Thursday, September 1, 2011

Reflections on America

I’m back in Crimea now, in my new home with the Seytaptiev’s. Though my thoughts at the moment seem consumed by adjusting to this new reality in my life and wondering what to make of it, I want to try first to put down a few words about what it was like to be in America after being gone for over two years.

On this first trip back, I wanted to make as big an effort as possible to see friends and family. And though I didn’t quite succeed in seeing everyone I wanted to, I came pretty close. But it was an exhausting endeavor at times, though mostly just in Minneapolis. In California and Chicago I have only been a visitor, but, of course, Minneapolis was my home for so many years and still is my home in many ways. Leaving there at the end of my visit felt a lot like the first time I left for the Peace Corps—saying goodbye to dear friends that I didn’t know when I would see again.

So what was it like to be in America?—a constant question everywhere I went. My initial reaction was it was just comfortable, familiar—it was home. I could understand the language (!), I knew how to get around, how to get directions when I needed them, how to ask for help; I could understand what it meant when some person did what in a culture I am less familiar with might be considered strange behavior. And it is just so much easier to live in America. It is much cleaner, for one thing—people are well trained to put their trash in garbage cans and the garbage is picked up on a regular basis (I realize there are exceptions to this, but unlike here, they are exceptions, not the rule). People are friendlier—at least to this white, older middle class woman—clerks in the store smile and greet you when you come in; the woman at the bank goes out of her way to help you; strangers constantly offer to take a picture of the “two of you” as I walk around with my camera and a friend. People on the street just appear more cheerful, more hopeful, more ready to smile and laugh—and all of this in spite of the disheartening political situation and the lack of jobs that many people face.

And of course, it is America, one of the richest countries in the world, and that evidence is everywhere—gleaming modern high rise buildings in the cities, well built and maintained highways in the countryside, airports filled with shops and restaurants, advertisements for the newest techno gadget broadcasting from billboards and the omnipresent television and internet. But I began to see ways in which it isn’t so easy to live there. The first time I went to my local grocery store—not even a supermarket but my neighborhood food coop—I was suddenly overwhelmed by all the choices presented to me when all I wanted was some simple bread and cheese. People all over the world are hungry for the possibilities those choices contain, but it occurred to me how much stress that introduces into one’s life—the constant decision making in even inconsequential situations. We Americans just become used to it, of course, and don’t always like it when the choices are absent, but it seemed to me that they take up a huge amount of psychic space and I found myself longing for the simpler life here in Crimea—where there are still many choices, of course, but not AS many, and for me, of course, they are limited by my language abilities.

As time went on in America, I found more disturbing aspects of life there, ways of living that are the “American life:” the busyness of peoples’ schedules which makes it difficult to find time just to be together; the annoyance of the constant leaving of messages on the answering machine and cell phone; the frenzy of the freeways and the airports. `It seems we pay a price for the ease of our life in America, though now that I have returned to Crimea, I wonder if it is a price I am once again willing to pay. But more on that in a future blog.

What I really learned from my month long trip to America, is that the old adage “home is where the heart is” is so very true. As I basked in the love of my friends and family in America, I also yearned for my friends and “family” in Crimea. I tried to stay as connected as I could, but as always, I found the attempt to communicate in Russian on the telephone so daunting that eventually I mostly just talked with Serdar and briefly with Nadjie as I tried to stay on top of what was happening with her health. I came to realize that ultimately it didn’t really matter where I lived, as long as I can live near the people I love. But, of course, those people have expanded to include people who live thousands of miles and worlds apart. And so that is the dilemma I now struggle with— where exactly is my home?

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