A big part of a volunteer’s Peace Corps service is centered around cultural exchange. And during the past year that I’ve been blogging from Zambia, the culture has largely gone in one direction: from Zambia to me, and then from me to you lovely blog readers. Understandable. I’m living in the middle of Africa. What are you more interested in reading about, riding on a bus in Zambia or shopping for kombucha at Whole Foods?
But let it not be perceived that I’m shirking part of my 2nd Goal duties as a volunteer! Behold, invaluable cultural insights and observations that I am teaching Zambians about the inscrutable and enigmatic United States of America:
-A state is like a province. Kind of. Except a few states are bigger than the entire country of Zambia, and my home state of California has nearly three times as many people as Zambia’s total population. Zambia has 72 distinct tribes, each with their own language and culture, and although they like to tease each other they all get along great. Californians get all in a tizzy when there’s a push for multilingual lesson plans to be taught in inner-city schools.
-Americans do not all look the same. My go-to analogy for explaining why I look Chinese but am a fifth-generation American is to point out that many Zambians look Congolese despite having been born in Luapula Province, because their parents or grandparents moved here from the DRC. I’m relieved that President Obama looks black; I don’t know who else I would use to explain to Zambians that you can be American and not be white. Jackie Chan isn’t American. Chuck Norris is white. Not even Michael Jackson’s own mother knew what he was.
-America has poor people too. Many Zambian families live on the equivalent of $1 per day. An annual income of $35,000 for a family of four isn’t enough to pay for rent and basic necessities in many parts of America. Almost unbelievably, it’s possible to make one hundred times more money than a rural Zambian and still struggle to put food on the table in the United States.
-There are entire communities of people over the age of 60 in America where people live once they reach the age when they can no longer perform daily household functions for themselves. “Why don’t they live with their children?” Sebastian asked, sensibly. I tried to explain to him how deeply ingrained independence is in the fiber of American society, but ultimately ended up admitting that most adult children in the U.S. will do everything possible to avoid living with their elderly parents.
-Imagine a place where a child can grow up and never even touch a patch of soil once. A place where houses are all carpeted or tiled or hardwood-floored, where back yards are all carefully seeded with Kentucky bluegrass, where streets and sidewalks are all paved and cemented, and where the only vestiges of natural landscapes are meticulously cultivated parks and playgrounds and gardens. I couldn’t either when I was a kid wallowing in meticulously cultivated mudholes. (Sub)urban America is a strange place.
-Americans are not all happy. I live in a place where children walk barefoot to school, where women draw water from open holes in the ground, where my Nalgene bottle costs more than everything in my next-door neighbor’s house combined. And yet people in my community are generally happy. When I was visiting America for the holidays, I noticed a running theme in nearly every conversation I had, with my parents, with my brothers, with friends, cousins, aunts, the bored-looking girl at the Safeway checkout counter: in some shape or form, we’re all searching for a level of meaning and happiness in our lives that is currently lacking to some degree. Show me a person who is content and generally does not want for anything, and I’ll show you a rural Zambian village where he will fit in perfectly.