January 10, 2011

American Girl

As you’re entering Addis Ababa from Debre Zeyit, there’s one spot where, out of nowhere, the crudely constructed, intermittently paved road rises up into a white concrete spiral overpass intertwined with several other entirely modern paved roads, soaring above a well-maintained green grassy lawn and past a high-rise apartment building. For a tiny split second, a fraction of a turn as the road weaves around the entrance to the city, all of the surrounding slums slip out of view; there are no chickens or sheep crossing the road; no burning piles of garbage—nothing but the Western—no, American—style entirely artificial concrete-mask can be seen.

Growing up—and, indeed, up until my recent travel experiences—I always perceived such obliteration of nature as oppressive and suffocating. And from an intellectual standpoint, I still entirely do. But in the same way that most granola-crunching vegan hippies still have a special place in out hearts for Kraft Mac ‘n’ Cheese, in spite of finding it repulsive on several levels, this tiny spot is the place that I feel the most at home here. That is not to say that I don’t love my village—the natural beauty of the lakes and mountains; the warmth of my compound and indescribably kind host family; the little bit of joy I get when I hear the sound of a lizard scuttling into the bushes as I step past him on the cobblestone street—or to say that I don’t love it here, or haven’t established the sort of routines which differentiate living somewhere from merely staying there. Indeed all of those things are true. But, for me, for better or worse, the world in which I was raised was imprinted on my soul, and—almost in spite of myself—whenever I pass this spot, even if I wasn’t paying attention prior, it almost feels as though for one moment, my entire being releases a sigh of relief.

And, in a strange way, I’m almost glad that I feel this way. You see, despite my dislike of some political policies in the US, despite the fact that so many of my most deeply-held views are in an overwhelming minority, I am, undeniably, an American. And as much as I like to assimilate into local culture; as hard as I work to genuinely experience life as it is for people here (and intend to do in future travels—I definitely have the travel bug!), it really is true that for me (and I know I’m not alone in this), this sort of travel is more draining than one might expect, or even realize, because as many gripes and frustrations as I may have with some things about the US, culture runs deep. It’s not just food, art, expressions, language. It’s communication, social structure, gender roles, and so much more.

And I am proud to be an American. I’m proud of our history, I’m proud of our tolerance (it definitely feels lacking at times when you’re in the thick of it, but when you leave and experience the homogeny that is required to be accepted in many other cultures, the racism you’re subjected to as a foreigner, it is quickly evident how much more tolerant we are of individuality, and of sub-cultural identities). I’m proud of our activism, and of our freedom to speak out. I appreciate the fact that we value privacy and time alone. Although I think we could benefit a lot from helping each other out a bit more, and losing the “stranger danger” mentality, I also appreciate that friendship is voluntary, not socially required—in the US, people are friends because they genuinely like each other, not because it would be rude not to be (obviously we all have a few “convenience” acquaintances, but we appreciate the distinction between acquaintance and friend—just because you happen to sit by someone on a bus in the US, doesn’t mean that you’re expected to hang out with them every day and get scolded for having other friends). I appreciate that in the US we are allowed to stay in for a night if we don’t feel like being extraverted.

Of course, I also appreciate the opportunity to escape, to learn, and to reflect on these nuances, and fully recognize that my preferences are a result of my upbringing, not the result of some empirical right or wrong, better or worse-ness of my culture over any other culture. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to explore, and am frankly not ready to return home (I’m not comfortable discussing what happened with my visa in a public forum until I’m safely back in the US). But just as an emotion like sadness or happiness will persist, regardless of an intellectual awareness that the emotion is illogical, cultural identity is firmly rooted, and even in the face of obvious evidence of cultural relativism, I am, through and through, an American girl.

Well she was an American girl
Raised on promises
She couldn’t help thinking there
Was a little more life
Somewhere else
After all it was a great big world
With lots of places to run to…

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