Nothing could be more normal.
We were preparing for a family barbecue on a Saturday afternoon. The cooler bulged with local brew and lemonade for the kids, the tofu was steamed and the deck and driveway swept. I stood hunched at the steel sink with a Ginsu knife, completing a checklist—cutting the tops off strawberries.
I had switched to auto-pilot that morning in order to play hostess. I didn’t think, I acted. I didn’t feel, I plugged in.
And suddenly, while cutting strawberries, my father’s seamless jabber and my aunt’s commanding giggle and the sound of sports radio zoomed into nothingness, and I was left alone, panicking, to the simple rhythm of strawberry tops falling into a colander.
They’re just strawberries. Nothing could be more normal. Why do you suddenly want to scream?
I then realized that this panic marked the first moment I had recognized my re-assimilation into my birth culture.
Reintegration issues are common for volunteers and expats who spend a significant length of time immersed in a culture different from their own, particularly when they significantly change their lifestyles. What I mean by that is, entitled estadounidenses can live quite familiarly these days in almost any country in the world. Plenty of expats in Nicaragua (yours truly included, a veces), invest in technologies and comforts that make the “exotic” a little less threatening.
But if you eliminate television, air conditioners, driving, purchasing food in boxes at supermarkets and the like for two years of cross-cultural living, and then return “home,” a term that becomes as complex and misunderstood and fluid as “immigrant,” chances are you’ll find yourself gawking at the existence of a strawberry. And furthermore, gawking at your numbness to it.
At that moment my first breakfast back in the United States crash-landed in my vision. December 15, 8am. A perfect bowl, dishwasher-gleaming, with milk, local blueberries, and honeyed cereal. From a box.
I remember staring at that breakfast like it was an imploded collusion of heaven and hell.
I ate it in slow motion. The fact that outside was a frozen vivid wonderland and I had just come from dusty greenless Managua did not help steady my spoon. Nor did the fact that I hadn’t eaten in 36 hours, having refused to buy a $9 sandwich in the airport.
That first morning, possibly for the first time in my life, I noticed every bite of my meal, and with every crunch, a child from El Recreo came to mind.
Crunch Denika crunch Madeline swallow Richard. Children who ate one meal a day, always some variation of rice and beans, given to them by the comedor near the library where I worked.
Every swallow, delectable and privileged, guilty.
And here I was, chopping the tops off strawberries—it cannot be overstated what backbreaking labor and oil-fueled industry goes into harvesting this luxury crop (see for yourself)—as if Nicaragua had never welcomed me.
This has been happening more frequently as I approach the end of six months of being returned. I watch movies. Sometimes twice in 24 hours. I spend money from a bank account. I speak English outside my home. Heck, I live at (a) home. Under a roof.
My own increasingly seamless adherence to cultural “norms” is raising a flag. To what degree should I allow re-assimilation to take its course? As the JV guidebook says, I can never erase privilege or culture. But to what degree should I continue to resist? At the very least least, how much should I strive to reflect on the delicate, improbable miracle that is a strawberry?
The problem is, in a culture increasingly driven by efficiency and consumption, and not by presence or reality, the extraordinary becomes mundane. Life becomes habit.
I am reminded of comedian Louis CK’s interview with Conan O’Brien, a segment called “Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy,” which notices how unfairly whiny people are on airplanes, when boarding is delayed or high-speed internet fails. “Everybody on every plane should just constantly be going, ‘OH MY GOD! WOW!’ You’re sitting on a chair in the sky.”
As these strawberries and their plummeting tops became new in the steel sink, I realized my shoulders had relaxed, my brow had softened, and my mind was squarely in the present. Suddenly I wasn’t light-speeding through chores, I was noticing the universe in my hands. I felt sorrowful and joyful all at once. Such a gift, to awake from numbness.