Wednesday, October 22, 2014

ten reasons why America's grass is so not greener

Ex-pats live with the constant temptation to compare everything in their host country to its equivalent back in their country of origin. The size of the burgers. The straightness of the lines at the supermarket. The uniforms in the schools. The preaching styles in the churches. The weather. The accent. The everything.

Compare. Compare. Compare.

Of course, all of this comparison feels rather insightful and warrented. After all, we are just pointing out the obvious. Getting to know our environment via points of comparison seems logical, if not rather academic. Besides, if the burgers really are wimpy and the lines disorganized, and the sun hotter than the dickens, then I’m serving the intellectural curiosity of the ex-pat world by pointing these things out.

But what I’ve found in my years abroad is that loneliness can moonlight as a deceptive informant. Sometimes, living abroad can cause us to long for our home-country in ways that are less than honest. After months of engaging the hard fight of adaptation in a foreign country with different customs and different priorities, remembering the familiarity and ease of a place where you “get it” and where you know people “get you” translates all thoughts about said country into some version of flowing with milk and honey.

I do it too. The silent conversation in my brain goes, “that’s where my mother is and there is no malaria and THEREFORE the grass is always green and the food is always delicious and the people are always friendly and…"


For whatever reason, I’ve really paid attention on this America trip to all the ways that that glowing vision of America - the one I all too easily carry around with me in Zambia - is pitifully far from the truth.

Here are just ten ways that America’s grass is so not greener:

1. You have just as many potholes as we do.
We bent a rim going 2 miles per hour down a main road in New York. Jeremy’s only words were, “What is this, Zambia?”

2. Have you seen your traffic? Do not even try to travel on I5 in or out of LA between the hours of 3 and 10 pm unless you hate yourself.

3. You don’t know your neighbors.
Or maybe you know their names. But for the most part, you aren't all up in their business, and you certainly aren’t popping over to say hi every time you are bored.

4. Winter and SAD. Bronwyn is losing her baby diaper tan. The struggle is real.
Seasonal Affective Disorder claims the happiness of millions of people every winter. This does not exist in sunny beautiful Zambia.

this is my child in the dead of winter in Zambia. 

5. Your kids don’t interact with the earth.
I die every time I read yet another preschool blog includingsensory boxes. Where is the mud, and why aren’t your kids playing in it?!?!?

6. Friendships are scheduled.
Play dates, coffee dates – if you want to get your kids together with other kids or if you want to catch up with your girlfriends, there is going to be a calendar involved. This sounds like business - not friendship - to many cultures around the world.

it did not take three weeks of coordinating iPhone calendars to capture this picture

7. You still filter your water (of which there is a shortage).
It feels kind of wonky to me that we are fundraising for water development amongst people who still have to filter their own water. Every time I see a Brita, I think, Where are we???

8. Schools are not that good.
Ok I know Fimpulu Primary doesn’t even deserve to be called a school, but the more I hear teachers complain about the common core and parents lament bullying and teen sexting and all forms of garbage, I realize, I’d homeschool my kids on either continent.

9. It takes ya’ll forever to figure out what to eat – and then you feel guilty for eating it.
The number of food options available to people is clearly stress inducing. The choices, the demand of creativity and variety – food has become decision debacle for many. AND, to top it off, because of America’s thin obsession means that people loathe themselves after eating the gorgeous meal they just spent hours picking out and fixing.

Only a few weeks before leaving Zambia,
we bought our first oven.
I am currently flipping out with
the new expanded options for cooking.

10. You live to work and you work to live. America has seemingly sold its soul.
The orientation around work is still  the hardest thing for me to watch when we come back to the states. Tired as dogs, working to get ahead, another day, another dollar. Is there not more to life?

Bonus! 11. Pinterest shaming. I've never felt less crafty/creative/trendy/decorative in my life.

People in America say to us quite often, “I don’t know how you live over there!” To which I can now confidently respond, “I don’t know how you live here!” Get me to the land of sunshine where I can pop in to see my friends without an appointment and where weight gain is applauded; where my daughter interacts with legitimate nature and work ends whenever I darn well please. Hallelujah.

