Advice for the parents of a returning Peace Corps Volunteer
August 5, 2018 6:21 AM   Subscribe

Our daughter is returning after two years in the Peace Corps in east Africa. What can we as parents do to support her?

After two years in Rwanda volunteering in the PC, our daughter is returning. The experience - as is the case for many PCVs - was tumultuous and difficult. I know that the return experience for many PCVs is as - if not more difficult - than their post and the change in the political environment in the US during the last two years has been extreme (an added stress to the culture shock of her return). There are many resources for PCVs returning (blogs, advice columns, PC literature) but I haven't found anything for the family of a returning PCV. Beyond being kind, patient and doing our best to help her get her life going again, are there any PCV parents who have some advice? Or PCVs who have advice for family members (maybe on what not to do)? Thank you!
posted by bluesky43 to Human Relations (16 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Hello!!! I’m an RPCV who served in West Africa and did Peace Corps Response in Rwanda. Things that I found incredibly helpful:
-people unstanding that while I was happy to be stateside I was mourning the loss of leaving my community in West Africa
- Understanding that I was going to do some “weird” things (and for me, gently letting me know what wasn’t typical behavior stateside. For example I was eating an orange on a walk, threw the peel on the ground (because it’s not garbage in my eyes as biodegradable) and then washed my sticky hands in a puddle on the street.)
- connect with other people who have come back at the same time. There were actually a few PCVs who i didn’t get very close with over the course of my service but really connected with during readjustment because they were dealing with the same readjustment issues
- if at all possible, host other PCVs who might be traveling through or encourage or facilitate them visiting others. They’re the ones who are going to get it the most
- help others ask them good questions. “OMG How was is?” Is not a good question. And in the case of Rwanda the genocide can’t be ignored but it’s also not the only thing to talk about.

And the hardest thing, three years back stateside is that no one asks me how my host family is doing. This varies PCV to PCV but I was incredibly close with my host family and they took care of my as their daughter. It hurts that people ask about my friends around the USA but never ask how my Togolese family is doing. Too many Americans act almost as if they were just a backdrop to my service.
posted by raccoon409 at 7:23 AM on August 5, 2018 [17 favorites]

Be careful not to assume they will fit right in right away. After two years of adjusting to a very different culture, it also takes a long time to adjust back to the one you knew before. It is not like riding a bike.

She will have lots of stories about Rwanda. You will quickly get tired of hearing them, not because you don't love your daughter but because the stories are so far outside of your realm of experience that you will hardly at all identify with any aspect of them. This will make it difficult to engage with those stories. The effort is worth it, for your relationship and for her because it is drilled into PCVs that bringing their experience home is part of the point of the whole thing (you'll probably hear her talk about "the three goals" at some point). This has been her life for two years, and she will (probably) have a lot to say about it. It's a known thing for RPCVs to have friends become zero interested in their Peace Corps lives within about two weeks of them coming back, because they didn't know the person as a PCV. They'll ask "How was it? Was it hot? Did you have fun?" and then they will expect your daughter to just go back to being who she was two years ago. Hey, maybe she will, some do. I never did.

Inverse to that: there may well also be stories she doesn't want to share right away. Try not to push too hard on that. It's hard to navigate what people here will be ok hearing about, and while you absolutely should make it clear, and often, that you are open to hearing everything, you should not in the moment of sensing her hesitation push her; let her make her own decisions about what to share and when.

And oh yes oh yes the weird things. One of my favorite personal re-entry stories: I was out to eat with my family, and we were looking at the menus, and my brother asked me what I was thinking about ordering. I said "Well, I'd like the chicken, but if they're out of that I could get the mac and cheese, and if they're out of that maybe I'll - " and he cut in and said "I'm going to stop you right there. Your first choice is fine. They have it."

I was an RPCV West Africa in the late aughts, ended up staying in that country another few years not as a PCV, rather with another aid agency, but that's a whole other story. I mention it because I had a softer re-entry than most, so maybe I'm totally wrong about the following, but your statement "help her get her life going again" - be really careful with that kind of thinking. Her life has been going, it hasn't stopped, not for a second. One of the major frustrations among my friends was how quickly they were expected to get a job, get back to work, go go go because that's what we do here. Living in a different culture entails a lot of very deep adjustments to how we approach life that aren't immediately obvious or explicit (even to the person undergoing the adjustment), and there are ways of moving forward in life that look very much like standing still from a US perspective.

