First of all, I have not posted in such a long time because I am now working full time as Co-Coordinator of US El Salvador Sister Cities, and I don’t seem to find as much writing time as I did last year as a volunteer. So, for what it’s worth, that’s why.
As I write this, I am sitting in a plane crammed to the brim on its way to El Salvador after spending just over 2 weeks popping all over the US – New Jersey, Philly, Annapolis, and Texas. People often ask me what I think about the US when I come back to visit, if it seems totally bonkers, if I seethe with judgment at the excesses that abound in my home country. The truth is yes, it does seem pretty bonkers, but no to the seething part.
I start out by telling people that there are things I find absolutely insane in both countries, and assure them that I am not “anti-American” (a common concern among family members who read my blog). Have I learned things that make me critical of many US foreign policies and parts of our culture that the more my eyes are opened the more I see that they are killing us a slow death of depersonalization? – Certainly. But I also think that being critical of my nation and its policies, practices, and peculiarities is one of the most American things I can do. I love my country, and I feel a deepening sense of belonging to it (especially to the beautiful state of Texas), but the worst thing I could do as an American is blindly accept and approve of it all.
The first thing that always hits me when I come back is how depersonalized things are – at the Houston and Dallas airports, there is an ongoing effort to reduce all human interaction as much as possible. You step off the plane and follow arrows pointing you to where to go, push buttons on machines to pass through different checkpoints, and even food court restaurant menus are increasingly electronic. But it doesn’t stop when I finally self-direct my way out of the airport – people get directions and recommendations on their electronic devices, grocery store check-outs are self-service, and we do not know our neighbors. I have little doubt that this kind of isolation and dehumanization has something to do with the kind of mental health disasters that make the news all-too frequently these days.
Another thing that is always shocking is how much we feel we need to be in control – it makes us feel safe, and by all means we must feel safe. We plan everything down to the last minute, and we like to know what is coming. We make our living environments as sterile as possible, and we depend on technology to tell us what is coming – with the weather, driving directions, and social events – so that we will never be surprised and we’ll never have to not know what’s going on. We even control the temperature around us, losing touch with the seasons and the movement of the sun across the sky. I feel disoriented by these things, not perhaps because they are bad or good, but because they are in stark contrast to what I am used to in El Salvador and how I connect to each moment and my surroundings.
It is difficult to see the excesses that people have, but not because I am angry at people for having too much while so many other have so little. Actually, the excess stuff that fills the lives of so many Americans makes me profoundly sad for them. I see a desperate search for security, belonging, self-value, and acceptance that will never be satisfied by the things people seek to fill them with. I wish they could experience instead that the practice of generosity and the ways that giving away more than you have can be filling and life-giving. Studies show over and over again that the more people have, the less they give. I see this in El Salvador where friends, neighbors, and strangers who have very little are so extremely willing to give of themselves and their belongings. But we have been taught that our stuff equates to our security, that we must have a thing for each possible need, want, or whim. Meanwhile we’re talking to machines and rolling around in air conditioned hamster balls and wondering why we still haven’t gotten there yet.
These are the things that being away help me see about my home, about my culture, much like the way that when you’re baking you don’t notice the smell until you step outside and come back in. But just like the baking smells, there are rich, delicious things I notice as well. First of course is family, and the fact that I will never be loved and belong like I do here by my own family. I also love the cultural diversity and open-mindedness that is the result of living in a country of immigrants, a country that has absorbed the rejected, the innovators, the ahead-of-their-timers for over 400 years. I love being able to have tacos for breakfast, curry for lunch, and General Tso’s for dinner. I love that nearly all kids learn art and sports, and that schools are becoming increasingly holistic and work year by year to become more fertile ground for growth, creativity, and imagination. I love that we have public libraries, and I love bike lanes. I love that there are places and people who work to instill a love for nature and dirt and clean skies.
So please, don’t read my blog and believe that I am anti-American. Read my criticisms and observations as affection for my home and for my people, as the practice of hoping that we can and must make our world a better place each day. And join me in trying to do so.