Coming Home: Thoughts on Rediscovering and Reclaiming Identity

I just finished listening to a fabulous Ted Talk: “The Art of Being Yourself.” In it, the presenter says the following:

With every passing year, your job is to be better and better at being who you already are.

Caroline McHugh, “The Art of Being Yourself”

When I was evacuated from Peace Corps, I didn’t just lose my job, my home, and my community. I lost my identity. Peace Corps is a very strange animal, in that it requires you to become a chameleon. More than any other international job, Peace Corps volunteers undergo a tremendous identity change. You have to become a master at code switching, changing what you say and how you behave in order to adapt to your immediate environment. You have to learn how people think in order to communicate effectively and be understood.

Over time, I found myself internalizing certain habits I picked up from local culture. Here’s an example: in the US, we tend to substitute”Uh-huh” and “uh-uh” for “yes” and “no,” respectively. In the Malagasy dialect that I spoke, it’s reversed: “uh-uh” means “yes” and “uh-huh” means no. This confused me to no end. Are people agreeing or disagreeing with me? Are they saying yes or no? Eventually, though, I adopted this behavior, without really meaning to. In fact, it became so habitual to me that I would do it without thinking, often in the presence of other volunteers, or while talking to my American parents on the phone. I took on this habit, because it was an effective (and, let’s be honest, fun) way to communicate. And it’s still a part of me. I don’t know how to undo it.

Another example is sitting on the floor. People sit on the floor in my region of Madagascar. Not because they don’t have chairs. They’re just accustomed to the ground. I got in the habit of cooking, eating, writing, and socializing, all while sitting crosslegged on the floor. Now, it’s so much easier for me to get work done on the floor. I have a desk in my bedroom, but I hardly use it.

These may seem like small, trivial habits, but they’re important to me because they’ve become a part of me. They represent what I had to go through to survive and what I eventually came to love and cherish. I never considered cooking on the floor before Madagascar. I never peeled carrots in one hand with a pairing knife, or shouted “oiee” when I was surprised or startled, or stopped to say hello to every stranger I pass on the road. These habits are now part of my new, post Peace Corps American self, and I don’t know what to do with them. They’ve become part of my identity, but the identity I was crafting feels painfully irrelevant in post-evacuation, quarantine life.

Now that I’m back, I don’t need to cook on the floor, or answer “uh-uh” as an affirmative, or greet everyone with a firm handshake, or sit down before I start a conversation. I’ve been trying to stir up some of my old habits to fill the void. But nothing feels exactly correct now, because nothing is exactly me anymore. I don’t know who me is. I’m not who I was before 2017…but I’m not who I was up until the evacuation, either.

When I step back and take a birds’ eye view, what’s happening to me now is exactly what I expected to happen. I was pulled out of a life I loved and thrown into a life I didn’t recognize, didn’t plan for, and didn’t choose (at that time), and given no projects and very little guidance. No job or identity was waiting to replace the ones I had abandoned. Only old books and notebooks and tshirts, mementos from a life I had almost forgotten. Maybe I’m having such a hard time being home because I didn’t like who I was before I left, and I buried those parts deep down in the corners of suitcases or left them at the Memphis International Airport three years ago. But they’ve been waiting for me this whole time. It’s time to unpack.

This is scary and painful. But if there’s one saving grace, it’s that I know I can do it, because I did Peace Corps, and damnit, that’s hard. To quote Glennon Doyle, We can do hard things.”

Before I left for Peace Corps, I wrote a manifesto of all the things I wanted to do and not do during my time. It was my contract with myself. It served me well and helped guide me in times of ambiguity. Perhaps it’s time to write another one. Perhaps I need to sit down with this new, post Peace Corps, post evacuation self, on the floor, and write out who I am now, or who I want to become.

No one is expecting me to act a certain way anymore. Maybe that’s liberating. Maybe that’s release. Maybe I can tap back into the parts of myself I liked pre-Peace Corps and leave the rest behind. For now, I need to let that be enough.

Your life has to be your message.

Caroline McHugh