Good luck, she lucky to have someone so thoughtfully engaging with the process!!
posted by solotoro at 7:58 AM on August 5, 2018 [15 favorites]

I lived a while in China, and coming home for the first time was hard. Echoing Raccoon409, people asking "How was China?" was common but not helpful. What was rare and extremely appreciated was when people would ask a very specific question about my time there with genuine interest, and actually listen. So just giving her time to talk about her experience, and asking genuine, specific questions, will go a long way.

Reverse Culture Shock is real and can be very difficult- she will be adjusting to life back home. She may feel uncomfortable or sad. Friends and family can help, again, by acknowledging and showing interest in her experience. It also could be really helpful to do things in the US that connect to the culture or experience there. For me, I love spending time in Chinatown, going to Chinese language meet-ups, seeing Chinese movies, etc, even years after I have been back. Any opportunities like that will be appreciated.

If there are Peace Corps Volunteer meet-ups or events in your area where she can meet and talk to people who have had similar experience, that would probably be really helpful too.
posted by bearette at 8:03 AM on August 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

I didn't do PC but I do hop from country to country quite a bit.

I agree that she'll probably want to share a lot of stories that you just can't relate to. But the very nice thing to do is to indulge her as she's still readjusting. I know that when I first came back to my hometown from living elsewhere I was guilty of the nonstop talking about living in XYZ and how ABC is different and did you know QRS, etc. I know it can get annoying but it's also a good way to just process things too.

I'd caution against some of raccoon409's advice though. I don't think you should try and steer people away from asking the 'How was XYZ?' question. I'm guessing you're in the U.S. and the average American will probably never go to Rwanda. That question is a "hey it's been a while, I care about you, so I'm going to ask this generic question about this place that I probably don't know that much about".

On that note, don't hold it against friends and family who don't ask your daughter about her 'host family.' (TBH I was kind of irked by how raccoon409 phrased this). Many people might not understand how PC works and if they've never gone through with it themselves, how can they know what questions to ask? I think it's very commendable that you're being sensitive to your daughter's needs, I just wanted to caution against the idea that you should have the burden of "correcting" other people's thought processes.
posted by bluelight at 9:17 AM on August 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

One of the major frustrations among my friends was how quickly they were expected to get a job, get back to work, go go go because that's what we do here.

This, definitely.

Adding to that, at least for myself, there was (and to be frank, still is, many years later) a lot of guilt over how privileged life can be in the US in material terms. In one plane flight, I went from a place where normal life meant that most of my friends and neighbors were food insecure and lacked basic services like education, running water, and sanitation, to having all of those things as a given.

There are a lot of memoirs and fiction about the experience of returning from living elsewhere that you might find helpful to look at; I've always been especially fond of the description in Richard Dooling's short story Bush Pigs of getting onto the highway from the airport:
The truck merged onto an interstate--a vast, empty expanse of smooth cement. No cars in front of us, no cars behind us. We could go as fast as we wanted. Every now and again another person drove by in a huge new car, driving right down the middle with vacant lanes on either side. The cars floated like glass-and-steel bubbles in outer space--beautiful spaceships with no passengers or goods or animals in them, just drivers driving in wide-open lanes and going as fast as they wanted, their windows rolled up, even though it was summer.
The grocery store scene in the movie Hurt Locker gets at that same surreal sense of disconnection from what everyone around you finds unremarkable. Mostly it just takes time to readjust, probably as long or longer than it did for her to adjust to living in Rwanda, and there will be the same ups and downs as she experienced there -- but she has to do it mostly alone, since she won't be surrounded by a cohort going through the same experience, nor will there be training sessions and staff support.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:19 AM on August 5, 2018 [5 favorites]

I've been around a lot of RPCVs and a consistent issue in my experience is the realization that some of the concrete take ways from PC don't have much application upon return. This is tough after such a transformational experience.

