Hey future Cortina students and ARC members, it’s me, the great Gray Jackson. For those of you who don’t know me, I recently returned from the Dominican Republic. I was one of the 17 students who participated in the Encuentro Dominicano Program last semester, and I was asked to write a little about my transition back into mainstream US culture.
At first, I wasn’t quite sure what to say, because all of you are at such different points in your lives/experiences and, one of my big struggles coming back has been trying to find the balance between sharing what I’ve been through while meeting people where they are at now. I’ll start off with a few basic things:
After being in a country where you more or less don’t speak the language for four months, it is strange to suddenly find yourself in a crowded airport and able to understand not just one, but all of the conversations around you. I went from struggling to understand and follow one conversation to understanding nearly everything: I felt like I had gained some sort of superpower. Also, the funny thing is, the topics of conversation (packing supplies, politics, moms scolding children) probably didn’t change at all.
Reverse culture shock is worse than regular culture shock. Most of this comes from the inevitable fact that we expect “home” to be normal. The whole time I was in the DR, I had a static picture of my home in my mind. Everything was strange, but, upon my return, I would find not much had changed. Well, some things changed at home, but I changed a lot more than that and came back to the US with a different set of eyes. What was once normal had been replaced by something else. I can’t think of a specific example right now, so I will just leave you with that.
It is hard to be counter-cultural. When I came back, I started doing things a little differently: I stopped eating meat, I cut back on texting, I started taking bucket showers, I wore tighter jeans. While my immediate family was supportive of these changes (after they were assured that I had good reasons for doing so), some of my other friends and people I ran into were not. There was some poking fun, but there was also some serious disagreement. Even if it is mild disapproval, it is difficult to deal with on a constant basis. I mean, when you want to wear ridiculous Dominican jeans, you want to wear ridiculous Dominican jeans. ‘Nuf said.
Probably one of the hardest things to do is “stay true to the experience.” This means different things to different people, but it’s a basic process of integrating two diverse worlds. Mostly, my “truth-staying” has come from the aforementioned lifestyle changes, but there is a little more to it than that. Probably the most difficult thing about coming back is telling other people about the experience while trying to capture exactly what it meant, even if you don’t quite know what it meant. That statement exactly captures the ambiguity involved in squashing such a transformative experience into a brief exchange and its inherent difficulty. Whenever I talk about the DR, I feel that I can’t and don’t do it justice, no matter how long or how deep the conversation goes. The trip was so close to my heart, and the obvious temptation is to keep it there, guarded and secure, but then there the experience lives as well, confined to life-imprisonment.
And this temptation can lead to two linked traps: cynicism and feeling unrelatable. If you can’t open up about the experience and continue to pass it along to others, there will exist a hidden barrier between you and everyone else. Take it from someone who tried to do this to his twin brother. Thankfully my brother wouldn’t let me. And, once I started feeling like I couldn’t relate to anyone, I started guarding my experience more and more, holding it inside in the fear that someone I told “wouldn’t get it” or “wouldn’t understand,” privileging my own security over their attempts to understand. And poof, I was a cynic, discounting others and allowing my corrosive thoughts to sabotage any understanding or hope that I desperately needed.
For me, the only way that I have been able to adjust back has been to throw myself out there, and give people the chance to surprise me. It has not always worked, but I have been pleasantly surprised. It is still difficult to talk about the discrimination, about the poverty, about the many times I felt my heart breaking. It was even difficult to write this, as vague and ambiguous as it is.
And so, I will leave you with the best way I know how to describe what I went through and how it affected me. This trio of songs best captures my feelings about last semester: White Blank Page-Mumford and Sons, Mercy-OneRepublic, and Sideways-Citizen Cope. (See what I’m doing here: I’m doing my best to open myself up about it, even to such a large and diverse audience). It’s a constant process, and, if any of you would like to talk about it, I would be more than happy to (or show you my Dominican dance skills).
One last thing: why am I writing this on the Cortina Blog. For two reasons: 1. Several of you are looking into going abroad next spring and 2. These struggles don’t just apply to trips out of the nation. If we do our job right in ARC and the Cortina Program, you will be confronted in ways you have never been before. Relating to others back home and others who have not been through such experiences will need to happen because, if Cortina existed in a bubble, it would quickly die out.
Having said all that, I can’t say (almost unrelatably so-(see what I did there?)) how excited I am for next year: to meet all of you and learn and grow throughout these next 10 months.