Wednesday, September 14, 2011

I'm in Americaland!! Whoa! (1 of 3)

I've been vacationing here in the US for the past few weeks (spending time in Northern Virginia, Fredericksburg, DC, Baltimore, and Dewey Beach) and am headed back to Burkina today. I can't thank everyone who helped organize getting friends/family together enough - you all helped make this my favorite vacation of the past few years. I've had a wonderful time and got to see sooo many of the people I love the most in this country. And now, I'm also very excited to head back to my second home.

To help explain a bit of what it’s been like to go from 2 years in Africa to 2 weeks in the US, my Momma came up with some questions for me to answer. The post I started writing seemed to go on and on, so I’ve split the 3 questions into 3 different posts. Enjoy!

Q: What do you miss the most about Burkina?

Easy! The people!
My best friend Zalle, his family, our other co-workers, and my family from my old site and from training are especially missed. I can't wait to go and just...sit with them, eat with them, hold their babies, and talk with them - about everything and nothing.

I also miss the interactions with random strangers who seem to want to do nothing other than help you with whatever you need and strike up conversations about the most random things. I can't wait for that next convo with random-person-i-happen-to-be-sitting-next-to-on-the-bus. Not that I always loved having those conversations in the past (don't mess with Mama during nap time!), but from here - land where strangers are weird if they talk to one another for too long - I totally miss this.

I also, of course, miss my Peace Corps - and MCC ;) - people that have been sweating it out in the Faso as I fall asleep on a cushy couch in front of a blaring "Real Housewives of New Jersey". I know you all are jealous, but I'm bringing presents...

I'm in Americaland!! Whoa! (2 of 3)

Q: What food cravings have you indulged?

A: The friends I just mentioned in the post above may want to skip to the next question's not fair for you to have to read this. Here are some of the amazing meals I've had whilst here:

- Sushi carryout - all the loveliness of sushi without the social awkwardness of a restaurant

- Shrimp in a garlic butter sauce with red pepper over orzo (made it myself!)

- Homemade mac-n-cheese casserole

- Sweet corn with cilantro and onions (thanks, Momma, for these last 2!)

- Asparagus (Louisa, thank you!)

- Rosemary foccacia bread and a cranberry-orange muffin from a farmer's market

- Leek hash browns (with Linds, Emma, and Nat at Founding Farmers)

- Kale salad with walnuts and lemon herb vinaigrette dressing (surprisingly delicious! Thanks, Kenna!)

- Persian food. Lots of it. SO good! (Thanks to Dad and Rhea)

- A bagel. With cream cheese. (seriously craved that one for 2 years straight)

- Mandarin tofu and flaming volcanoes from Fortune's. YES! (crunchy chinese noodles on the side to throw at tables full of strangers with nice moustaches)

- Pickles

- Fractured Prune donuts

- White cranberry peach juice

- Crabs! (learned how to pick 'em and whack 'em with a mallet from Rhea!)


- Samoa (as in the Girl Scout Cookie) ice cream

- aaaand...artichoke! My favorite totally bizarre snack food!

I'm in Americaland!! Whoa! (3 of 3)

Q: What's the most surprising thing you noticed about Americaland?

Hmm...well. I think the first thing that really surprised me was how much easier it was to "adjust" than I thought it would be. The US and Burkina are so very different from each other that they seem to exist in separate universes. So, coming back to a universe I'd lived in for 22 years already wasn't all that hard. I drove on the highway, went to Target, hung out with friends, went to the beach, etc. with relative ease. And even though I hadn't been in the "Western world" for two years, I still remembered most idiosyncrasies of American culture. I didn't pick up strangers' children, I didn't apologize for using my left hand, I didn't try to cover my knees at the beach...most things felt pretty normal. When I got confused about how to do something, it usually didn't last long and/or some nice person would help me figure things out (while, i think, only judging me as mildly stupid or strange).

Which is not to say I didn't feel overwhelmed by many things in the first few days. I could feel the anxiety well up after picking out over 15 things to try on and spending over an hour at both Target and H&M (something that never
would have bothered me in the past).

One of my first interactions with a stranger was with a hip vendor at a farmer's market who hurriedly spewed out all these reasons to buy his rosemary focaccia bread as well as instructions on how to preserve/reheat it. I wanted to tell him that there was nothing in the world at that moment that I would rather do than buy his bread and could he please stop talking so quickly??

