Friday, March 2, 2012

Three years of Voluntary Service Overseas

My three years of Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) ended this past week. I’m a different person than I was when I became a volunteer in India in March 2009. India and all that it is has invaded and infused body; which was once was as an All American. I understand a little bit more about the world and another culture. I realize how similar we are and that the things that we want are very similar. I might have known this from living my entire life in the United States, but I know now how important it has been for me to leave my native place and live somewhere else, which even after three years, no matter how comfortable I have become, still remains foreign.

I was in the West as soon as I made it to the IGI airport in New Delhi moving on to my layover in Hong Kong on Thursday. Efficiency, efficiency, efficiency, no garbage, many people interested in helping to get me to the right place. After an efficient dim sum lunch with a friend in the downtown area, I made it back in 24 minutes to the airport on the connecting train. (I even met two people at the airport, a bit older than me, who went to the same high school). Arriving in Los Angeles was more of the same, the sky was fairly blue, the weather temperate, people stopping for me when I crossed the streets, in fact, I had the right-of-way, what an utterly strange concept.

My daughter picked me up and the traffic flow was fairly straight forward with other vehicles giving the right-of-way. We went to Sarah and Ricardo’s apartment which is nice, clean and efficient, not too much traffic on the street. Ricardo and I went for a walk and as I remembered, every corner was filled with a mini-mall, the usual Mexican and Thai restaurants, a bakery, the drug and grocery stores, traffic moving together and not a cow or a piece of garbage in site.

It really isn’t too strange being in the US, but I am hoping to live for a longer time in India and generally abroad. I look out the windows of the apartment, nobody on the wide, tree lined, well lit street, no noise, except for some cars. But, this also seems a bit foreign to me.

Sarah and I went for a short hike today, up a few hills, again no garbage and even cans lining the way. Most people were speaking English, but there were some speaking foreign tongues; everyone enjoying their privilege of living and/or visiting the US.

There was also last night when Ricardo, Sarah and I went for a walk to the Pie Shop, (oh my, the choices!) and we passed a number of people on the streets in their sleeping bags; there was even a tent. It did however look different from what I’ve come to identify living on the streets in India with.

As I’ve been in the US for about 34 hours of which half wre spent in a well deserved sleep, I’ve read about the volunteer “Re-entry styles”:

“1.1 Re-entry Styles
If you accept that re-entry is a period of transition that is accompanied by stress, there is
typically one of three approaches driving your transition. Your re-entry style will dictate the level
of ease with which you will move through the re-entry transition period. Your style or approach
to re-entry will also determine your stress level.
i) Alienation
Negative feelings about North America and North American culture
Rejects the North American lifestyle; unable to adapt, feels stuck
May try to escape by taking further contracts overseas
Stress Level: High
ii) Reversion
Reverts to prior North American lifestyle without dealing with personal changes (particularly attitudinal or value-based changes) that occurred abroad
Stress Level: Initially low, but with potential to increase
iii) Integration
Uses the stress of re-entry to learn more about self
Integrates the changes that have occurred abroad to develop a new identity and lifestyle in accordance with changed self
Stress Level: Moderate”

I chatted on Facebook today with a VSO India friend who has been in the US since December, and she related that both her and her husband have jobs and are even house hunting. They must be iii) Integration.

Since I have two contracts in India and am working on a new visa, I immediately went to i) Alienation, especially “may try to escape by taking further contracts overseas”. I thought about how I might be “trying to escape”, but in reality have found a place, although it is so very challenging in everything from the weather to the lifestyle to the lack of language on my part, where I’m internally happy.

I wonder though where there is space for realizing that possibly some and/or many of the returned volunteers may want to work overseas. At least I know of a fair amount, in which, India just wasn’t enough and the volunteers needed/wanted more.

I probably shouldn’t take the re-entry styles so literally, but a shift has occurred in my life, in which the world, on some level, seems to be available. The major deterrent is only the possibility of not obtaining a new visa.

The fact remains that the US is not the place that it was three years ago and although I haven’t fully explored the opportunities here, it appears that overseas is where my skill set is needed the most, where my network remains just waiting to gobble me up.

The volunteer overseas experience is partially about the impact that we make, but is more about the friendships that we’ve made, the perceptions that we’ve changed and the smiles that we give to others and others to us as the only form of communication. It is about others saying to me with complete sincerity, “you are coming back, right?” The overseas experience is about not taking things for granted, about immersing oneself in another culture, feeling frustrations and overcoming these and not giving up one’s native place, but being flexible enough to fit in.

I will go back; it is just a matter of time. Between now and then I will enjoy my native place, my dear friends and family, but will also keep my focus on where my heart says is the right place for me at this point in my life. VSO-Very Supreme Opportunities (to live an extraordinary life!)


Sheila said...

I can absolutely relate to the "too many choices" - I'd noticed that before when I have been abroad for long periods of travel and certainly living where I did in India the impact of UK supermarket shelves stacked with 10 varieties of the smae things resulted in a "OOh" moment, as did the sheer range of sensory experiences, often coming from the most unexpected places , like last week with ultra soft padded toilet paper! But there were these when I was first in India - the bombarment of aromas in the spice market in Delhi for example, not unique to India by certainly different to home.
I am not sure about the categories of coping with returning, I shall think on these more, but I suspect I relate most to the "escaping" but it is not quite the right word. Yes I know lots of flks here who would agree that this country is not the same as it was 3 years ago, many are stuck and can't get out, others are going thorugh a time of transition, to what neither they or I know, becuase the whole ethos of life here is changing dramatically with the impact of social service cuts and changing attitudes to work and care. Too much for a blog post comment....
Mike, all thebest for your return to your beloved. I know India touched your soul and your heart. Long may it delight. Stay in touch.

jass said...

Wow! I love this type post's.
Keep it up...

Volunteer Abroad

Nicole Dagher said...

Michael you have summed up the experience of many volunteers returning from their placements so beautifully. YOu are here but your heart and mind may still be elsewhere and it doesn't matter where you are in the re-entry stage, acknowledging the fact that you need to be flexible overseas and that you also need that flexibility being back home will allow you to fit in wherever you may find yourself ;) Hope we get to meet at a Reintegration Weekend! - Nicole

Zoe Lara said...

Good luck with the visa, Mike! Love Zoe