Friday, March 3, 2017

A Continent in Review

Writing has recently become a really difficult process.  I have half a dozen posts saved on my desktop that I’ve started working on, but that I can’t quite get right.  Words tend to feel like vomit; I can feel the sickness of needing to type out my experiences, but the wave of nausea just ebbs and flows now as I work and re-work these blogs that will probably never see the light of day.  Life in Uganda is hard on the body, hard on the mind, and hard on the spirit.  And it’s really hard to articulate that when there’s not much to report on a day-to-day basis.

As my trips to Uganda have increased in number and duration, life there has yielded a type of monotony that doesn’t lend itself well to the typical “anecdote, anecdote, nice summarizing epiphany” story structure.  At the same time, certain heavy aspects of the culture have been slowly seeping undetected into me and spreading like a cancer that I wasn’t aware of until I came back to the States and went through reverse culture shock again.

I know what to expect from reverse culture shock now: awe at how accessible and clean everything is, shock at the amount of money Americans (including myself) spend on frivolous and fleeting things, undying gratitude for the hot (and potable!) water that comes out of faucets and shower heads, and although it’s irritating not being invisible overseas, it always takes me a few days to get used to not being the constant center of attention again.  

What I did NOT expect this time I came back to the States was how tired I’d be.  Tired of doing laundry by hand.  Tired of sweating all the time and having to clean the dust off of everything daily.  Tired of having to speed-walk everywhere to avoid cat calls and requests for money or my phone number.  Tired of sitting in traffic in the sun for four hours to travel thirty miles.  Tired of locals looking confused and not understanding what the hell I'm doing here after I explain that I’m not volunteering and that I have no plans to bear children with my Ugandan boyfriend anytime soon. 


When I landed back in L.A. in December for my regular visit back to the States, my brother and I woke up at 6 am the next morning to be the first ones in line at Universal Studios.  I don’t know if it was the brain fog from the jet lag or the tangible magic of Hollywood, but the whole experience was glorious.  It was so fun eating all the iconic Simpsons food at Springfield, getting to ride past Boo Radley’s house on the studio tour, and listening to my usually silent-and-stoic brother giggle like a schoolgirl on the new Harry Potter ride.  We beat the crowds and got to ride everything before 10 am and blew a ton of money on an extravagant and totally unnecessary sensory overload experience: the perfect way to welcome myself back to America and to get this reverse culture shock stuff out of the way in one fell swoop.

8 am. No lines! No people! And no napkins!

I have no recollection of the quality of the Krusty Burger; the tiny "Krusty Burger" flag they stuck in it pretty much solidified the 5-star rating I gave it.

I saw this in a gift shop at Universal Studios: people are starving in Africa and we're here in America building entire business models off of the assumption that consumers would like to buy someone else's farts. I thought this was hilarious. "Global perspective" is just fancy-talk for "everything about all cultures is funny to me now because it's all simultaneously insignificant yet incredibly telling." Or maybe it was just the jet lag talking...

As much fun as I was having, I could tell that something was off.  As the crowd at the park started to grow, I was walking exactly like I walk around town in Uganda: pushing past people, looking straight ahead, avoiding eye contact, getting myself to where I needed to go as quickly as I could because everyone on these streets is so slow and they won’t move out of the way even when they see me coming, they’re so inconsiderate, I hope they don’t ask me for anything or yell at me because I won’t say hi to them why won’t you say hello to me I am just being your friend they yell. Because I don’t want to give you an opportunity to hear about how much you’d like to have a white woman to take you to the U.S. like I’m some commodity you can pass around because it personifies how little Africans value me and each other and human life in general I scream back at them in my head you’re all stupid and small-minded and I don’t want to help you if you refuse to help yourselves and oh my gosh I’M. SO. TIRED.

A woman at the park snapped me out of it as she side-stepped in front of me and apologized.  She apologized.  I had gotten so used to people being unaware and inconsiderate in Uganda that I was unbelievably shocked that someone would say sorry for accidentally getting in the way of my assumed path of travel.  I just froze speechless where I was.  Who was this person I had become that had so much disgust and distain for everyone around me all the time?  


A week later, I hit a new low point.  I missed a connecting flight in Kansas City (I have some very choice words for whoever designed your airport, by the way), and cried all the way through security.  I couldn’t keep my shit together at the gate as I watched my plane back away from the tarmac, so I ran to the nearest bathroom to do the “crouch-and-cry” since I could feel my knees beginning to buckle.  There were only two stalls in the bathroom and a long line of women going out the door had to stand and listen to my gasping and sobbing bounce off the walls for a few minutes.  Even in the moment, I knew it was embarrassingly and pathetically funny, and I had to smile as I came out of the stall and all the women in line graciously looked everywhere else except at me.  I honestly had no idea why I was crying; I take pride in being pretty resilient, but there was obviously something that needed to get out.  As I did a quick scan of everything I was feeling while crouched on the floor of the bathroom, the one word I kept coming back to was “tired”.

I knew daily life in Uganda would take its toll on me emotionally and physically, but I had no idea how taxing extended exposure to their culture would be.  Living there made me realize how deep-rooted and ingrained some of these economic development and social problems really are.  Ugandans tend to relate by making fun of each other and they don’t put much effort into building up others emotionally with encouragement.  This fosters an “every man for himself” mentality, which in turn breeds corruption, crime, tribalism, poverty, etc.  As a tourist, a volunteer, or an outsider, we just see the big problems: famine, no access to clean water, dictators.  But over time, I started to feel like the real problem was how they treated each other on an individual level.  So much could be solved if people would just put away apathy and self-interest.  It makes the problem of “Africa” feel so much bigger and so much harder to help solve.  And then to find myself taking on those inconsiderate and self-serving characteristics was a shock.  I've always believed "I'm a woman of the world! Open-minded and independent from all cultures!"  Nope.  Totally untrue.  Culture seeps into you whether you want it to or not.  I wasn’t aware at how emotionally exhausted I had become while trying to dive head-first into Ugandan life for the adventure and intellectual stimulation, while at the same time trying to shield myself from the aspects of the culture that began to wear me down.  I couldn’t see the forest for the trees.


There are some really beautiful aspects of life in Africa that I’ll always admire and cherish, but I’ve seen the poverty and the struggle up close, and honestly, I kind of just want to forget about it and turn away from it for a while.  

I know “Africa” will follow me around for the rest of my life.  I feel a tinge of guilt every time I pull out my credit card.  Or when I complain about sitting in traffic in my air-conditioned car listening to whatever music I want on my bluetooth-enabled iPhone that uses a cellular plan with unlimited data.  Of course no one wants to be around that person that constantly reminds the group: “They don’t have that in Africa”, but as much as I try to not externalize those thoughts, they still lurk internally.  Right now, I feel blanketed with a dull sadness: sadness for the situation over there and sadness that solutions on both individual and global levels are so hard to come by.

I still have a lot to process, and I know writing will help me articulate everything.  I still have to remind myself to smile and to be polite and to make eye contact when I interact with coworkers and strangers, since I'd gotten so used to avoiding small talk while I lived in Uganda.  Having just two years ago been someone who smiled out of politeness so much that my face frequently hurt, I'm trying to find a balance between being polite without being disingenuous that might take me a while to settle in to.

In the mean time, I’m elated to spend time in the States with dear friends, some of whom are processing their own joys and griefs and life changes, but who are all committed to loving and supporting each other through whatever life throws at us.  And a special shout-out to those who don’t bat an eyelash when I don’t offer to share my cheesecake with them, because everyone who knows my opinion on cheesecake also knows that “they don’t have that in Africa.”

Bart & Lisa. Doh!

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