Arriving at some layover airport during the 53.5 hour trek home. Yes, I counted.

The Four Stages

I’ve thought about how I am responding to being back in the U.S. almost as much as I’ve thought about how I should be responding to being back in the U.S. The journey of re-acclimating has not been like I expected; it has been nonlinear and sporadic. After a few weeks to chew on it, I have concluded that my adjustment process has taken place in four stages. But don’t let the deceptive clarity of this number fool you. These layers of processing have been anything but defined and clear-cut; they have often overlapped and confused themselves with each other. Yet here is my attempt to make a neat list out of the ambiguity.

The first stage: Excitement.

When I got off that plane, I could not contain my restless exhilaration. I WAS HOME. The first night that I slept in my bed was heaven, surrounded by the snuggly smell of clean sheets. When I would go for a quick run in the morning, I would be welcomed by the refreshingly cool, dry California air. (Yaas for 20% humidity.) I could share stories and photos with my family in person, rather than over glitchy Facetime. I could eat an avocado, goldfish crackers, pasta, bagels and cream cheese…the list could go on and on. This euphoria of being back in my comfort zone, experiencing that fuzzy warm feeling of familiarity, trumped everything. Therefore, it didn’t really occur to me how huge the Costco I was strolling through was, or how the Starbucks coffee I was consuming cost the equivalent of +25 Kolkata metro rides. Wow, I thought to myself during those first few days, I am adjusting back to my routine really quickly.

The second stage: A Stinging Conscience.

And then without warning, it would hit me. First of all, my jetlag struck me like a runaway train; after two full days of adrenaline-powered alertness, I slept for a day and a half. In the same way, the culture shock would catch up to me and suddenly give my conscience a hearty punch in the gut.

This happened once while my mom and I were running errands at the mall in preparation for my brother’s birthday. We ran to Verizon, then the Gap, then Tillys, then Starbucks, then Party City, then Best Buy, and then Party City again (distracted by other purchases, we had forgotten to get the birthday balloon we had originally gone there for). By the end of the day, I was overwhelmed. I felt like I had spent my whole afternoon surrounded by empty excess. Pinballing back and forth across all these stores, while surrounded by people buying stuff they didn’t need (and also buying stuff I didn’t need), felt gut-wrenchingly pointless. My heart was heavy when I began to notice how obsessively particular we were: I think, for instance, of the woman in front of us in the Starbucks line who got upset at the cashier — presumably because her order wasn’t quite right. Then, my mom arrives at the cash register and kindly orders her usual, a: VentiDecafIcedWithNoIceWholeMilkLatteWithNoWhipNoFoamAndAnExtraShot. And, of course, as I order, I see that I am as much a part of this mundane world as anyone else.

Ok, there’s nothing wrong with shopping, or ordering your usual at Starbucks. But my perspective shifted to view these things in a different light — as just less important. With the poverty of Kolkata’s streets in my mind’s eye, I felt like we should avoid making these items more of a priority than they should be. We could direct our energy in a much more productive and meaningful way.

The third stage: Elitism.

My newly-awakened conscience led me down a slippery slope. As I began to point out these revelations I noticed to myself and my family, I seemed to become the self-ordained preacher about “American Materialism” and “the Gluttony of the West.” Suddenly, my six-week ~experience~ in a developing country made me think that I knew much more about the world than those around me. I found myself scoffing at the congregation in our wonderful (mostly upper class) church as they collected the weekly tithe. Well aren’t you lucky that you are the privileged one giving the tithe rather than the impoverished recipient of your charity money. I walked away from my brothers’ high school “Back to School Night” offended by their proud announcement that they finally completed fundraising for their new $2.5 million swimming pool. That $2.5 million could be used to make much more of an impact in a developing country like India. When I muttered this to my mom, she responded carefully, “Um, yes I guess so, but this school has desperately needed a pool for years.” My pride clouded my understanding and rendered me unhelpful.

The fourth stage: Normality.

Now, I go through my day without such emotional turmoil. I am less conscious about my adjustment process; life feels back to normal. I am thankful for this peace of mind, but it also makes me uneasy. I know I shouldn’t be in an introspective funk forever, but I have to reassure myself that India will always be a part of me. I don’t want to ever forget what I saw, smelled, tasted, and felt during those weeks in Kolkata.

And to be honest, I know I won’t.

Meanwhile, I cannot cling to a guilt for my privilege that prevents me from being productive in the present. I plan to redirect this new perspective in a way that spurs me to seize the opportunities I have with more humility, generosity, and vigor. In the wise words of Oprah: “Understand that the right to choose your own path is a sacred privilege. Use it. Dwell in possibility.”

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