This post is part of Aid to Zen – A Quick Guide to Surviving Aid Work from A to Z by Alessandra Pigni.
“I never experienced ‘culture shock’ as an expatriate worker, but certainly experienced ‘reverse culture shock’ in attempting to re-integrate into my home-country after 10 years away. In the end I gave up!” – from a humanitarian professional
A couple of years ago I attended an event in London on the war in the former Yugoslavia. A panel of aid workers and journalists talked about those years with nostalgia, a time of aliveness, and great parties. “It was mostly a time of hate and destruction,” I thought, “how can people miss it?” But of course what they missed was not the violence, but the adrenaline of “the field”, the feeling of being alive during an emergency. It was then that I recognized that there had been times once away from the action, where I felt like an addict on a recovery programme. I could relate to the allure of the field vs. ordinary life back home.
Taking time out of the field is essential to keep our sanity, but no matter how much we fantasize about “going home”, one of the best kept secretes among aid workers is that it’s tougher to come home than it is to leave home. We read the usual stuff about the culture shock of going abroad, of going to a war zone, of moving to a developing country. But the shock is never what we expect. The shock is hardly ever the food, or the weather, or what to wear, or bad internet, or witnessing poverty and suffering. What’s tough lies elsewhere: a nightmare boss, sharing a house with colleagues, isolation, battling bureaucracy in the office when you thought you were going to spend time “in the field”.
Few will admit that they are “serial aid workers” (no proper rest in between missions, no down-time, no R&R) because coming home can be scarier than going to Iraq. Life back home strips you off your magic persona (“the hero in the field”), it forces you to live without your courageous aid worker’s identity and makes you ordinary, like everyone else. After a few days back home you’re not news any more, none of your friends know where Juba is and the spotlight is neither on you, nor on your stories. You are not as special in the eyes of family and friends as you were when you talked to them on Skype from the field. And if you’ve hit 35-40, chances are that your friends have kids and little time to hang out, which means you have a lot of time on your hands, alone (which is not necessarily a bad thing…)
That’s when reality bites: No matter how well you know that the aid system is broken, when you leave – unless you have a good plan B in place – you will miss the field. An aid worker put it brilliantly: “nothing at home can ever compete with the challenges, successes and failures that we endure in the field.” It all makes sense, after all Homer wrote the Odyssey about a man’s journey home, not about a man’s ordinary life in Ithaca. It’s all very well, I guess like Ulysses we are all returning home. Still, what I observed is that our need to be away from home and live the “VUCA lifestyle” (I just made that up, a fellow humanitarian calls the constant need to be in the field “shithole syndrome”) can be dangerous because it gives us the illusion of connecting to the world, while leaving us disconnected to what’s closer to home.
The nostalgia for home is seductive from distant lands, and so it the allure of the field once we’re no longer jet-setting around Aidland. Especially for those who are at home everywhere, but have a home nowhere.