I really did think that I would magically be a better driver upon my return to the good U.S. of A. That the days of panicking every time I have to merge onto the freeway were over; that I’d gotten my last traffic violation; that I would no longer be a human wrecking ball, careening into objects solid and stationary at speeds so awkwardly unimpressive that I couldn’t even really turn them into good stories later on.
Not so, my friends. Not so.
Two years away from home and one of the first things I noticed coming back was how much I changed while I was abroad – changes that were excruciatingly highlighted by the old habits I fell back into oh-so quickly.
The Saturday before my first week of school found me driving the winding back roads of San Diego County in absolute hysterics as I desperately searched for the turn-off that should have been on this hick-ville, dirt-road excuse for a major thoroughfare. (Sensing a little bitterness? Just a little? Wait, there’s more).
I actually maintained my calm surprisingly well, at first. I survived the London Underground, surely I could manage this.
A glance at the dashboard clock told me the Bridal Shower I was headed to had already begun. It wasn’t my fault that I was late, of course. It was simply that Google Maps had told me a bold-faced lie. (Google Maps has gone to absolute pot since I left the States, by the way. Totally useless).
But after driving narrow, sharply curved roads for half an hour (and passing signs that said “Welcome to Jamul” followed some time later by “Welcome to Dulzura”) I decided my best course of action would be to stop and ask an elderly motorbiking couple for directions. They were very sympathetic, considering the circumstances (they told me not to cry at least twice – if only they knew…) and pointed me back down the road I had just come from.
I drove for two hours before finally realizing that, even if I did find this place, the party would long be over. THAT’S when I started the water works. It was like college-Mary all over again.
“Whyyyyyy c-c-can’t I eeeeeeeeeever find a-a-aaaaanything?” I sobbed out-loud to myself, choking slightly and seriously distressing several passing drivers as I struggled to stay in between the white lines through my wailing. “You’d th-th-think I’d be a-able to find one st-st-stupid a-a-address on one st-st-stupid road in this st-st-stupid country! How h-have I not gotten ANY b-better at th-this in the last -[hiccup/sob]- TWO YEARS! It’s like I’ve gotten worse, like I’v-v-ve DE-AGED. . . I’M B-B-B-BENJAMIN BUTTONING!”
My walk of shame from the car to the kitchen with my un-gifted wedding shower gift was one of the most humiliating I have ever taken. Not that my family was very surprised.
“You should have just called me,” Dad said as I dropped the cumbersome present onto a chair.
“Admit that I got lost my first time back behind the wheel of a car?” I laughed bitterly. “Never. That’s just not okay.”
That was a low point.
Considering how rough the summer was (though not without a daily ray of sunshine!), it was really just par for the course. It’s an odd-numbered year. Those are the bad ones. If I can make it to 24 in one piece, I’ll consider myself on dry ground.
Community college, however, may stop me from doing just that.
And for those of you just now joining, here’s a little context.
I’ve already done community college. I’ve served my time. I went in as a naive little girl who couldn’t afford actual college and came out with an Associate Degree, an education in people, and a triple-shot venti-sized boost in confidence, street smarts and weight-gain (the Freshman Fifteen is real. . . The Sophomore Ten I may have invented out of necessity).
The same could almost be said of my return from Prague (if you change the Associate Degree with TESOL certification and the weight-gain with slightly healthier habits), except that the trip back from Europe included something I hadn’t expected. Reverse culture shock.
For those who don’t know what reverse culture shock is (and I certainly didn’t when I came home this summer), lend me your ears.
Reverse culture shock is when a person returns from abroad (or away) to find that ‘home’ as they remembered no longer exists – both their former environment and their former selves have changed in such a way that neither fully recognizes or fits into the other. It can range from being amusingly uncomfortable to emotionally jarring.
For me, it has come in waves of both. Although tipping drives me nuts now and I suddenly don’t understand why we don’t take our shoes off inside (and I’m OBSESSED WITH DRINKING FOUNTAINS), the most notable change has been the race debate.
Racism exists openly in the Czech Republic to an extent that would shock most Americans. If you are from Eastern Europe, chances are you will have fewer friends in school. If you are from the Middle East, chances are you will get teased. If you are Romani (“Gypsy”), you will be treated like a second class citizen your entire life. This mindset exists almost unapologetically across the generations currently living in Prague, from my youngest 4th graders to the most beloved elders in the community.
Coming back to the States, I felt annoyed at how much racism has become an issue since I’ve been gone. I read about Baltimore and Ferguson when I was in Prague. One day I opened up facebook and it was literally in flames. Those same headlines danced before my eyes in Czech on newspapers read by fellow passengers on the bus or the metro. “Is the American Dream Burning?”
But, I told myself, these people have no idea what actual racism looks like.
I take the bus to school now which means leaving the house before it’s fully light. It’s a ten minute walk and then a ten minute wait followed by a twenty minute, standing-room-only ride to campus.
