantly made to feel horrible about myself thanks to the media and other insane people.) I just want people to engage in activities that bring them more joy, and I know that joyful exercise is possible! I just get the vibe that Americans torture themselves so much, and it doesn’t have to be this way! There is another way! To each his own, but damn, ya’ll make me stressed. I worry about your knees, too, and your grumpy faces.

I assume those two examples are enough and that you can probably get what I’m getting at. I could do a comparative analysis of road culture and road rage in these two countries to illustrate further, but I bet you can gather what the gist of that would be.

So I feel like I have this trend going lately of burning myself out on these blogs and not being able to fully explain my thoughts and feelings and wanting to come back to it in the future but not really actually intending to. That’s okay. I think I said what I needed to say, and I think you get what the basic feeling here is. Overall, America stresses people out. If you’re American and you don’t realize that America is one of the major sources of your stress, then let this be enlightening for you! Leaving America didn’t by any stretch alleviate my stress in life, but I feel worse when I’m stressed in the States than when I’m stressed in Java, and most of the stress is from society/culture in the States and just me dealing with my personal stuff and/or homesickness when I’m in Java–not really related to society/culture. I’m sure there’s also a part of this connected to not taking so much so personally because at the end of the day it’s not my culture, and that needs to be acknowledged, too; it’s easier to let things slide and not get stressed when it’s not “yours.” But stress is a fact of life, and for me I feel spiritually-mentally-emotionally better dealing with it when it’s mine rather than mine-by-proxy because I get stressed from my culture or because of its vibes.

What do you think?
That’s all I got for now.
Sam

*Shock is an interesting term in and of itself because there are two manifestations, physical and mental/emotional, and my body reacts strongly to the shift in environment: atmosphere, barometric pressure, humidity, allergens, smells, sounds, AC systems…

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Mental/Emotional Blocks: Stress, Fear, the Undead, etc.

Make it through the mess that is the first half of this post and there’ll be a reward in the second half, I promise: pearls of wisdom from a survivor of the zombie apocalypse (ahem, me).

Here we go. For those of you who were born yesterday, allow me to start with a fun fact: I’m an expert at stressing myself out. I’m a professional, in fact. I work myself into fits by thinking about things obsessively, worrying about aspects of the future that aren’t really that pressing (even when they become the present), and failing miserably to find time and mental space for relaxation. Admittedly, this is unhealthy and neither necessary nor productive, which is unfortunate considering how good I am at it.

Over the past few months, this anxiety has been nearly crippling, and for the first time in my life it has actually done more harm than good; it’s been hard to channel the stress and pressure into productivity as I do in my usual routine. Normally, if the stress ends up making me do my work, I don’t conceptualize it as a problem. Now, the stress is preventing me from working, so I have started to beat myself up and make it worse—now, the stress is a problem. But that doesn’t actually make sense, does it?

It should be that I try to do something about unnecessary and unhealthy levels of stress regardless of whether I can logic them away by saying, oh, well at least I got my tasks done. It shouldn’t be the case that our culture or my own brain values the outcome or the product of my work to such an extent that the process by which it was achieved is basically irrelevant or of no concern. This is because it’s in those processes that our daily realities are experienced; life is lived from moment to moment, not from product to product or outcome to outcome.

Time and again my shortcomings prove to me how immature I am and probably always will be; no matter how many times I tell myself the simple facts of life—especially that it’s about the journey, not the destination (cheesy, I know, but we both know it’s true)—or recognize myself treating my friends with much better love, care, and compassion than I do my own self, I can’t seem to get any of it through my own thick head.

It’s conventional wisdom that failure brings us closer to full self-knowledge: of our limits, our emotional resilience, our mental fortitude. This post is going to be about failure, although I don’t think I’ve failed at anything, really. Maybe I have. I suppose at the present don’t feel like a failure, but I don’t feel like a success. I feel like I’ve made some important choices and that I’m going through a transition in my life, and I have an inkling that I’m going to be stronger when I come out on the other side. I feel like I do a lot of harmful things to myself in my own head, and perhaps I’m starting to go through the (painful) process of stopping some of these negative behaviors; perhaps I’m starting to change, perhaps I need to take a few steps backward to go forward.