Languages learned are neat but not in high demand (and the RPCV level of fluency can't compete with many others). There are only so many jobs in those sectors and they're highly competitive.
posted by k8t at 9:32 AM on August 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

(I'm not a PCV but have done a lot of living in global south and coming back to global north)

n+1 asking questions. A common experience of people coming back is that they feel their life has changed with a profound experience and people ask "how was it?" and then turn-off.

Reverse culture shock is bewildering as other people have mentioned. But some level of coming back to familiar/favorite things can be really comforting. (Favorite food at home?)

I don't know if your daughter has clear career ideas. This can be hella confusing especially if she was a recent graduate before she went out. Confusion may also be over where she would like to live, what lifestyle as well as what job. There isn't an easy way through this, and questions about it from parents can often be part of the problem and not the solution :) However, if it's likely to be the case, you might be able to be useful by getting a jump on what kind of resources are available online/offline to help think things through. It will be key to offer those in a sensitive way and only when they're relevant (eg when she asks, or several months after return). Try not to project your own anxieties about where her life is at.

k8t is right that it's often hard to find concrete takeaways of what you learn abroad. But I don't accept that means they aren't there, that means it's tough to see and translate them. So e.g. if you learned a language partially that is not just useful because of that language but because of your ability to learn in a high-stress complex situation.

One of the bewildering things about a return like this is that you feel both that you've grown enormously and that you're back exactly where you're started. Helping your daughter see how she's been changed by the experience & how that might be relevant in other places would be wonderful.
posted by squishles at 9:59 AM on August 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

Thank you so so much. This brings tears to my eyes, really. We visited her so I have some small sense of what her life was like, met her lovely lovely host family (both of them) and met some of her students. I have a very keen awareness of the incredible privilege of living in the US and I know my daughter does as well, and as I realized visiting Rwanda, having running water is something I will forever be grateful for. Up thread someone mentioned feeling guilty and this made me aware that I think this is going to be a very strong feeling with her on her return. Again, thank you all, and for those of you who have been PCVs thank you so much for your service.
posted by bluesky43 at 10:01 AM on August 5, 2018 [6 favorites]

My friend returned from duty in Lesotho, in the mid-1980s. I remember being all “OMG How was/ is?”, unthinkingly, unwittingly. One of her stories of re-entry was being jarred by the sheer din of the U.S. airport on her return.

To my shame, it would never occur to me to ask about her host family, as I wasn't aware that was part of the process. I assumed (at that time) that a gang of PC volunteers hole up together.
posted by BostonTerrier at 11:43 AM on August 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

I left for PC Rwanda in 2015 and returned December 2016, due to a family illness; it's extremely possible I know or ateast met your daughter, which is interesting.

Anyway, there's already a lot of great comments here. I'd just like to echo some of that and comment that for me, after my time there, it wasn't that America didn't feel like home anymore, exactly, but I became aware that nowhere would ever really feel quite right again, if that makes sense. I thought a lot about how I could never take the things I liked from Rwanda and the things liked from America and then live in that made up place. No matter where I live now, there will always be things about some other place that are hard to live without.

After leaving the Peace corps, all your very intense in-person relationships, generally speaking, start to trail off in calls and text. Texting in a second language, even if you got good at it, isn't really enough to maintain that intensity. It's painful.

Just as a final note, on the whole, the Peace corps is a fundamentally empowering experience in many ways. Operating independently in a scarily new, different place, in another language, gives you a sense of your own capability and power. While it is sometimes hard to return, especially to move back in with your parents and feel like a kid again, I think your daughter is probably going to be out the door again soon, if I had to guess. Those skills you gain in the Peace corps don't just go away, if that makes sense.
posted by Rinku at 11:50 AM on August 5, 2018 [4 favorites]

To clarify on a point of mine from above “OMG how was it?!?” Is t a helpful question because how would you sum up the last two years of YOUR life? The ups and downs, weddings and funerals, and more likely the grinding day to day?
Questions that were helpful for me to talk about my experience (while being painfully aware that many people didn’t really care or want to hear more stories”
- where did you do XYZ? (Shopping, cooking, studying, meet up with friends)
- who did you live with or who were your neighbors ?
- who were your buddies? (For many PCVs the answer is old women and children)
- what are your opinions on international aid? (Be prepares for a two day discussion to follow)
- what surprised you?
- what felt similar/familiar
- who do you miss?
- what do you miss?
- what do you want me to know about Rwanda?
- what are you proud of from your service?
And as a parent
- What do you want me to tell other people about (from your experience visiting during service or what they said to you during service)

