No one told me reverse culture shock would feel so much like a panic attack.
I stepped off the plane and took a few deep breaths of crisp American winter air, grinning like a maniac as I entered the Minnesota airport. I passed through customs and nearly failed to check my bags through to Salt Lake City. Who knew you had to pick them up, and send them off again? Not this particular little world traveler.
And then I actually walked through the terminals. I’m writing this as I wait for my final flight, because the experience of coming home was so complex. For the first time in my life, I was overjoyed at the sight of a McDonald’s. I passed a half-dozen high schoolers in line at Taco Bell. I saw a beautiful healthy-looking salad being served at a restaurant.
And then I started to get a little panicky, realizing how much I’d missed while in Africa. Passing the Starbucks, already decked in holiday décor, I asked myself: What just happened? What happened to the last four months of my life?
The problem is that Africa is such a different world that it seems unreal. I spent months there, but what have I gained? What did I buy with the time spent? Right now, it’s hard to think of anything concrete. Which is another thing contributing to my anxiety. What I gained is not a senior thesis, or a hundred hours logged building schools. Those things are tangible, the metaphorical comfort blanket you can carry with you. But me? I feel like I’m grasping at thin air.
How much of life has been lived without me? How much have people changed? How many birthdays have been celebrated, chest hairs sprouted, inches grown? (Okay, that mostly relates to my little brother.) I chose to remove myself from the current of American life for four months. Four months of a completely separate experience, living independently. It’s made me strong, and confident – if I can live in Africa, I can do pretty much anything. But how hard is it going to be to rejoin the flow of American life? How many experiences have already floated right by unnoticed while I was 4,000 miles away?
See? THIS is why I’m panicking. It’s as if a chunk of my life has been excised, and I’ve been suddently dropped back in the thick of it.
I just want a hug from my mommy and daddy. That will make it better. And then I’ll snuggle in my bed, with my dogs, and wake up in the morning feeling more aligned. The question is, will Africa ever stop feeling like some kind of dream?