This little sojourn in America has been good for me – helping me see all the things that are bright and beautiful back in my other country. So thanks for your imperfections, America. You help me love Zambia more and more every day.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

before you join a tribe part three: homogeneity

Welcome to part three of Before you join a tribe. If you missed the introduction and part one, you can find it HERE and for part two you can click HERE.

For all the tribe joiners in our midst who have decided that they are ok with honoring their elders, giving them a seat at the table and have accepted the practice of following the sage advice without argumentation or dissention, I’d like to present one final characteristic of tribal life for you’re your consideration.

This may be stating the obvious, but tribes are homogenous. I sense that the comfort of homogeneity is what lures Americans towards tribal culture in the first place. Whether the tribe is exclusively for young-moms-who-attachment-parent-babies-with-hipster-names, or for mildly-pretentious-urban-dwelling-social-justice-seekers, or for clever-and-aspiring-bloggers-dying-to-be-published - (and I could probably join any one of those tribes) people flock to that group because there they find like-minded folks with whom to share the journey. There is not a single soul on this earth that desires to go at it completely alone. Even the most introverted among us want and need friends and we find such incredible security in being surrounded by those who hear us and get us and choose to follow the same path. Contention is draining and wounds of offense can take ages to heal and it is always easier to do life with those who are set on helping you fly instead of clipping your wings. Tribal homogeneity often eliminates disparate opinions and that makes us feel good.


But one-ness with a tribe depends on more than shared, positive feelings and like thought. Consider that the homogeneity of the tribe is primarily genetic. A person is born into a tribe – an Aushi will never be an Ngoni no matter how Ngoni he acts or thinks or feels. The Aushi are Aushi by blood which means mobility is not possible. To be rejected by or to voluntarily leave ones tribe is to know isolation in the severest of forms. There is no “Southern Baptist today, Anglican tomorrow.” You cannot be a “recovering republican" amidst your new found liberal tribe. Tribal identity is human identity. One does not select tribal alliance as flippantly as one selects emoticons for a status update.

Furthermore, for all the wonderful harmony that a tribe seems to possess, this peaceable community dynamic comes at the expense of transformative discussion and debate.

Members of a homogenous tribe are rarely challenged by other people to think or act differently. Tribal cultures, particularly those that subscribe to animistic worldview, maintain harmony through passive acquiescence and submission. The MO is usually, “this is the way we do it. fall in, or get out.”

The more like-minded the group of people, the less freedom a person has to challenge, the less chance a person will be challenged, the less chance a person will grow.

Doreen and Felistas with peanut shell earrings. I'd consider joining their tribe. ;)

Because I recognize my own tendency to drift towards the safety and security of my own “tribes,” 
I have to consciously seek out friendships with other tribes so that I learn and come to appreciate what common ground exists with those who are not theologically reformed, ivy league, free-range young moms. For my own good, I need to take meals with other ethnicities and talk politics with alternate lifestyles and learn contentment from diverse economies. And if I fail to do so, if I hang with my own tribe for too long, I don’t feel loved so much as I feel smug, confident in my own rightness when everyone around me keeps confirming my opinions because that’s what tribes do. 

For my own good, I need people looking at me with stink eyes, questioning my philosophy and probing my motivation. I need new information, alternate techniques, and answers from beyond the familiar. Diversity of thought and opinion is what pushes my boundaries, cements my few convictions and challenges my unfounded, made-up rightness about everything else. The result is that I become a more thought provoking, empathetic being, one that can survive outside the realm of having her ego stroked and who lives inquisitive and concerned. I like who I am when I'm outside of my familiar "tribes" and I like the person that good and challenging social environments make me become.

And so, dear friends, where does this leave you? Desperately searching for that feel good group of people to call your tribe and agree with your everything? Or embracing the beauty of diversity and growth. I know, I know, when I put it that way... But as much as I hope this blog reflects on what is, I hope it equally challenges us to what could be. Tribes are sexy and all the cool people are telling us to join theirs and it sounds oh so alluring, but if homogeneity will never make us into the kind of people we want to be, are we still ok with that?

Thursday, October 2, 2014

before you join a tribe part two: no black sheep

Welcome to part two of Before you join a tribe. If you missed the introduction and part one, you can find it HERE.