Public transportation in Europe is wonderful (in varying degrees), and everyone uses it. Rich or poor, housed or homeless, everyone rides the metro, regardless of color, creed or background. It is the great equalizer.
In San Diego if you’re riding the bus, it’s because you can’t afford a car, which creates a class distinction. I am by no means rich, nor is my family, but I can afford the new backpack I brought to school and the new jeans I’d bought the week before when I was visiting friends in New York City.
Waiting at that bus stop, I felt like a fish out of water. I felt very conspicuously white. And that feeling stayed for most of my week on campus. It’s not that anyone said or did anything to make me feel uncomfortable – I just felt different. I felt like I didn’t belong. Unlike what some might have us believe, this is not a feeling owned by any specific race in America – it’s a universal human feeling which, justified or not, can be isolating and traumatic.
Thankfully, for me it has just been another new sensation. Another wave of culture shock I didn’t expect. The tone has changed in my neighborhood and race matters. The more of this I noticed, the more I felt like the naive little girl who first showed up on this campus five years ago.
That first week, I assured myself that everything would be okay. Except for missing a bus home and walking six miles to find a Dollar Tree, nothing had gone horribly awry. I found all my classes, I bought all my books, and I only stress-ate once.
One morning, I filed onto the bus with the twenty or so other people headed towards jobs or classes. We were a tight fit and an elderly gent in front of me was encouraging us younger students to keep backing up.
“Bus driver says, ‘back up!’ then you back up! We all got to fit on this bus, now,” he said with a laugh. “You young people hear him say, ‘back up!’ and you just look behind you like, ‘Oh what, me?’ Yes you! Back up!”
Those of us around him couldn’t help but chuckle at his vivacity. It was so much better than coffee. I’ve always loved friendly people.
Standing next to him were two boys – maybe around 20 years old – and he noticed with a grin that they were enjoying his commentary.
“You know what?” he said, turning his address to the young men specifically, “America’s finest do a really good job here. You know who I mean, of course.” He laughed again. “America’s finest will lie to your face your whole life. Try to keep you down! But you know what? It’s your responsibility to stand up for yourself.”
One of the boys was grinning and nodding, the other took a very small step backwards.
“You know who America’s finest is, don’t ya? Caucasians.”
The word turned into a brick which knocked the smile from my mouth and landed with a thud in the base of my stomach. There were a few more chuckles. People were enjoying the spectacle, but I couldn’t tell if they were laughing with him or at him. He was so close to me that my nose nearly brushed his shoulder. He went on a few more times about white people holding everybody else down when finally I said, “That’s such a lie.”
I didn’t say it accusatorily. But the simpler, younger version of myself – with bright eyes and a bushy tale – was ready to bring justice to this situation. In hindsight, that may not have been the best opening argument.
He turned around on me slowly, as if seeing me for the first time. After giving me a sweeping glance he scoffed and turned his back to me.
“You’re a child,” he huffed. “I’m not going to talk to you. I’m 50 years old. I’ve lived. I have experience. You don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ll talk to your parents before I talk to you. What are you even doing on this bus? Can’t you buy a car? Surely someone in your family can buy you a car.”
There was more laughter and I realized I had thrown myself into a needless, pointless debate in front of a whole bus who not only thought I was crazy for engaging this guy, but probably racist for defending white people. I felt my face grow hot, and not because we were all packed in and sloshing about in this MTS tin can.
I wanted to point out that I was wearing duct-taped sandals or brandish my useless pre-paid phone at him. Instead I just turned red and mumbled something unintelligible. I remembered that this isn’t Europe and race and class disparities aren’t viewed the same way.
“You come back and talk when you’ve spent ten years in jail for a crime you didn’t do, lost your wife and your kids. That’s what happened to me.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said quietly.
“Sorry? You’re sorry? What’s sorry gonna do? Is it gonna get my ten years back? You think you can fix anything with your ‘sorry’?”
“No, but -”
“I’m going to college to make myself better, get myself a job.” He showed me his shirt which said, ‘Everyone deserves to shine’ on the back. Proudly, he told the younger fellows next to him about his car-washing plans. Then he turned on me again and said, “I wasn’t even talking to you in the first place. You think this is all about you? I wasn’t talking about you. I was talking to them.”
I couldn’t seem to get my thoughts to come out in words and as I felt the eyes of the whole bus on me I struggled to keep from crying. Wouldn’t that just be the cherry on top. Crying in public.
The problem is not what he said, but how he said it.
He bullied me into silence, I thought. He denied me a voice because of my age and my color. And I have a voice. Sure, I wasn’t there to defend ‘white people’ or demand justice for his remarks (which, frankly, I really wasn’t that offended by). I wanted those boys – and that whole bus full of students that were listening intently – to know that not all ‘white people’ are trying to hold them back. And to say so is an injustice to our community of people (of all ethnicities) who will bend over backwards to help young people like us (regardless of our own ethnicities) to make it in the world. The lie he was spinning will do nothing but breed more hurt and distrust.
