Monday, October 25, 2010

Leaving Azerbaijan Soon

I am leaving Azerbaijan December 9 because my 27 months will be over. I will miss my new friends here very much, but am glad to be going home. I miss my friends and family. But Iwon’t exactly being going home, since I don’t have one in America. And never having been to Europe, I don’t want to fly over it on the way home without stopping, so I will visit Europe for 5 or 6 weeks first, then head to America.

When I get back to America, I plan to visit my family and friends first, then find a place to live, probably in Washington, D.C. I will have a guestroom and hope my Azerbaijani and American friends will visit me there.

In the meantime, I am wrapping up my work and visiting places I haven’t seen yet. Peace Corps had a wrap-up conference for us and one of the things they talked to us about is “reverse culture shock” and the issues of re-entry to America. I am glad they did, because I have felt for some time that my friends and family will notice that I have changed. Although they have always thought I was not exactly mainstream.

According to the material they gave me, some of the shock is related to the role we play here. We are treated as special people and we look different than others. We are viewed as experts and many people want to entertain us and get to know us. We have a support network of other volunteers who understand us and also a great administrative staff support network at the Peace Corps office in Baku.

A lot of volunteers go from this situation to unemployment and no home waiting for them in America. We cannot claim unemployment benefits, but are given about $7,000 as a readjustment allowance, plus a ticket home or the equivalent in cash.

Since we have not seen most of our family and friends in 27 months, they will, of course, have changed and moved on with their lives. Returned volunteers routinely say that their families and friends are not very interested to hear what they have been doing for 27 months. I don’t want to bore people and hope I won’t. But, the Peace Corps warns that it is our changes in values that are the biggest issue.

Our handbook says “Many return to the United States determined not to lose values learned and practiced during their Peace Corps service. For example, back home, returned volunteers often become more sensitive to the lack of respect some show toward the values of other nations and may strive for a simpler life-style.”

Some of the statements in the handbook are pretty serious. Like ”Do not judge your country and your compatriots too soon or too harshly in the beginning. You used to like this place and these people; you can probably (!) learn to do so again, if you are patient.”

And “Try to avoid the temptation to publicly compare the States unfavorably with the country you served in, for example. This practice may rub people the wrong way. They may ask you, ‘If it’s so bad here, why did you come back?’ Talking to other returned volunteers enables you to vent your frustrations and reassures you that you are not losing your mind.” As far as losing our mind goes, we are offered 3 free counseling sessions in the US as part of our close-of-service package.

Comparing the US unfavorably with Azerbaijan is not something volunteers here do all the time. In fact, much of the time, we wish things here were different and more like the US. But unfavorable comparisons do get woven into our conversations. And we don’t just compare the US with Azerbaijan, but with other countries too. This is because most of us travel to other countries while here, many have lived in other countries before and we meet other foreigners, diplomats and businesspeople here. They compare their countries and culture with ours, Azerbaijan’s and other countries they have visited.

I am confident, though, that some of the things volunteers talk about among ourselves would sound strange to a non-Peace Corps American. Such as how much we will miss eggs laid by chickens we know, how great it is to hang our laundry outside on a nice, sunny day without worrying about what neighbors will think, how we don’t miss driving and love all the public transportation available. Some topics that we discuss Americans would understand, like how much we love buying fresh, locally grown, organic food without packaging, how great it feels to be in a country with a low incidence of violent crime and how much more hospitable than most Americans Azerbaijanis are to guests.

One of the ways I am aware that I have changed is that I don’t drink or eat fish anymore. I was a fish-eating “vegetarian” when I left. I never enjoyed drinking and had a glass of wine or a beer now and then socially. But since I don’t enjoy it, I am not going to do it anymore just to fit in. Worldwide, the fishing industry is a mess, with overfishing a big problem. (Remember all the cheap orange roughy in the 80’s? They were pretty much fished to extinction.) I don’t like the idea of eating farmed fish. So I’m not eating fish anymore.

I never much cared about buying or owning expensive things and this feeling has intensified here. No one in America was impressed with the old Corolla I had before I came here. But now I am going to try to live in a place in which I won’t need a car at all. I realize now that I don’t need a lot of clothes in my closet. Five or six pairs of pants, a few sweaters and shirts, a dress and a couple of skirts and blouses sounds perfect. (KG in STL, are you freaking out yet?) Any more would be too confusing. However, hand-made carpets now interest me a lot and I have bought several. I never had the slightest interest in hand-made carpets before.

Another way I have changed is something that America and Americans can do nothing about. Most of the people we meet in this part of the world are from countries that are much smaller in area than ours and of course, much smaller in population. This type of country is attractive to me, since one can easily become familiar with each region of the country and cultures are more similar, which can lead to fewer divisions and other problems. Everything just seems more manageable in a smaller country. When friends and family are all within 200 or 300 miles, life is easier and families can remain closer. In America, family and friends can all be American, but be separated by thousands of miles. It’s difficult to stay close.

Being such a big country, too, America spends a lot of its money on wars and other defense issues. Many smaller countries have high-speed rail, better roads, great metros and public transportation, free wifi everywhere in cities and free university for smart kids. People live longer, healthier lives because the countries are able to spend tax money on things that improve the lives of their citizens rather than be locked into defense spending.

Another area that stands out is that most countries don’t have our Electoral College system—they have popular voting systems in which everyone’s vote is counted. Since 1948, Massachusetts Republicans have voted in vain in presidential elections. Every year since then, all electoral votes have gone to the Democratic candidate. If I were a Republican in Massachusetts, I would wonder why I should trudge over and vote if I knew in advance my vote would not count.

Most of us try to keep up on what is going on in the news in America. But we experience things without actually having been there—so we experience America like a foreigner. For example, I read about a Delaware Senate election debate in which the separation of church and state was mentioned. During the debate, Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell said “Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?”

Her opponent replied that it was in the First Amendment. “Let me clarify,” O’Donnell continued. “You’re telling me that separation of church and state is in the 1st Amendment?” Her opponent replied “Government shall make no establishment of religion.” “That’s in the 1st Amendment?” she asked.

Almost 40 percent of voters know this, but support her anyway. This makes me feel shocked and confused.

And then there are movements like the Tea Party that we didn’t have in 2008 when we left. As a former banker, I am always interested in the money part. This is what I don’t understand about them:

When proponents say they want to cut government spending by billions of dollars but won’t identify the specific defense programs, Social Security, Medicare or other services they want to cut — or the amounts, how can Americans take them seriously? They also don’t explain how this will make us more competitive and grow the economy instead of leading to a death spiral like it did when Hoover tried to end the Great Depression by cutting spending.

Aren’t these Tea Party people the ones who sat silent or cheered when we launched two wars and a new entitlement, Medicare prescription drugs — while cutting taxes — but now, suddenly seem to be angry about the deficit?

And then I don’t understand those who blame unemployed people for needing unemployment payment extensions when statistics show that in St. Louis, for instance, there are 11 unemployed people for every job opening. How is laying off more people or cutting off any sort of payment to them going to help or save us money?

So for my friends and family—at least for a few months, expect me to try to locate live laying chickens, hang my laundry outside, spurn that tuna sandwich and have a mostly empty closet. But I will enthusiastically accept washing my clothes in a machine, buying peanut butter and having a great-tasting cup of coffee whenever I want.