Today we are looking at a second area of tribal membership that is seemingly ignored by the fad-tastic tribal members of the United States, namely falling in line. What is this, the military? Kind of, and the venerated elders we talked about in part one? They are the generals. Tribal culture as led by the elders have right and wrong ways of doing everything. Specific practice, specific thought, specific procedure, and dissention is not tolerated.
In Aushi culture, when you greet, you use two hands. Sitting on the ground requires straight legs with ankles crossed. Kneel and clap exactly three times for the chief. Thine fro shall be no longer than two centimeters. Dad takes the first bite. The youngest non-toddler draws the water. Nshima is eaten only with the right hand. Don’t talk about bodily functions. Never sit next to your in-laws. Plant maize in mounds. Don’t show your thighs. This greeting for this situation and that greeting for that. No variation. No improv. No black sheep.

For several years we thought we were the awesomest, most convincing teachers ever because all of our workshops, seminars and programs were received with complete “agreement.” And by agreement, I mean people nodded and smiled and were all “uh huh, yeah!” and we did not realize for quite some time that in THIS tribal culture, there is no raising of the hand and correcting the authority figure. There is no posing of alternatives or voicing complaint. There is no heated debate. There is no telling someone off.

yes? we all agree? organizational unity? perfect!
In fact, people who find themselves in heated arguments almost always land themselves before the tribal leaders explaining their insulting behavior. In Luapula’s provincial police headquarters, administrative codes for common offenses are listed on a sheet of paper above the registrar’s desk. Offense include theft, murder and insulting. You can find yourself standing before the magistrate for crimes of stealing maize, axing your enemy and telling someone they are a stupid idiot. Really? People can’t stand to be insulted? No, because there is a right way and a wrong way and if we are fighting over something , then someone is ignoring the right way and needs to be corrected.

a skit about how to handle power confrontation
Every time I scroll through the comments section on any blog post – innocuous or contentious – there is always a span of thoughts and opinions ranging from “oh my gosh this is the best!” to “I’m un-following you because you are a heinous jerk.” American culture loves debate and contention and heated, overly-emotional conversation. This game of back-and-forth-until-we-are-blue-in-the-face is like the American national sport.

A few times our American-ness has brushed up against the Zambian tribal-ness and we’ve found ourselves asking the fatalistic question, “Why?” When the answer is inevitably, “Because,” we hem and haw and prepare to put up a fight and the patient souls around us remind us of where we are and that the law of the land is, “this is the way things are.” There is no room for gray and those who leave the realm of black and white pay for their defiance by donning a scarlet letter.

I think Impundu wants us to get over ourselves

Dear free thinkers, radical minds and professional opinionators – your tribe called and they want you out. Membership is not transferrable, so you’ll have to marry into another tribe and they will probably hate you for your contentiousness, but at least you can always use the internet as a debate-ready outlet.

Tribal societies that resist new ideas and innovation are at an obvious disadvantage in many realms of life. Oh the blog posts that could be written on this topic right here… But my point here is not to cast judgment or take sides or vote for who I think is the winner here because to do so would be exceedingly American and not at all tribal and THAT is my point.

What I will say though is that I think there is a sinful obsession in American culture with being RIGHT. Our demand to be heard and believed and agreed with is borderline neurotic. Most days the internet looks like one immature game of verbal king of the hill and this is happening in both secular and religious realms. I would be ashamed to let any of my neighbors eavesdrop on the cyber madness. The best advice I have ever received came from my neighbors and by extention their tribe, “Preserving the relationship is more important than being right.” How many relationships have been murdered in recent months over sexuality, modesty, doctrines of sanctification and roles of women, parenting philosophy and for the love of heaven PUBLIC BREASTFEEDING?

ok maybe she's a black sheep, but she's too cute to care.

Tribal solidarity is a product of relational commitment. I am willing to be wrong to preserve US. And most of the time, that requires some level of keeping our mouths shut. Very few people have perfected the skill of disagreeing nicely, which is why the most “tribal” thing your mama ever said was, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Which is another reason why you should re-read post one and call your mom.