My family is from the Midwest. Before my generation, hardly anyone in my family lived outside of Southern Illinois or Indiana (except my mother’s few years stint in Louisiana when she was a girl). I take a lot of pride in knowing that my grandfather received an 8th grade education, yet my father and most of his brothers graduated from college and continued past – two becoming doctors, one a dentist, one an accountant, and the last worked his way up the ladder in a steel company and is now the owner. These are leaps of achievements to make in just one generation.
We are common Americans. We’ve lived our lives and tried to do our best. I am an outlier in my family, having lived in Rwanda for 29 months.
I knew that I was headed to Peace Corps. I decided to do it right after college because I knew I’d have nothing holding me back. It was timing. Serving in the Peace Corps doesn’t make me your average American. I can detect distinct forks in my life’s road that would have put me in a very different place today. But where I am today does not mean I don’t identify with Midwest, USA.
To some of you back home, the fact that I am here probably surprises you, shocks you, or makes you jealous. I’m aware of that. I’m jealous of my friends working in India. I’m jealous of one of my distant friends for being a missionary in Philippines (hello, proximity to Bali!). I’m jealous of anyone on a beach. I’m jealous of all my friends who are married because, hell, I don’t even have a boyfriend (nor am I dating) and I’m really lonely. But ABOVE ALL, I am so proud of my friends. I’m proud of the leaps and bounds you’ve made. I’m proud of the accomplishments and the knowledge and the life experiences my high school friends, college friends, siblings, cousins, and so on have made. I am lucky to know so many solid, good hearted, goal-oriented people.
To anyone who is jealous of PCVs: Every person has their own story. Don’t doubt what your goals are just because they’re not mine and mine aren’t yours. Living here sucks sometimes.
Some people back home might look at my life and my fellow PCV’s lives and say, “That’s an adventure!” “Ah, you must love traveling!” – something that implies we are living fluidly in many places around all of Africa or the world. The very opposite is true. We live in small places. I lived in a village for two years, where the most exciting thing to do was to eat a hot pancake-like capati with my friend Jen or to dance like a cow with my students for a few hours. Now, I live in a town that is, in many ways, similar to the town my father and his brothers grew up in. There is a large market and a few restaurants. There are two hotels and a pool. There is a post office. I can buy things like yogurt, powdered milk, peanut butter, and nice oil without having to trek it on a moto just to get it home. And my house has a toilet.
Sometimes, especially at the beginning of my service, an everyday conversation was exhausting, having to think about the cultural mess of things with implications and lies, unspoken hidden meanings. I would sit alone in my room, wondering if I would have any real, true friends here, wondering if I would be happy.
And now, 29 months later, I view my life here as being very simple. I take pleasure in everyday things like seeing a nice view, laughing with a coworker over a universal joke, or overhearing and understanding bits of conversation in Kinyarwanda.
I recently went back home to Indiana for the holidays, and I didn’t have the easiest time. I enjoyed it – seeing my family and friends, meeting my niece, eating all the things, and sharing a few bottles of wine with my brother and sister-in-law by the fire. Those things were wonderful, but I found myself at a loss as to what to say. Or do. Maybe because there was too much to say and do.
I wrote about the problems I had in a recent blog post. For weeks after coming back to Rwanda, I still felt it. This crazy America out there. I was and am focused and busy with my job here, but fears of someday returning to America would pop up in my mind…How will I ever fit in there again?
I’m sure you all have experienced this – something happens and affects you. You become opinionated about it, sometimes obsessive. And then, some time later, another thing happens that forces you to reconsider, relax, and center yourself.
And just that happened.
I was spending so much time thinking about Crazy America, that I wasn’t recognizing it as Crazy Awesome America.
I had a bad week, everything just kind of fell into a mess. I had a mild security problem, I was busy with work, and I got a stubborn cold. And during all this, I met some folks from the UK.
During my time in Rwanda, I’ve met a lot of foreigners – South Africans, Norwegians, Italians, Dutch…
Many of the Europeans I’ve met have been nice and open. They’re curious about the village; they’re interested in the average PCV’s experience. Some, though, talk as if they’re playing a game and they’re out to win a contest.
They ask you where you’ve been. They ask you what you’ve done in those places. Normal expat/traveler conversation.
They might ask you the number of how many countries you’ve visited. And then specify, “Oh, well, how many in Africa?”
And then the inevitable, “OH! I’ve been to x number of countries!”
Their number is inevitably higher than yours.
After several conversation twists, they bring up America.
One Dutch guy completely changed the vibe during a pleasant conversation by interrupting and turning to me and my fellow PCVs, asking, “So, are you proud of being American? Why?”
As if we couldn’t possibly be.
The English I recently met began our afternoon in similar ways, asking about what I was doing here and so on. I asked them what they were doing here while visiting. The usual tourist stuff, basically.
We spent the afternoon and evening together. We had a relatively good time, but at a certain point, when the subject of America came up, I felt my inner Midwest self come out.