But we’re never not broken; I’m not fooling myself that something called “progress” is going to lead to an outcome (of perfect health, a “new” self, spiritual and intellectual perfection or perfection of any kind…), because I’m not a product I need to produce. Maybe it’s cheesy again, but I think it’s better to conceptualize myself as a project and try to enjoy “working” on it for its own sake, not for the sake of the outcome or some future self that can never be.

I think my primary failure in life so far has been focusing too heavily on outcomes, products, scores, results, and the indulgent pleasure of holding out for that climactic moment of outward success and external validation.

It seems cheesy (again) to me, too, to consider the work I’ve been doing over the past two years with healers in Indiana and East Java as part of a process of my own journey towards healing. But I need to ask myself why do I find it so cheesy? Perhaps because I’m supposed to be a serious academic and approach the work as objectively as possible. I’m not supposed to be emotional, overly sensitive, weepy, feminine, weak, wrong, hurt. I should be doing the research because it’s objectively interesting—the justification of my studies isn’t supposed to be well, I subconsciously need my own healing and won’t let myself have it, so I’m doing this project to get myself closer to what I need so that maybe one day I’ll wake up and realize what’s really going on. I’m not supposed to need healing of any kind at all (per my own standards; it’s others who need that).

I’ve spent so much time investing in the tangible outcomes of the work I do in my outer life rather than on my own inner life that any spiritual/emotional work that I may need to do or try to do is irrelevant; the focus of life has been outcomes and measurable successes, not inner peace, which can’t be put on display to be given external validation. So…why all this?

It seems I can’t accept my own praise for anything. It’s not good enough if it’s only me who thinks it’s good. And what does that say about how I value myself? How I value my own opinion and trust myself? Nothing good, that’s for sure.

So, admitting we’re flawed and wounded and need help isn’t easy. I’ve never been one to deny that I’m flawed, but I’ve made it my prerogative to admit stuff without really admitting anything. For example, yeah, I make myself stressed and work myself into fits of anxiety for no reason. I need to work on it. I’m doing X, Y, and Z to help—knitting more, paying attention to self-care and giving myself indulgences, making time to do things outdoors. But…it’s just part of the game!! Showing other people that I’m so self-aware, so good at taking care of myself, so in tune with what’s up with me and what I need to do to cope with it if not make it all better. This means I can avoid doing the real work I probably need to do. All I do now is work hard to convince myself that I’m working hard and to convince myself that validation outside of me is going to be enough.

I think I need to learn to be truthful and stop being so unforgiving with myself; just because I think that other people have it more together than me doesn’t mean I’m the failure I think I am. And hey, having it together isn’t a thing anyways, is it? It’s okay to not be okay. Again, conventional wisdom, right? But I don’t allow myself the luxury of letting these simple things be true for me and my own life. The standards I have for myself (which of course I can never reach, because there’s never actually nor will there ever be an end point) don’t allow it. Again, why?

There are a lot of things I want to keep thinking and writing about related to all of these issues, but I don’t think I have time to explore them here and now, so let me get on with the important stuff.

Have you ever heard of the computer game “Plants vs. Zombies”? I played for the first time with Miss V the other night. Well, last night, actually, after I almost had a stupid breakdown about people looking out for me and trying to prevent me from having my wallet stolen (I interpreted their admonitions as overly controlling and invasive rather than loving and caring) and lost all motivation to do my hip hop class, promptly sending myself into a stressed-out-grumpy-funk. I went to the coffee shop with V to calm down and asked her if we could play some computer games. I played Minesweeper, Hearts, Mahjong—all these old classic Windows games. It felt great. I just love Minesweeper. But V finally got bored (she’s a gamer and has more refined game tastes than yours truly) and suggested we play Plants vs. Zombies to liven things up. Apparently the game is a hip thing; she was surprised I hadn’t ever heard of it since all the American Peace Corps trainees she worked with had.

