I’m on my way to Wal-Mart, listening to country music on my car radio, when something doesn’t feel quite right. I look around and try to figure out the problem. When I do, I feel like crying.
The streets seem impossibly clean and the cars move in a shocking line of order. The trees lining the road are so green and full of life they seem unreal—as if I were driving down a road from a TV cartoon. With the windows rolled down, I inhale deeply the clean, fresh air, unabashedly letting the wind dry my eyes.
I feel only one emotion: It’s good to be home.
For three years my husband, Robert, and I worked as ELCA missionaries near the capital of Senegal, West Africa—a place full of wonderful, jovial, generous people but also enormously crowded, dilapidated, dry, dusty and polluted. I had forgotten how green and orderly the world could be.
This feeling of glee—on my way to Wal-Mart, of all places—wasn’t what I expected upon returning to the U.S. I had envisioned depression and severe reverse culture shock. I had imagined bitterness and frustration at my fellow Americans—for seeming to forget about the poverty that is so prevalent in the rest of the world, for relishing in their good fortune and for letting consumerism become an expected philosophy. Yet here I was, back in the U.S. not yet a week, already feeling an emotion that can only be described as love for this clean, infrastructured, orderly world of public parks, national wildlife refuges, libraries and bike trails.
Senegal, like many poor nations, lives via Band-Aids and knee-jerk reactions. There is little money for infrastructure and certainly none for protecting the environment. We need more sand to make cement for housing? Dig up the beach. We need a place to put the neighborhood’s trash? Here’s an open field that’s only being used by children to play soccer. Daily life is so hard that people can only think about the present. Caring about the future, after all, is a luxury of the affluent.
I think about this as I pull into the Wal-Mart parking lot. I’ve traveled in and out of the U.S. enough to know that trips to Wal-Mart and grocery stores are among the hardest for those of us returning from poor countries. The seemingly endless aisles of cereal and toothpaste, toys and hair color is overwhelming and depressing when one knows how little people have access to and can afford in other countries.
I brace myself to be annoyed and angered, but oddly I feel nothing. I buy what I need (and a few things I don’t) and leave. I’m surprised: Am I too dazzled by our country’s infrastructure to no longer feel frustration over the miserable differences between the haves and have-nots of this world? What has become of me? Who am I?
Suddenly these seem like impossibly complicated questions, and I can’t begin to find the answers. Within the first month back in the U.S., I’m already a model American, acting in ways that formerly exasperated me. I eat out often, overdose on protein, buy new clothes and seek out new toys for my children.
Several more months pass and I continue to marvel at my behavior. There seems to be no way out. In fact, I realize I don’t know how not to act like an American. How does one live in an affluent country—where access to indulgence is so easy and convenient—and choose not to indulge? And yet, after living in Senegal and witnessing so much poverty, sickness and desolation, how can I indulge in such behavior?
What has become of me? Who am I?
Ten months have now passed since our return. I now know that reverse culture shock is both complicated and ambivalent—and inevitably involves questioning one’s identity.
My indulgent behavior wasn’t what I expected of myself—and yet it was perfectly normal. It was my way of attempting to accept and get reacquainted with my culture. In some ways my behavior was perhaps a healthier reaction than anger and depression, emotions I’ve had to deal with in previous trips home that often resulted in months of relentless feelings of guilt and disappointment with my loved ones.
I now try daily to keep my indulgent behavior in check. While I continue to struggle with living a life of moderation, I seek ways to live alternatively. They are small actions—shopping at fair trade Web sites, buying organic food, sending unexpected gifts to Senegalese friends, purchasing used clothing for my family. But they help me to keep life in perspective, to try and keep God and the gospel in the foremost of my thoughts and to harmonize what I believe with how I live.
I still appreciate the public parks and green spaces that abound in the U.S. Yet I now realize that while these benefits are significant and are marks of a working society, they shouldn’t permit or encourage us to overlook the negative aspects of the U.S. lifestyle—the philosophy of consumerism as a way of life, constant overindulgence and the belief that our viewpoint is always right.
We are a rich country that can afford the luxury of thinking about the future. But that thought process must include the future of other people—groups that, living day-to-day in survival-mode, can’t do so themselves. This is, after all, one of the great commandments—to love others as we love ourselves.
Who am I? It’s always good to question one’s identity. I finally have an answer that I hope I can always come back to: I am an American who cares deeply about the lives of humans everywhere.
It’s still good to be home—but I refuse to let that be the end of the story.
© 2013 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers