Sunday, April 27, 2014

Riding the Wave

How long does it take for a place to feel like home?

I’ve been asking myself this a lot lately. As it turns out, carving a life somewhere takes time and constant effort.  This may not come as a profound thought to most, but for me – the inveterate extrovert – I’ve always been able to set up a fun community with lots of activities fairly quickly. While this is a component of settling in, I’m always surprised at how hard it is to get that feeling of True Home.  For me, I think this takes about a year, or as one friend put it “Until you come back from a trip and the airport doesn’t feel weird.”

These things shift, of course. They go in waves. Turns out, culture shock doesn’t just apply when you’re moving from Minneapolis to Malawi, but also Saint Paul to Saint Louis Park (just across the river).  The classic culture shock “wave” has five parts. First there’s the Honeymoon stage (yay! I’m finally here!), then the dip (Oh dear, what did I get myself into?), the Initial Adjustment (Ok, this isn’t so bad), the Jaded Comparison/Isolation Period (Things would never be like this where I’m from, Everything Here is Stupid) and finally Acceptance (This is my life now!).

It’s not rocket science, but I didn’t factor in two things: 
1) the distorting effect of Facebook; 
2)   the cycle never really ends;

There are many reasons to dislike Facebook, not the least of which I’ve discovered is the FOMO effect (Fear Of Missing Out). Being able to see what your friends and family are doing, how much fun they’re having in all your old haunts doesn’t help with homesickness. In fact, I think it is actually detrimental to your new life (unless you start copiously adding new friends and begin your own rampant posts…neither are really my style.) Being on Facebook means I can get a quick fix of home any time I want, which is fun (atleast I'm up to date) but sometimes leaves me feeling lonelier more often than is really true, even when I’m having a good time myself. (I say this knowing I’m going to post this article on Facebook…). It leaves me wondering if the culture shock “wave” shouldn’t be updated to include mini waves whenever you log in.

Which brings me to my last point: the “wave” is misleading. It’s not one wave over the course of a year or six months or however long it takes you to feel Acceptance. It’s many little waves, sometimes all in the same day (and sometimes in the minute or two you’re looking at Facebook). Instead of length, I think we should talk about frequency, intensity. You may reach the Acceptance phase, but even within it, there are moments where you want to go back to your previous life. There are even moments where you can still feel isolated. I believe that this adjustment never really ends, it only shallows out.

Given the constant rotation of expatriates on two- three- or four year contracts, the feeling of permanent settlement in Malawi remains elusive. I’ve been here 10 months now, and many of my first round friends are moving on (meaning, I’m going to have to start networking for Saturday night plans again). However, I can tell that the culture shock wave has mellowed somewhat and I’ve come to a sink a little deeper into this life.

The secret, I’ve come to realize, is to hang on when those waves come. Keep busy, keep going. I know I’m making progress because I recently returned from another trip abroad, and arrived back not with trepidation, but curiosity. The airport no longer gave rise to anxiety and anticipation (helped out by the fact that I now have my Temporary Employment permit). Malawi has tipped the scales. It is now more familiar than foreign, more friendly that foe, more homey that homely.

It's about time!