We started to play. The purpose of the game is to ward off the zombies that are trying to attack your house. You do this by planting killer plants throughout the front yard to defend your homestead from the onslaught. You can choose sunflowers that grow money in the form of sunbeams, green flowers that shoot deadly peas, potatoes that explode, cherries that also explode, mushrooms that poof out deadly spores, and blue flowers that spit iceballs to slow down the zombies via partial freezing. You have to collect sunpower to “buy” these plants, and each plant that you get needs to be placed strategically in the yard so that it most effectively contributes to the pea-iceball-deadly-spore-exploding-potato-cherry zombie defensive. As she demonstrated for me how the game worked, Miss V was very diligent in placing her plants in a lovely order. Her garden-cum-yard was highly aesthetically pleasing to her—“indah,” she said. “Beautiful.” It was my turn next.

Admittedly, it was my first time, and I got excited. I was zealous. The zombies kept coming, and I hurriedly bought as many plants as possible, putting them down any which way and hoping for the best, sticking them in the dirt as fast as I could so I could get more. Of course, slapping killer plants all over every inch of the yard is effective, and the zombies were annihilated. But my garden lacked an aesthetic element.

“You’ve been so stressed lately. You’re stressed out even playing this game. Why can’t you make it beautiful?” Miss V was not pleased at my performance. I played a couple more times, continuing stubbornly to do what I wanted: just make it effective enough to pass the level. Didn’t matter about the process or how the garden looked.

The funny thing is that planting things nicely and planting things crappily take the same amount of time and ultimately result in the same efficiency re: zombie destruction, especially in the earlier stages of the game. So why wouldn’t I just take the time to plant the garden nicely? Why couldn’t I enjoy the process of choosing where to put the plants, what patterns to create, and putting a little effort into the beauty of the yard?

All of a sudden I felt very embarrassed at my behavior. I felt really wrong and really immature—and not for the reasons one would expect to feel immature when playing a plants vs. zombies computer game.

Finally, I decided to plant the garden nicely. At first—and I think now that this was wrong—it was to get praise from Miss V for following her advice. I like to make her happy and show her that I listen to and trust her. After I started and got a few “Good jobs, that’s the way to do it, that looks nice,” from Miss V, I felt better. I thought, well, now she knows I can do it. I thought, hey, she’s an expert in the game, and it’s good of me to take her advice…even though it doesn’t make a difference.

After a couple of rounds, I started to get pleasure from organizing the garden with aesthetic value in mind. I wasn’t focused on the zombies anymore like I was before—I wasn’t really worried about them at all. I was focusing instead on the patterns in the plants, the balance and symmetry of various rows and columns, and the patterns in the flying iceballs, peas, and poofs of spores I could create on the screen by strategically placing the deadly plants. Oddly enough, it became a meditation.*

I had to reflect on the change in my own mental state after I started planting with beauty in mind: I was significantly more relaxed—inwardly and outwardly—as soon as I started paying more attention to how I was doing what I was doing (rather than why I was doing it, i.e. for zombie killin’). Planting frantically and grabbing whatever I could and sticking it wherever in the yard I saw the first free spot made me feel like the zombies were coming faster, though that definitely wasn’t true. The strategy I was choosing to use created more stress for myself and didn’t change the outcome in the slightest; we still won the round, but we didn’t have the satisfaction of a beautiful lawn or a leisurely landscaping process. We won the rounds even if I planted crappily, but we felt frantic during the process (I was freaking out about getting things in place, and Miss V was going nuts at my haphazardness and carelessness). It wasn’t as much of a win as when we achieved the same outcome using a more thoughtful process with a more enjoyable approach.

So, I didn’t fail at the zombie game. And not failing meant paying attention to the journey, not the destination.

Isn’t it always just stupid shit that illuminates essential truths about life? And yet I still can’t get it sometimes. But that’s okay.

I wanted this post to be about failures, and I don’t feel I’ve yet expressed all I want to express. I also wanted to talk more about fear. But there’s more time later; this post is long enough. For now, badminton practice. Conventional wisdom strikes again: make a hobby of something you suck at to gain humility and perspective.

Sincerely,
Sam

*Maybe this is a stretch, but now as I write I’m reminded of zen gardening (karesansui).