Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Back in the U.S. of A.

I’m sure no one is following a story line here, but I’ve mentioned various times that my ex-pat-in-Argentina-daughter was coming home for her cousin’s wedding and staying for the month of July. Needless to say, her papa (that’s me) is very happy to see her and enjoy once more her energy, her hugs, her insults and the like. But it has been especially fascinating to watch her react to “Life in the United States” after 16 months away.

Like most people who choose to live abroad, she has been disappointed in some aspects of American culture and appreciative of certain qualities of Argentinian culture that are missing in the U.S.. As a guest in their country, she has been sparing in her criticism and accepting of their ways, however strange they may appear. I expected her culture shock to be the usual litany of all the things wrong with the U.S. of A— the non-stop grinding of the war machine, the misguided education debates, the expensive (though improving!) health care system, the ‘isms’ that keep people out or put them down or plow them under.

But instead, she’s been running around like a kid in the candy store, exclaiming, “The shower’s hot right away! All the lights work! Look how clean this street is! And the farmer’s market!!!! I want to buy EVERYTHING!!! Okay, tonight is sushi, tomorrow Thai, then Mexican…I have a lot of catching up to do!!”

It was a surprising and refreshing perspective and as we approach the 4th of July, a good reminder for me to appreciate that though there are major large things that feel hopelessly broken, there is an underlying sense that things work here and an expectation of accountability if they don’t. I’ve always been fonder of Italy than Germany, Bali than Singapore, enthralled by the refusal to be reduced to mere efficiency and enjoy a bit of chaos, create a calendar with more festival days than business ones. I love to tell stories of the bus in Ghana that leaves “when it’s full” or the Aborigines who danced at the Museum Opening in Australia and defied the timetable because they were “only halfway to the waterhole” when the time was up.

But when the car breaks down or the computer crashes, the charm starts to fade and I’m quite happy to return to the land where just about anything is readily available with a warrantee and a guarantee, a Customer Complaint department and a refund policy. It was interesting when our hotel in Bolgatanga was out of both power for lights and water for washing and toilets and the hotel clerks seemed puzzled that we were concerned or expected a lower rate. It makes a good story, but not the best traveling environment.

Cultures are like people, no one with the perfect balance of all the qualities endlessly competing with each other for center stage. The health of a culture, as with a person, is the constant negotiation between the factors, awareness of the light and shadow, endless balancing and re-balancing. It also takes an a priori value that things should work, whether they be a ballpoint pen or a school system and a determination to fight city hall.

Both people and cultures can take a fatalistic view, from “it’s God’s will” to “that’s just the way things are” and while they continue to complain, miss the next step of action. There’s a little known Mother Goose rhyme:

For every evil under the sun
There is a remedy or there is none.
If there be one, try to find it.
If there be none, never mind it.

In American culture at its best, we have the expectation that things should work and a determination to seek action when they don’t. Of course, we don’t agree on what “working” means, we go too far and try to fix things that are unfixable (like Siblings Without Rivalry or Gender: A Socially Constructed Paradigm), don’t go far enough to fix things that we could so easily (schools, schools, schools). But on the eve of Independence Day, it’s nice to catch a little bit of my daughter’s renewed enthusiasm for peanut butter, the Sing-a-long Grease at the movies, the bike lanes on the streets and such things that we take for granted seen anew from a returning ex-pat’s eyes. Hooray for the U.S. of A!

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