Rebecca Jacobson
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Culture/Shock/Waves

September 1, 2010 @ 5:34 AM | Permalink

As I settle back into Malawi after a brief stint at home, I’ve been giving some thought to what surprised me about these few weeks in the United States. I don’t mean the soul-rocking stuff of true reverse culture shock, but the little things, the numerous tiny adjustments I had to make.

First, I no longer had to carry toilet paper with me, most bathrooms provided soap, and I never had to squat over a keyhole in the ground. I looked the wrong way when crossing the street. The Internet was SO BLAZING FAST. Everyone around me spoke English, and I was suddenly able to eavesdrop. I found myself constantly checking the location of my cell phone, both to make sure no pickpocket had swiped it (it’s a commonly nabbed item; I had mine stolen at a Blantyre soccer game) and out of fear I would miss a call and have to spend buckets of cash calling the person back (cell rates are astronomical here). I was jolted by the monochromatism of Portland, Ore., my 75 percent white hometown. On one of my first days in town, my mom and I drove past a man with very pale skin. As we approached from behind, I noted the man’s longish sleeves and large-brimmed hat — here was a guy clearly protecting himself from the sun. My first thought? An albino! (Malawi has relatively high rates of albinism.) No, I couldn’t believe myself either.

Then there were even smaller things, teeny-weeny surprises for which I hadn’t thought to ready myself. I’ll keep this snappy — here’s a list of things I hadn’t seen in nearly a year:

• Escalators

• Moving sidewalks

•Vending machines (what, in particular, is the deal with the iPod/camera/Nintendo dispensers?)

• Sliding doors

• Automatic faucets

• Automatic flush toilets

• Automatic soap dispensers

• Automatic paper towel dispensers

• All right, motion-activated or automatic anything (I had particular trouble navigating my library’s new checkout machines)

• Toilet seat covers

• Bike lanes

• Water fountains

• Disposable coffee cup lids

• PDA (public displays of affection)

• PDAs (personal device assistants) — I arrived in Malawi before the massive iPhone boom

• Miniskirts, short shorts, thighs in general

• Mullets

• Yarmulkes

And now I’m back in Blantyre, readjusting to plastic bags of milk (terrible design; I invariably spray milk all over the counter and often over myself), my too-soft foam mattress, the smell of burning trash, blackouts and water shortages, the incessant attention I receive for my skin color, the barefooted street children already trained at age three to stretch out their dirty and chapped hands and ask for help, mama, help. These changes are annoying, tough, painful. But as I bought a heap of perfect tomatoes on the roadside yesterday and watched the late afternoon sunlight go from blinding to soft, the leaves made somehow greener and the sky somehow bluer, the mountains sheathed in a gauzy purple blanket and the dusty horizon shimmering pink, women pumping water at boreholes and cyclists wheeling home enormous loads of firewood and children racing cars fashioned from old cartons of beer, I vowed, this time around, to lock these images in my mind, to not forget this country’s stubborn beauty when I next return home.

Comments

Posted on 9/02/2010 by

Cindy Sax

Beautiful. I'm glad you came home to see all of us and share in the festivities, but what a plus for this little twist. Take time to smell (and see) all there is unique about your experiences, and rejoice in how it has changed you forever!! As if I have to tell you... ;-) XOXO, Niece! A.C.

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Rebecca: I love the ending and I LOVE the second picture with the bright blue guy and the sepia tobacco. Angela

Angela Allen on Trafficking in Tobacco 2009-09-29

Thanks Angela! The second photo is my favorite as well.

Rebecca Jacobson on Trafficking in Tobacco 2009-09-30
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