Sunday, January 9, 2011

From One Home to Another

I’m home! … my Mozambican home that is. It’s confusing when I call multiple continents “home.” I just returned today from a month long break in the United States. While stateside I did experience some “reverse culture shock,” but my overall feeling from the trip was one of comfort and support. I was amazed to see how many people love me and are thinking about me. I’m truly fortunate. I was also reassured that all the things I left behind will be there when I return – family, friends, mountains, good coffee, nachos… I’m a little shaky after a long day of travelling, but I want to take a moment to reflect on some observations of American life after spending a year overseas.

The first thing my dad did after picking me up at the Portland Jetport was to drag me to Best Buy. You can imagine the sensory overload of 50 high definition flat screen TV’s blaring at me at once. Then we stopped at the grocery store. I cannot explain the absolute euphoria I experienced walking through the aisles. Anything I could possibly desire was at my fingertips! Let’s just say I was on cloud nine. It was overwhelming: the choices, the opportunities! I felt like I needed an algorithm to decipher the cereal aisle. I settled on wild Atlantic salmon and asparagus for dinner with a nice bottle of white wine.

Food was a centerpiece of my visit. I was reacquainted with cheese, ice cream and other marvelous dairy products, though my stomach took a while to catch up. I experienced coffee anxiety in front of a café counter while I gaped at the endless menu board. The clerk grew impatient.
“Well, what do you like?” she asked helpfully.
“Coffee… I don’t know. What do you suggest?”
“Do you like milk? How bout a cappuccino?”
I said “sure” but the options kept on coming: whole milk, skim or 2%? Shade grown? Organic? Fair trade? Seasonal flavorings – gingerbread, eggnog, peppermint? Small, medium or large? For here or to go? Restaurants presented the same overabundance of choices, especially a place we visited in Florida that boasted the country’s largest array of beers on tap – talk about variety!

I believe capitalism creates as many problems as it solves but coming from Mozambique, a formerly socialist country, I was able to appreciate some of the advantages of the American system. Offering something to please everyone is part of capitalism’s tendency to fill every niche. For the consumer, it means that if there’s something you want then someone’s bound to be selling it. In Mozambique there are a lot of things I can’t easily get: cheese, good coffee, quality shoes. Even when I can get it, there’s only one option. Cereal? expensive imported Corn Flakes. Another advantage of capitalism is customer service. In a competitive marketplace you’ve got to please your clients. It was so nice to be well attended at a restaurant and be able to order anything on the menu. In Mozambique the waitress acts like you are wasting her time and the menu is just a tease with appetizing dishes that they don’t actually serve and never have.
“I’ll have the pizza.”
“We don’t have that.”
“Ok then, how about the fish?”
“We don’t have that.”
“Right… the seafood stew?”
“We don’t have that.”
“Well, what do you have?”
I usually ask them to make me an egg sandwich. We then wait two hours for our mediocre food while being eaten alive by mosquitos. I prefer to eat in.

Customer service wasn’t the only difference in personal interactions. One thing I noticed while stateside was that nobody noticed me. A few strangers said “hello” or started small talk, but mostly I was free to walk down the street without anyone turning their head. I didn’t mind the lack of unwanted public attention because I had plenty of attention from family, friends and boyfriend the whole time. In contrast, I haven’t been back in Mozambique even 24 hours and I’ve already been called “mulungo,” been surrounded by gawkers at a chapa stop, had my hair stroked by strangers, been asked for money and had two random people insist on taking my phone number and calling me repeatedly.

In the United States we are living in a world that is increasingly connected but with paradoxically fewer personal interactions. One example comes to mind. I was taking a ferry out to an island in Casco Bay with Allie. It was the typical winter crowd of weathered natives: lots of flannel, cartharts, paint-stained jeans, timberland boots, hunter’s orange. Mainers aren’t the most talkative bunch but there is typically friendly conversation and gossip among locals. I was watching Allie play with her iPhone and noticed that it was strangely quiet. When I looked up, six of the eight other people on the ferry had iPhones in hand, busily scrolling and texting and twittering away. Nobody even noticed the people sitting right next to them.

At first felt assaulted by all the attention I received when I returned to Mozambique, but now that I’m back at site I feel welcomed and loved. Neighbors and students heard I was in town and stopped by to say “hello.” The folks at the store and vegetable vendors were happy to see me and asked how my family was doing. People waved, someone stopped to give me a ride home, the neighbor kids peered around my veranda giggling and the dogs flopped themselves on the ground wagging their tails.

I’m happy to be back in Mozambique but it will take some time to readjust. I miss Sean a lot. I miss my family. But I just need to give it time. As Sean said, I still have important work to do and I’ll be done before I know it.

1 comment:

  1. You make a good point about cellphone craziness, but I would like to just say for the record that we spent a good deal of the boatride talking to passengers as well.

    Most specifically my grandfather, until he decided it was time to help the Captain captain. :)