14 June 2012

Guest Post: I just said Hello. Why aren't you giggling?

I asked my friend Jillian Foerster to write a bit about her transition back to the US from her time in South Sudan. Jillian is a volunteer with Brethren Volunteer Service for RECONCILE International. I think I could have listed these same observations after my first semester in West Africa. I returned kind of a crazy woman (but that's another post). It seems Jillian is faring much better.

Only a few days back home and I already miss South Sudan. Several key things have highlighted the difference between my life in Africa for the last six months and my mostly happy transition back to the US.

1. Airport Security. This is probably the best representation of the different worlds I traveled through during my trip back. Perhaps symbolic of the typically disorganized and relaxed mode of operations in South Sudan, the metal detector at Juba Airport was broken (with few attempts to fix it: they’ve started using it to store files) and so the security consisted of a woman briefly looking through people’s bags by hand while she made conversation and joked with her colleagues.

Although the airport in Cairo was a step up security-wise (they had metal detectors and people in uniform) the confusing and contradicting directions I got from the Egypt Air staff didn’t give me confidence that the airline wouldn't lose my checked luggage on my return flight, as it apparently has for so many other people I know.

My short layover in Frankfurt affirmed my reentry into the Western world, or at least German efficiency. Not only did I successfully make it to my flight on time --after being chosen for a random security search and frantically helping a Polish man find baggage claim-- but some man working for the airline approached me and conducted a quick survey with me on his smart phone while I waited in line to board. And I was worried about only having 20 minutes to get to my gate…

Silhouette by Claudio Matsuoka, on Flickr
Thank you, Western Airport.
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  Claudio Matsuoka 

2. Mannerisms and Social Interactions.
Here are things I’ve been trying to tell myself since I’ve returned to help me readjust back to my “native” culture: Keep your hands in your pockets. Not everyone wants to shake your hand (or just hold hands for several minutes like the Sudanese do). Don’t invade people’s personal space as much. Also, remember to speak in complete sentences in English.

There are some things I wish the hospitable and friendly South Sudanese would export here. Why can’t I just get Americans to smile or giggle by just saying hello to them???

3. Salami. While in South Sudan, I watched way too many pirated episodes of The Sopranos saved on someone’s hard drive. The characters just wouldn’t stop talking about Italian sandwiches.

Mmm... salami, ham, and cheeses on a hoa by jeffreyw, on Flickr
Just. Stop. Talking.
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  jeffreyw 

4. Paved roads. [See picture]. This is more desperately missing access to rural areas, but driving within Yei is also an experience. Driving and multi-tasking isn’t an option. With all the reckless boda-bodas (read: motorcycles), chickens, goats, dogs and children constantly darting in and out of the roads in town, it’s impossible to fiddle with your iPod and not hit something/someone and inflict the wrath of mob justice that isn’t in your favor.

5. Lawn mowers.
They go a lot faster than slashers. My Nigerian classmate at EMU marveled the other day at this and understood it as an example of how organized American society is.

Since coming back, I’ve noticed that I’ve become a bit more patient with people and I developed a heightened ability/habit of schmoozing with random service people, since this is a necessity to get answers or things done in South Sudan. This also means I basically flirt with everyone who sells me something.

I’ll enjoy the convenience (and bars with actual good beer) and direct communication while I’m Stateside. I don’t miss people yelling at me and calling me kawajah on every walk I take into town, but I’ll miss the humor, warmth and sense of camaraderie and welcome. Although I was only there for six months, I still felt at home and I can’t wait to go back in July for another year and half.

Anyone else remember your transition between the Western and non-Western worlds? I get tripped-up every summer when we go back to using a debit/credit card in stores. There's usually this awkward pause when I have no idea how to complete a transaction. So I try to hand over my card and then the clerk gives it back with this look of, "Just swipe your own card you dum dum."

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