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A VSO colleague of mine posted recently about his return to the US and contemplated the issue of re-entry styles. He wrote
“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.
- Negative feelings about North America and North American
Rejects the North America lifestyle; unable to adapt, feels stuck
May try to escape by taking further contracts overseas
Stress Level: High
- Reverts to prior North America lifestyle without dealing with personal changes (particularly attitudinal or value-based changes) that occurred abroad
Stress Level: Initially low, but with potential to increase
- 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 think this categorisation is too simple: I suspect a lot of folks experience elements of all the 3 aspects - Alienation, Reversion and Integration - as a real mix. My problem with delineating them is that it ignores, perhaps amongst other things, the impact of one’s original reasoning for volunteering and concurrent changes to your own country during your period of volunteering. I’m not saying that some folks won’t experience one or other of these aspects and adopt the strategies outlined and experience the stress levels indicated, just that this scale is a gross simplification.
For example, if one’s volunteer experience was the first time living and working in another country then it will have a different impact than if this has done this before, even if that was not as a volunteer. Some people volunteer knowing they will go back into exactly the same life they left, same house, same friends, same job on their return. Others volunteer as part of a more extended time “seeing the world”. To me these re-entry styles sort of assumes the first and ignores the second. If one volunteered consciously as part of a broader approach to “seeing the world” then going off somewhere else is not “escaping” the alienation of one’s own country and culture but rather part of a planned continued experience.
Whenever one returns home, one experiences missed things – both positive and negative. Volunteers often write about coping with “too many choices” when they return home, mainly as regards food, but also other things. I recall after my first extended trip back to The Sahara, walking through GDC airport in Paris and suffering a sensory bombardment, not only the lights, the shops, the amount of glass in windows, tables etc,, of noise and people rushing about, but also a nasal onslaught of smells I would not previously have even noticed such as the floor cleaner, the window polish etc. Now when I return I am no longer surprised by these, although I do still experience the novelty of the changes in smells., but there is always something new which gives rise to what I term a “ooh” moment. For lots of volunteers it is when they retaste cheese, for me it happened with black pudding, but it can happen in the strangest of places, with the weirdest of sensations – my most recent was the delight of using ultra soft, quilted toilet paper – not something I had ever even consciously missed in India. These “ooh” moments are very fleeting, but also very intense.
If one had stayed at home during the same period one’s feelings about one’s own country and culture may have changed anyway. I think this is particularly so now as the current eco-socio-political situation has and is changing attitudes within our society at a fundamental level and there’s more to come I am sure. The UK has seen a dramatic change in government during the past couple of years which has had and is having a deep, far reaching impact on our society. There are changes in attitudes to work, social care, education & training, the continued and increasing commercialisation of all aspects of life, the burgeoning commercialisation of social responsibility, the widening gap between the “haves” and “have nots”.
On my return I have been struck by the number of adverts for payday loans with their exorbitant 4200% APR rates ( a sure sign of economic stress biting hard when people, disenfranchised from the banking system, have to resort to this grotesque form of legal loan sharks) , by how readily people click the button without thinking to satisfy an unrecognised addiction to buying virtual goods, the latest must-have, never-use-after-the-first-week app, the lack of distinction being made between outsourcing, privatisation and commercialisation of what were once services run by the government for the people, the latest being the police force, and the surprise in the general populace when it is revealed that skimming off and subcontracting of difficult cases has been rife in the management on behalf of the UK government by a4e of workplace experience schemes for the unemployed.
Whilst I am not saying that there weren’t improvements and efficiencies to be made to government operations, running a country, a society that cares and which holds certain core values cannot, in my opinion, be done by a commercial organisation whose aim is to generate wealth for its owners/shareholders being responsible for delivering key services – all that means is people’s taxes are being pushed on through to the pockets of already wealthy city types. All a country’s people should be a country’s stakeholders. Would I have thought the same about this if I had never volunteered? Of course I can’t be sure - we are after all more than the sum of all of our experiences - but I believe so.
So at a personal level have I been undergoing Alienation, Reversion and Integration? Yes all 3 but I think the volunteering experience is only one small part of a bigger and planned change in me which started some years ago. I made a conscience decision to see more of the world, to experience more of life, to live it to my fullest and if I could do something constructive along the way, well and good. I’d always hoped and planned to volunteer and to do it in more than one place. My volunteering experience has and will be one of the many facets of that life change, not the only one.
As I now “escape” to my second VSO placement I wonder how differently I am coming to it than I did my first? Re-entry styles the other way round! Well in terms of due diligence, much the same approach really . I’ve done my homework on the country, chatted with VSO volunteers there, checked up as much as I can on the organisation I shall be with. It shall be interesting to compare programme office approaches. The immediately obvious one is a much shorter in country introduction process in Nigeria compared to the 4 weeks we had in India. After that we shall see.