These more specific conversations helped to guide conversations. Because when people asked me “how was it” I generally said “I had diarrhea for a month and a half until I realized a pineapple a day was too much fiber.” until I learned that wasn’t the answer people were looking for.
posted by raccoon409 at 12:01 PM on August 5, 2018 [9 favorites]

General note on the "OMG how was it???" issue: as her support team, you may want to help her work on a set of answers to this because the question is going to happen even if you know better. Having a couple of elevator speeches prepared, and responses ready for what's probably going to be some (intended or otherwise) asshole racist reductive shit rather than being caught off-guard, will make it slightly less difficult to handle. Media training, basically.

Hopefully she was able to do at least some journaling while she was there, but I would encourage her to do some dedicated capture of her thoughts and feelings before she loses her Africa eyes. Do not treat time spent doing that as wasted or laziness or not "getting her life going" or a cute little hobby or whatever; this is a formative experience she's going to be recontextualizing for the rest of her life and will influence her for the rest of her life, documenting where she is right now means she'll be able to revisit over time.

Agreed (from different experiences than Peace Corps but still applicable) that she's almost certainly way more than two years older than she was when she left, and it's possible you have never really had an in-person relationship with the adult version of your child, and it will be difficult for you sometimes. You should also have your own support system, whether that's an uninvolved friend you can talk to and/or a therapist or some other people you can look to for head-checks when you need them.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:12 PM on August 5, 2018 [7 favorites]

It's going to feel like a death. She's going to be mourning. It may seem ridiculous because, well, no one died. But the grief is real and it can be intense.

Let her mourn. Give her the space to grieve.
posted by divabat at 5:54 PM on August 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

Great comments and advice above. I'd add/reiterate the following:
1. "How was it?" still makes me cringe. I like the suggestion of helping become up with a suitable response since she's about to be asked that constantly for the next 12 months.
2. Be supportive in her job search without being too pushy- if you are in a position to help her out financially (including providing a place to live), let her know. It will relieve a lot of stress. Most of my Peace Corps cohort ended up working in random jobs for a year or two, then going to graduate school.
3. If she's able to meet up with or visit her friends from Peace Corps, by all means encourage that!
4. If she seems to be struggling with mental health, encourage her to seek help/therapy. The combination of feeling unmoored, readjustment emotions, and the tendency for mental health issues to crop up in mid 20s (the age of most recent RCPVs) can be a troubling combination.
posted by emd3737 at 2:35 AM on August 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

Our local campus has a group of returning Peace Corps Volunteers, and may even have A Program. (UMBC, known for chess, and most recently, basketball). My good friend is a RPCV from an Eastern European country, and returned well before I knew her. She spoke matter of factly about going to the drug store and just getting lost in the thought of why there are 20 varieties of shampoo to select from.

The group is its own social entity as well. New returnees join and others graduate as they marry, move, or finish an advanced degree (often taking that opinion on international affairs to the next level).
posted by childofTethys at 11:33 AM on August 6, 2018

When I came back from traveling I wanted to talk about the relationships I'd formed, especially with host families. It felt good that my parents saw these new adults as additions, a broadening of love, an expansion of "family," rather than competition. I know my mom would have liked to share these travel experiences with me, but she was gracious in asking questions and learning about how those experiences were instead shared by surrogate aunts/uncles/mothers/fathers.

I appreciated when my mom pointed out changes and concerns without dictating a particular response. I was depressed for a while and felt ungrounded, and the times she brought me tea and listened to me process were so meaningful. She held spaces for the ways I had changed, not assuming what I'd want to do next.

She also put up signs around the house welcoming me back in the languages of the places I traveled, which felt so lovely because I was missing those places even at the level of words. It made me feel like I was coming home (to my US home) and coming home (to what had become so familiar during the trip). Psychologically, it told me she was welcoming all of me back -- the me who had traveled, not just the me who had departed the US.
posted by rockyraccoon at 12:49 PM on August 10, 2018 [4 favorites]

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