July 19, 2010

Proud to Be an American…No, REALLY…

I’m sure you’ve figured this out, but as a result of limited internet access combined with my attempts to make sure each blog is reasonably coherent, there is a bit of a lag time between when the events discussed in each blog have taken place and when the blogs are actully posted…case in point: it’s nearly August and I’m just now posting my July 4th blog…so you’ll just have to take yourselves back a few weeks to relive the magic :o)

Oh holidays…how they always seem to serve as the mile-markers of life.  It’s nearly impossible to mark the passing of one holiday without at least vaguely reflecting on your experiences of holidays past.  For me, this Fourth of July was no exception.  Because I knew there was a possibility that I might not be in the United States this year, last year I was determined to have THE bona-fide American Independence Day experience.  So I made my now much-missed commute from Portland to Seattle, my favorite city on the world.  I sat amongst my fellow Americans packed onto the grassy hills of Gasworks Park, passing around beach balls and light sticks, watching the plethora of unofficial illegal neighborhood fireworks shows illuminating the horizon, and chiming in on the collective groans about the woes of big crowds, over-priced cotton candy, and the apparent inability for any large event to ever begin on time.  But despite my apparent involvement in the event, all the while, I was stuck in my own head, preoccupied with the uncertainty of everything in my life at that point—I literally had no idea whether my next year would be spent here in America, living the same way I always have, or in some foreign place halfway across the world re-learning even the most basic elements of life.

The sky grew dark, a handful of stars emerged, and the display finally began.  The bright colors flashed hypnotically overhead then drizzled down over the Seattle skyline, with the full moon on one side, and the Space Needle on the other.  I was in my favorite, most familiar place in the world, completely certain of my surroundings, yet I was entirely uncertain about my own life, my own future.  The thunderous booms of each explosion drowned out the noises of the crowd and the world around me, and I found myself feeling all alone—a sense which is certainly not uncommon on holidays, but it wasn’t in a bad, lonely way.  And it wasn’t really in a good, independent, empowered way either.  Knowing that I was at one of the greatest metaphorical forks in my life’s path just made me feel extremely detached and isolated, even though I was embedded in the midst of other people.  I couldn’t help but to be consumed by the dichotomy of possibilities that lied in front of me—was I about to spread my wings or plant my roots?

So that was last year.  This year could not have been more different.  There is one other PCV in my village, from last year’s Peace Corps class (Bots 8).  We have been making a point of trying not to spend a great deal of time together during my initial time here in Shakawe, to ensure that I am integrating into the community, rather than just hanging with her.  However, because holidays here are prone to extreme homesickness, we decided to spend the afternoon of the 4th together, making American food, watching American television, and embracing American pop-culture (which, ironically, is something I loved to loathe before I left the States).  So I spent the week before making cookies and coconut ice cream (which took two days to freeze, seeing as the power did not seem to want to stay on—oh the perils of PC Bots—sometimes the freezer doesn’t work—ha!) and procuring vegan hot dogs, Cokes in glass bottles, and Heinz Ketchup from Choppies.  When the Fourth arrived, I got decked out in red, white, and blue, and headed to her house. 

We didn’t have fireworks.  We didn’t have patriotic music or large crowds and cotton candy.  We didn’t even have family or old friends.  But we had our Coke floats.  We had our episodes of Friends.  We had our stories about home, about our traditions and of our 4th of July’s past.  We had each other.  So for a few hours, we let the world around us fall away and allowed ourselves to relax and enjoy the comfort of each other’s company. 

But as it got dark, it was time for our bubble of Americana to burst, and as I stepped outside, I felt it shatter as I found myself involuntarily uttering “Dumela” rather than “Hello” to the first shadowy figure I passed.  As I trudged along the dusty road, attempting to make sense of the darkened shapes of my village at night, illuminated only by the stars above, I realized that I was literally in the opposite place—both physically and emotionally—that I was in last year.  I was entirely uncertain of the unfamiliar world around me, but had no doubts about what I would be doing for the next two years.  I was literally alone, but feeling so much love from family and friends, thousands of miles away, and my new second-family of PCV’s here in Botswana.  And unlike the slightly smug attitude I used to have towards American pop culture, which was so easy and convenient to suavely maintain while sipping my fair trade organic soy latte and feeling self-righteous for driving a Prius, I find myself overwhelmed with gratitude for all of the opportunity and privilege that America bestows upon its citizens, and so appreciative of the culture and values that I grew up with. 

I know that probably sounds entirely cheesy and over-the-top to a lot of you…and of course, America is far from perfect—but what isn’t?  And I really do think a lot of us take a lot of stuff for granted—and just the fact that we are able to do that is demonstrative of just how great America is.  None of this is intended to be derogatory towards Botswana, of course—but I think it’s important for all of us to embrace where we came from every now and again…and what better time than on our Independence Day?  Now someone go get a soy latte and take a spin a hybrid for me…pretty please?! 

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