Thursday, August 1, 2013

Cause to Pause: The Reality of Africa

Here we are.  One year in Africa today.  It's cause to pause and reflect on what we've learned in our now-not-so-new continent.  And one thing has been on my mind lately.

--But before I start spilling my latest thoughts, I must add a disclaimer... because every time I write anything (I hope to be) introspective on this blog, I have a few friends who immediately contact me and say, "Are you okay?  You sound sad.  Are you thinking of returning early?"  The answer is always a firm no.  Wrestling with challenges and big ideas is not at all the same as unhappiness.  We're loving this continent, all we're learning, and our continued new experiences!  Okay, let's move on to the one thing--

The shock of moving to Africa is not in experiencing how people different than myself live, the strangeness of new flora and fauna, or the awe of a new landscape.  The shock of Africa is continually the shift in reality.  As I explore the complex landscapes of African life I am confronted over and over by the relevance of things I have previously learned or paid attention to.  And the lack of relevance.

I have crossed paths with hundreds of people that will never know what it is like to travel thirty miles beyond home.  That will never understand how time-consuming Facebook can be.  That will never know what “Googling” something means, what a Kleenex is, or what chocolate tastes like. I have seen street vendors tie bricks to their baby's legs lest they crawl into the street. I have seen bricks used as produce to play store, and a public metal bench used as a chew to soothe a teething child.  I have seen a child turn a paint chip into a toy named Henry.

Until the minute we left our city home for the wilds of Chirundu, Zim, a few weeks ago, I was paying attention to things like an anticipated royal baby, a book on happiness, and my email inbox.  But as with every trip outside The Bubble, Chirundu once again reminded me of how irrelevant things I have put energy into can be at times.  It has become my struggle. And perhaps, to an extent, my fear.   

An excellent blog post I read recently, entitled What Happens When You Live Abroad, perfectly describes the tragedy of the ex-patriot.  “As you settle into your new life and country, as time passes and becomes less a question of how long you’ve been here and more one of how long you’ve been gone, you realize that life back home has gone on without you…. People have grown up, they’ve moved, they’ve married, they’ve become completely different people—and so have you…. So you look at your life, and the two countries that hold it, and realize that you are now two distinct people.  As much as your countries represent and fulfill different parts of you and what you enjoy about life, as much as you have formed unbreakable bonds with people you love in both places, as much as you feel truly at home  in either one, so you are divided in two…. You cannot be in two places at once, and from now on, you will always lay awake on certain nights and think of all the things you’re missing out on back ‘home.’"

My compliments to the writer, Chelsea Fagan, as this perfectly put into words my constant feeling of being pulled between my previous wonderful world of television, media, and more abstract expressions of art and philosophy with a more realistic “reality” of raw survival based only on that which I can see directly in front of me.  Putting words to these challenges is helpful, as I mourn my inability to live two lives at once. Or five. Or ten.

My fear is missing out.  Feeling left behind.  Recognizing I haven’t kept up with the things “real” Americans should know through their media barrage. Until I left the US, at least an hour + of each of my days were spent reading a book, listening to music, watching television or a movie, taking in advertisements, reading articles, searching online, etc.  In laymen's terms, spending part of my day in someone else's interpretation of reality or their imagined story-based hypotheticals.  And I loved it.  I felt connected.  Inspired. Energized. Knowledgeable.  Appreciative of others' stories and art. 

As I move away from the digital, pop-culture, imaginary world that daily flavored my past days, my surrounding reality grows.  The pieces of my life centered around re-learning how to live, how to operate, shop, drive, and speak in a new place, how to carry out every day activities like a child, have become the larger part of my daily diadem as time continues on my second continent.  These things are for better and for worse.  But they seem to have stretched me. More knowledgeable.  More aware.  Deeper into reality. Fundamentally altered.

Yet suddenly I've become uncertain of how to someday re-enter the culture from which we’ve temporarily stepped away.  As I experience new things in the realities of African life, as reality itself grows bigger and my American media world gets smaller, questions simmer. Are pieces of my previous life suddenly irrelevant?  Do they hold less meaning? More meaning?  What will happen when I don't understand the jokes being told on Late Night?  Or what a news anchor is talking about when they refer to something that happened last year?  Or who is being shown on the red carpet? What will happen when I return and don't recognize a single song on the radio? Thank God for my tiny time on facebook, or I wouldn't  know important things like the latest on Angelina Jolie's breasts.  What would happen if I returned to the US and didn't know about Angelina's breasts?  Can you imagine?!

I will never be able to play trivial pursuit again.

My literacy of American culture has surely already been changed and will continue to be the longer I am here. How will I combine suddenly feeling like two people, never quite at home in either place?

The only thing I can do is to remind myself.  Over and over. 

Two people can hold more than one. 

Related posts:
If Ever You Need Perspective
Becoming American