At first it was strange to throw toilet paper in the toilet rather than the wastebasket and be in a comfortable climate rather than melting of heat. Those contrasts caught my attention first and in a jarring way when I arrived back in the US several days ago, after living as a Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay for 27 months. But, where one puts toilet paper and how the weather is have always been minor details of life to which one easily adjusts.
My Peace Corps service ended on April 8, 2016. And, I’m still journeying to where I’ll live next. I’m visiting family, not seen for over 2 years, before I settle into what I imagine will be a hectic lifestyle. And as the visiting continues, I’m taking my time to adjust to this new world called the U.S. of A. It was both out of urgency and strategic planning that my first stops in America were to visit my grandparents. I spent so many hours sitting, chatting, and talking about old times with Paraguayans, doing the same in English with family has been a treat.
But, even in the bubble of my grandparents’ homes and neighborhoods my time in Paraguay seems to fade like a dream. As one person commented on Facebook, “It happened and now it is over.” Or, as my grandmother said, “that place you visited.” I had to laugh at the choice of the word “visited.” Can anywhere one stays for over two years count as a visit? “Visit” seems like such a trival word to describe a place I consider home and from which I emerged a new person. Words. That brings me to the point of this ramble.
There are many details that are different about living in Paraguay and living in the US. For example, I can talk to a guy my age in the US without anyone jumping directly to the conclusion I have a fling with him, where as in Paraguay people would most likely think there was something going on between he and I. But, for now, the diverging details are not overwhelming. The harshest changes I currently feel are the different life sounds between the US and Paraguay and that I have lost the key words and phrases I’ve been using for two years to express my thoughts and feelings.
On one hand, it is nice to once again understand what everyone is saying around me. On the other hand, it is so distracting to know every blasted word the people in line in front and behind me are saying. Who should I listen to? How can I think of my own words when there are so many words flying around me that I effortlessly understand? It was a lot easier to tune out in Paraguay where I did not understand every thing people said.
I am joyful to hear so many people speak my native tongue, but my goodness how the sounds that make those words sound like gravel against a shovel or nails on a chalkboard. I never realized how ugly and harsh English can sound. The twang, whine, and nasal of English words is almost painful to my ears. I miss the round vowels of Spanish and the flow of Guarani–two languages that are melodic compared to the clanking nature of English.
It’s not just the sound of the language that is dissonant to my Paraguay-tuned ears. It’s the music, or more accurately lack of music. Where is my cumbia? My bachata? Paraguayan polka? Why are the houses and buses and streets silent? What is this new phenomena of silent nights? I used to have to wear earplugs to escape from Spanish-language love songs, and now I can sleep without earplugs because there is not even the roar of dirt bikes and heaving old trucks to disturb my slumber. Am I in the land of perfect sleep?
The soundtrack is different in my country from that of my Paraguay. But, that is not all. The words and phrases I can use to express myself are different too. It is obvious that speaking in different languages means using different words. However it is not the language, but the phrasing that is tripping me. Even when I translate, or try to translate, the words and phrases I used in Paraguay to English, it doesn’t work. Why? Well, a lot of the words don’t have an English equivalent. How the heck am I supposed to say “tranquilo” or “no más” or “opama” or “kaigue” or “hi’que” in this blasted native language of mine? I can’t.
“Tranquilo” could be translated to “tranquil,” “no problem,” and “life’s good,” but it means all those things and more. The same goes for the others. “No más” literally means “no more,” but it can actually mean “that’s all,” “no problem,” and “It’s not a big deal.” “Opama” literally means “It’s over already,” but that’s hardly a good suggestion of all the things “opama” can mean in context. Both “kaigue” and “hi’que” don’t even have English translations…so there’s that.
Sounds. Words. Music. Language. They dictate who we are and how we explain ourselves to others. When I first got to Paraguay, and for all my time there, one of the biggest challenges I had was feeling like I could not completely express myself in Spanish and Guarani. Ironically, I now feel the same way in my homeland. I’m at a loss for words and homesick for the familiar sounds of my community in Paraguay. The language. The music. The spitting of frying oil and roaring of dirt bike motors. I know the sounds of my American environment will soon become just background noise. But right now, my new life’s soundtrack is bombarding my conscious mind.