Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Unexpected Patriotism

I’ve been meaning to write this entry ever since I arrived in country. A recent letter from a friend reminded me of it. Here goes:

When I first traveled abroad to a “developing country” (Peru) by myself, I came back and was desperately depressed, embarrassed really, at the abundance, the luxury, the wealth, the waste, the ease of my life in the states. I felt lost, spoiled, confused, frustrated, angry at my ‘culture.’ This was probably exacerbated by the fact that I returned from working in a shantytown in Lima, to taking a summer Macro Econ course at a huge university. Nevertheless, the experience was life changing and helped set me on the ‘development’ path that I am on today. Though I have traveled to other ‘developing countries’ since then and never had that same reaction, this time I anticipated wanting to reject where I come from, and the privilege and the abundance that I have been so fortunate to live with my whole life.

But that is not the case at all.

Since I have been in Senegal, I have appreciated “home” more than ever. Not out of a longing for its comforts, or luxuries, but out of total awe and appreciation for how efficient, easy, and privileged my life is. I have never been prouder to tell people that I am from the states. And why shouldn’t I be? My life is tremendous. I have never wanted for anything, or felt unsafe, or insecure, or unloved, or not cared for. Not once. And I realize that all Americans do not universally feel this. But it is my own experience. It is all that I can speak to.

Maybe my new sense of patriotism (would prefer a different word but none comes to mind) has something to do with the fact that everyone here wants to go to the states. Their awe of home is perhaps infectious?

I am at ease because I no longer feel like I have to ‘like’ or choose one culture over another. During my own travels, I have often felt like Americans are taught to feel ashamed when we travel abroad, to reject our culture, and be constantly bombarded by all of the bad things our ‘country’ does. (I do think that this has become more prominent since 9/11 and the subsequent bombing of Afghanistan and since the war in Iraq).

But this idea is something that a dear friend of mine and I have discussed at length. And she has always told me…
“Cait, you know that you are well traveled when you stop criticizing where you come from and stop romanticizing what is ‘new’ because it is ‘poor’ and ‘simple’ and you start appreciating how lucky you are and just noticing differences rather than make judgments.”
I guess she never said that exactly in those words, but this is the essence of a conversation that we have thrown back and forth for years. And it’s always been in the back of my mind. Most recently in the foreground.

And how right she is! It is useless (maybe even harmful?) to make sweeping generalizations about cultures, populations, regions of the world, especially without ever really ever living in those places.

Perhaps an example will help me explain myself.

I have often heard people criticize the states or ‘Western cultures’ for our obsession with individualism and ‘getting ahead.’ Saying that we have no sense of community and have lost the ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ mentality. That ‘poorer’ cultures in developing countries are in some way superior because family comes first and grandparents, children, adults, neighbors, cousins, and random strangers all live together and look out for one another. And I’m sure that there have been volumes of anthropologic (is that a word?) texts written on the subject. But I’m going to come out and flat out disagree with that statement.

And here is why…

I grew up in a place where the entire community comes out for markets, and where couples, families, and friends walk together everyday around a greenbelt, and neighbors cook for other neighbors when there are deaths, or births, or moves, or just because. And there are block parties, and dinner parties all the time, and babysitters from down the street, and my friends and I sit around and massage each other, and girls braid each other’s hair at school assemblies. And you can’t ever go into town without running into someone you know. And we have more adoptions than any other country in the world (talk about a global community raising a child), and the list goes on….

And sure enough, usually in big cities people ‘plug in.’ We all do it. We need that privacy, that alone time, but let’s not judge that as the root cause of all evil. And isn’t it ultimately just to stay MORE connected to one another? I mean it’s nearly impossible not to be tracked down if you don’t want to be. Emails and wireless internet everywhere, pagers, cell phones, text messaging, instant messaging etc. It is merely a different form of connecting/community I think. And to tell you the truth, I have been hard-pressed to find a single Senegalese (and I’ve asked many of them) who would not live in their own house with their own family given the choice.

I want to throw out this example. When I was in Peru, I worked in a HUGE shantytown. It was unique because of its impressive level of organization and SUPER community-oriented approach to development. BUT, one of its biggest problems was that the elderly people were being cast aside—with no money. Family members were not caring for them, and blatantly letting them starve to death alone in rundown shacks! I mean for such an ‘ideal’ community, that did not seem very inclusive at all.

And what about the fact that in Senegal, and in many African populations actually, women consistently give birth ALONE. In their huts, isolated and not cared for or cooed or coached through the most emotionally and physically uplifting/terrifying day(s) of their lives? Whereas in the states, often there are too MANY people in the delivery room and too MANY people waiting outside to greet the new addition to the family.

I am making these comparisons to prove a point. That they are endless and really pretty useless.

I do not mean for this entry to be a comparison of good and bad, but a reflection on the importance of paying attention to the details.

And what a privilege it is to even be able to critique one’s own country or culture. To even know that there ARE other people and cultures, and places out there to dream about and visit and experience. Isn’t that pretty amazing in and of itself?

I guess the more you live and learn, and especially the more you travel, the more difficult it is, and the less useful it becomes to make generalizations, or to take any one ‘side’ over another.

I am proud of where I come from. Every place I go, I am appreciative of the good, and wary of the bad.

And I do not feel guilty for having so much. No. I feel extremely privileged. I feel lucky every second of every day here. Lucky…and appreciative, for all of the opportunities and support that I have received throughout my life.


Kelli said...

Thanks for your insight. Definitely food for thought...

Lisa W. said...

Super interesting, Cait. Thanks for being so frank. I have a thought to add... please bear with me as a gay activist :)
I'd say we even have a lot of communities in the US (and other "developed" countries) that have created "families" outside of biological, genetic connections. Consider the LGBT communities who are made up of individuals who most likely don't feel safe or accepted by their biological families. This certainly hasn't been my experience, but LGBT communities are a wonderful example, albeit not without their own internal discords, of constructing villages to help raise each other. There is even a very recent push (at least in Los Angeles) within the LGBT communities to provide elder housing and care for LGBT seniors who don't have that biological family to support them... essentially providing support for the seniors in our community. I just think it's all so cool... and, Cait, congrats on being able and willing to see how much more complicated different cultures are.. and thanks for trying to let us all know what you've seen and what you've been thinking. love ya!

Katy said...

That was a great blog. After the way I spend my day, I don't think I can express how refreshing it is to read something well written. But that's not the point... Your message was great, and as someone who grew up in that same community, I totally agree. It may be a bubble, but I love that bubble and I've come to be thankful (without guilt) that I was able to be part of that bubble enclosed community.

Caitlin said...

Lisa, thank you so much for posting your comment. What a perfect example of the diverse kinds of communities that we are all a part of. Love you too!

Katy, thanks for following along. I would be worried if my blog post was not better than a fourth graders! But it's still nice to hear.