Just like when I first arrived in Burkina, it was small, funny things that overwhelmed me - and never the ones I expected. I guess that's just culture shock, huh?

But after awhile, the thing that really surprised me the most was how...I don't know...particular(?) Americans are. I guess being in a community of flexible, adaptable Peace Corps Volunteers amongst a country full of maybe overly
flexible Burkinabe for 2 years made me forget that not everyone is like that. I'm used to hearing any suggestion of something to do and thinking "Yeah! Sure! Sounds great! Let's do it!" and looking at the people next to me and usually seeing the same reaction. The only logical reason not to do something has been being too tired or scheduling conflicts. So when in the process of planning things there are all these questions about what, where, when, and how one wants to hang out (with the implication that someone might really turn it down or be particular about some detail) felt strange. To me, in the limited time I had here, I wanted to just be with the people I love - doing whatever it is they thought might be fun. And my standards for what constitutes as fun have definitely become much more lax in the past few years.

One obvious example occurred when I was hanging out with my friend John and his 7-year-old son, James. We had all been hanging out all day and at one point John said he needed to stop by his office to drop something off. He asked me if I was interested in tagging along. I readily agreed and had a great time hanging out with his son in the car playing word games. When he got back to the car, he announced that he had scored tickets to the pre-season Redskins game for that evening. But not just plain old tickets, either - Owner's Suite
tickets. He asked if I'd like to go and I was totally psyched! More hang-out time with them PLUS crazy fancy box seats at a football game?? Duh!

[Side note for anyone who doesn't know me very well: I know next to nothing about most sports, especially football. I had to ask for a detailed description of what a "down" was and couldn't see the football for about 50% of the game]

John was happy I agreed but also a bit surprised - not because he necessarily knew about my complete lack of football knowledge, but because
  1. I'd been hanging out with them all day and he thought I must have places to go and things to do
  2. We knew each other through the music community and so I really might not be interested in football

These ideas came from the fact that last time he scored these box seat tickets from work, he had called around to about 20 different friends to see if they’d be interested in going with him to the game and ALL of them said they either couldn’t or weren’t interested in seeing a game! He tried to pitch it as a cultural experience, but they really just didn’t wanna go. I was totally shocked when he told me about this and even more so after having gone to the game where we enjoyed: a parking space on the very closest row to the stadium, free dinner and dessert buffets, super-close fancy seats, bathrooms with TVs all over the place, a waitress taking drink orders, and so much overall swank I almost couldn’t handle it. It was an awesome experience that was so much fun! Why wouldn’t anyone want to do this?

I thought about this phenomenon a lot as my trip continued and came up with somewhat of a theory as to why a lot of Americans might be more limited in what they decide to do with their time (get ready for a lot of generalizing).

I think it might have something to do with our huge emphasis on individualism and “figuring out who you are” and something to do with the overwhelming amount of choices with which we’re presented every day. In the US, our time is limited and we have copious amounts of fun, exciting, entertaining things we can do. So as we get grow up, we try all sort of different things and what we like we continue to do until we hone in on our own, personal set of “interests”. It helps us define ourselves and stand out as an individual – which I think we value very much.

Now, in the Peace Corps (at least in Burkina), all of those copious amounts of entertainment melt away and we all easily stand out and seem different to those around us (even if it’s just due to skin color). The population of PCVs also tends to be on the more open to trying new things and getting thrown into new situations. So maybe due to our situation, everything in the US seems like an exciting opportunity and we’re not so concerned with saying “that’s not really me” (because hardly anyone we’ve lived with for the past 2 years knows much about the me that we’ve defined for ourselves in our lives before Peace Corps).

Of course, I’m not trying to make value judgments on these two different “lifestyles”. The “American way” helps us be less overwhelmed with choice and spend the little time we have doing what we know we love. And the “PCV way” helps us have as much fun and gain as many different experiences as we can in an unfamiliar environment.

In the interest of not dragging on forever, I guess the take-home messages I learned from seeing this are that even after having figured out “who you are”, it’s good to still be open to new and different experiences and what really matters is who you’re doing something with – not what exactly you’re doing.

I’d love to know what all of you out there in Internetland think of this stuff, so comment away! And definitely expect more frequent blog posts in the future, seeing as I’ll have internet for more than 2 days a month now! Thanks for reading!