I don’t want to throw these specific English under the bus because I know their attitudes of Americans are not unique; many Europeans share a trait called pomposity.
In short, they implied on more than one occasion that I, being a cultured American, must feel ashamed for being American. They generalized Americans as not owning passports, only visiting places in North America, and use the word uncultured more than once to describe the American People.
I felt disrespected because they said these things, disrespecting all common Americans just because they haven’t filled the English’s country quota, but I was also thrown off by their rudeness. They trashed my nation in front me of, interrupted me after asking me a question, not having the patience to actually listen to my answer.
And all of this happened after and during an afternoon and evening of them complaining. About electricity going out. About the hot water not working. About the slow service at the restaurant. About the bad road on their one kilometer journey off the paved road. I held my tongue when they talked about having a picnic. Outside. In Rwanda. Near a village.
I held my tongue, but I wanted to say, “That’s incredibly disrespectful and insensitive.”
Because it is. Here.
But they don’t know that. Because they’re tourists.
I don’t consider myself a tourist in Rwanda. This isn’t vacation. This is where I live and have made a home. I have neighbors and a job. The thing is, I don’t feel cultured for living in Rwanda. I feel like Rwanda is a part of me, that I’ll never be able to remove it and that, at this point, it is a part of my lineage.
I feel fortunate to have been given the Peace Corps training I did, to learn the language and about the culture. Knowing the language makes it so much easier to catch social cues, which in turn help you to respect the culture.
I think it is so incredibly fulfilling to really know a place. To form real relationships and togetherness with people of that place. It makes my life more satisfying than saying, “I’ve been to x number of countries. What about you? …Oh, I see you’re uncultured.”
I’ve learned during my time here that I don’t really like being a tourist. I enjoyed Zanzibar because it is a freakin’ paradise. I enjoyed Jinja, Uganda because of the time I spent on The Nile. I didn’t like Kampala so much. When I think about the ideal vacation, I picture somewhere relaxing with a good drink and book. I picture being with my family and friends, enjoying sites and eating good food. I picture Yachats, Oregon and St Patrick’s Day 2011. What I don’t like about being is a tourist is this: not knowing where things are and not knowing how to get to places. Having spent a lot of time in both the village and in Kigali, I can tell you that these places are very different from each other. If I were a tourist in Kigali, Rwanda, here on business or to see the mountain gorillas, I would see Clean Rwanda. I would eat at the fancy restaurants and would probably have brunch at The Mille Colline. I most likely wouldn’t eat boiled plantains or beans and rice. Having spent so much time in the village, I don’t view Kigali as real Rwanda. This year, I go to Kigali for work, but while there, I treat it almost like a refuge, a place to go to when I want a burrito.
And so, I don’t think the number of countries a person visits defines how cultured that person is, and I don’t think being pompous about it gets you anywhere.
She, one of the English, made a good point in saying, “Seeing the poverty – seeing it does something to you. It’s good to know about how these people live.”
No one can argue with that. I respect her for voicing that. I respect her for getting something out of her experiences here in Rwanda and in other nations.
You could say that – x does something to you – about almost any other experience in the world.
People have different interests. We should, as a People, respect those interests and understand that every person has limits.
My Midwest self is very proud of being an American. I feel lucky for having been raised in a place that puts a lot of concern in protecting our community: how we treat each other, what we can do to progress our nation, what we can do to help other nations. In many ways, I think community exists in America through public service, through public interest. I am proud of the way we come together in times of crises, whether it is through personal prayer, volunteer work, getting a bill signed, or serving our country.
Each country and culture has different priorities. In America, it’s progress and time management. In Rwanda, it’s patience and unity. No matter the country, individual people have financial and physical limitations that can hold them back from doing a variety of things. But none of those limitations takes anything away from the genuine essence of an individual’s life experience.
No, I haven’t really been to Europe (except for a lucky day in Brussels), but I have been in most regions in USA. No, I didn’t study abroad, but I did volunteer for one week in Appalachia with Nazareth Farm, working and talking with some of the poorest in our nation. No, I haven’t seen the pyramids in Egypt, but I have road tripped with a best friend and got lost. A few times. No, I haven’t couch surfed, but I have enjoyed Christmases with both of my elder siblings’ in-laws, learning about each family’s traditions. No, I don’t know French, but I sometimes dream in Kinyarwanda. No, I haven’t done a lot of things, but I’m living my life the way it’s coming to me, and I don’t feel left out of the human experience.
Neither should you.
“They believe, and I believe, that here in America, our success should depend not on accident of birth, but the strength of our work ethic and the scope of our dreams.”
“America has never come easy. Our freedom, our democracy has never been easy. Sometimes we stumble, we make mistakes, we get frustrated, we get discouraged, but for more than 200 years, we have put those things aside, and placed our collective shoulder to the wheel of progress. To create and build and expand the possibilities of the individual achievement.”
-President Barack Obama, State of The Union 2014