If I’ve learned anything in Prague, it’s that racism isn’t simply the oppression and harm of one people group by another people group, it’s the oppression and harm of humans by other humans that creates barriers between us all.
Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends. –Maya Angelou
But I didn’t say any of that. I just stood on the bus, hid my face in my arm, and prayed that the next ten minutes would go by quickly. The old-Mary was humiliated for having jumped right back into her habit of self-righteous declaration of the good, and the new one was wishing she had the wisdom to handle the situation more gracefully and in a less public setting.
The rest of the afternoon I walked past people on campus who had shared that bus ride with me. Some sniggered, some looked purposefully away, others just stared.
Becoming a social pariah the first week of school was definitely not my intention. The race debate may have changed since I’ve been gone, but people haven’t. And apparently I haven’t either.
What am I doing here, I wondered on the bus ride home. Why am I back at community college? Why does it feel like I haven’t learned anything in the last five years? Seriously, God, what’s your plan here? The culture shock, the pathetic tendencies I thought I got rid of – how long am I going to have foot-in-mouth syndrome or lose my way to bridal showers? WHY DOES IT FEEL LIKE I AM GOING BACKWARDS HERE?
I felt like stress-eating my weight in cheese puffs.
As another Saturday rolled around, I found myself at the party of a friend-of-a-friend. I didn’t know most of the people there, but there was an ice-cream bar, so I made myself at home.
The patio was trimmed with white lights and deck chairs. Music floated through the air and a few people were dancing on the lawn.
After consuming a brownie and an indecent amount of whipped cream, I found myself sitting around a firepit at the end of the patio, across from the black-green lawn and the swimming pool which reflected the strings of lights in a twinkle of soft ripples.
The young women around the firepit introduced themselves. We were all mid-college or post-college or going into college. We were all coming to the close of long summers – some good, some bad. And they all seemed very excited to hear about my life in Prague and my plans now that I’m home (of which I have none). It was a bit like telling ghost stories around a campfire as we all ‘oooh’ed and ‘awww’ed around the firepit (except that ghost stories aren’t nearly as scary as being a twenty-something in 2015). The air was like a warm breath and the inky-blue evening peeled back a layer of clouds to give a few optimistic stars the chance to glimmer half-heartedly in the L.A. sky.
I had an attentive crowd, so I told story after story. When those ran out, I eventually talked about how hard it was to come home and how I have no clue what to do next. I admitted that I’d put aside my plans to teach and that being plan-less and directionless was almost as bad as the culture shock. I told the bus story.
I didn’t say that I feel as though my developments as a human being all got left behind in Prague. I learned how to be an adult in Europe. Now I have to learn it all over again in America.
Learn how to use directions. Learn not to cry when you get lost. Do not engage strangers on the bus. Don’t assume you know everything about people. Stop thinking everything is about you. Stop judging your own self-worth based on the plans you make for yourself. Maybe use less whipped cream in the future? We’ll work on that one.
For a moment, I could feel myself behind the wheel of a car, driving into nowhere. Directionless and lost. The conversation lapsed into a quiet hum of unspoken reflections.
Then suddenly, like an oasis in the desert or a signal bar in a tunnel, the girls opened up their hearts to me, one by one, and revealed a life-changing secret: they are lost too.
They all seemed to get it. No matter who they were or what their background was, they all knew how it felt to be headed down a road with no clear destination. They each had a story and now it was my turn to sit and listen, enraptured.
“It’s like how a caterpillar changes into a butterfly,” explained one of them, her cherry-red lips forming a smile in the firelight. “When the caterpillar spins its cocoon, it essentially becomes jelly inside as all the parts reassemble themselves. It’s not a random process – they have all the cells they need to become butterflies from the time their mother lays their eggs. But while they’re in that cocoon, they have no definite shape.”
A round of giggles followed this analogy as we imagined little jellified insects hanging from petaled branches.
She looked at me sweetly and said, “My guess is that you have changed a lot in the last two years and that you’re going to a change a lot more. You’re in the jelly stage right now, but you need to be here if you want to become a butterfly.”
I thought about what it might mean to be a jelly-butterfly. I thought about what a gift it is to be able to listen (another aspect of culture shock – adjusting back to English!).
The drive home was long.
I thought about the old man on the bus. He didn’t have a car.
I am extremely fortunate to have been given the life that I have. Fortunate to have spent two years in Prague. Fortunate to have the time to figure out where I’m going next. And none of this is random. These things are gifts from God, both the things that look like blessings and the things that don’t. They’re all part of the cocoon that I’m wrapped up in right now.
I know I’ve come a long way, but I have a lot more to learn. And that’s okay. I have a voice already, but if I listen more than I speak I can strengthen it with broader knowledge and a greater sense of empathy. I can be silent. That’s okay.
I won’t always be lost, but I am right now and that’s okay. I can ask for help, and that’s okay too. And if this winding, wondrous road is what I have to take to reach the feet of my gracious God, it’s a path I delight to take.