It’s only been a few months back in home sweet USA but already I’ve learned a lot (mostly the hard way) that America is nothing like Kosovo. Here are a few:
- Traffic laws are strictly enforced.
Strangely enough, stop signs and turn only lanes are not optional when driving in America. I learned this rather unpleasantly a few days ago while continuing forward in a “turn only” lane. Within 2 seconds of driving straight instead of turning, sirens sounded behind me. You can imagine my shock at the officer with his $97 fine arriving at my window. My explanations of being new in the country and ignorance did little to crack even a small smile of pity. I grudgingly drove off muttering about a host father who used to text, dial the phone and change the radio while flying around hairpin turns with the utmost accuracy. However, after a chocolate bar and few conversations with myself later, I grudgingly admitted one of my favorite parts of America is its orderliness along the highways and streets. I guess I should slow down and accept the loss of precious time sitting at an empty intersection. So, for the sake of law and order, and my next paycheck, thank you officer, traffic laws duly noted.
- There are no coffee breaks.
A truly shocking discovery coming from a culture where work is simply not started without a shot of black espresso from a miniature tea cup with thick grounds smoldering in the bottom like mud. And that’s just breakfast. There’s another round after 2nd hour in the teacher’s lounge and again, halfway through the day that includes a few beers and treats in celebration of new cars, birthdays and even haircuts. A few hours into my first day with not even a bathroom break in sight, I remember thinking how did I do this before? I need a macchiato, a glass of water, a chair, something.
- Employers expect you to be engaged in your work.
Not only has the last few years consisted of minimum hours teaching, but many others sitting in cafes and homes nodding along to Albanian while sneaking glances at my phone for some desperate mental stimulation to survive. A few weeks into teaching at a local school, I made the mistake of walking back to my classroom looking at my cellphone. Within 5 minutes the Vice Principal and Principal were in my classroom questioning my professionalism and pulling up chairs to watch my lesson. Peace Corps warned me about the mental adjustment before I returned, but as a driven individual who created projects for the sole purpose of remaining mentally sharp, I have been surprised to realize I am not exempt from this culture shock. It’s been an experience to relearn how to focus and stay engaged in my daily work.
- There is so much waste!
One of the hardest parts of my service was constantly being around trash and litter. People would constantly burn their trash or throw it into the rivers that ran down the mountain into other villages. I always thought of America during my service as a clean, refreshing promised land where people were not overly wasteful and environmentally conscientious. It was quite an awakening indeed to walk to the checkout lane with a cart full of groceries double-wrapped in plastic and separate containers. If that wasn’t enough to process, the worker began bagging each item into separate plastic bags. “Nooooo!” I yelled in sudden panic and began unpacking all the groceries and squeezing everything into a single bag. “Oh, the waste, the plastic, the unrecyclable bags we are using! Trees dying before my eyes!” Never much of a tree-hugger, I now find it hard to walk by all the trash, waste and plastic and not grab my chest to stop the pain in my soul.
- I communicate like a non-native English speaker.
Spending the majority of my days speaking and living in a different language, I find I have forgotten many basic words that used to so easily roll off my tongue. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been so hung up on a single word in my story, by the time I can recover the vocabulary, I’ve completely forgotten the rest of my story. Besides the constant lack of English is the random sprinkling of Albanian in a predominantly English world. Just last week I was rushing children back to the classroom yelling “Hurry! Hurry! Let’s go!” Despite my best efforts, the children seemed to grow more and more confused until one timid child finally asked who hejde was.
- The “good old days” are better in nostalgia.
Having now experienced life before heat, air conditioning, reliable electricity and Western toilets, I can confidently say to the younger generation, thank God for a modern world! I have in fact walked through blizzards, uphill both ways to school with not but a boiled egg in my pocket to keep warm. Clothes drying naturally in the breeze do not actually dry in most weather, nor do they shrink back to wearable sizes. Waking up in the crisp winter morning is invigorating until you discover the winter frost is inside your bedroom.
Though slightly disconcerting, I can honestly say these last few months re-assimilating back to my own culture has been an adventure full of stories and learning experiences. But slowly, patiently and with a lot of humor, I’m making my way back into American culture and noticing the many unique aspects that make Western culture so unique.