(The Humanitarian Social Network)
[This post originally appeared on the now closed Blogspot version of Tales From the Hood on 7 September, 2008. The original published title was "Here beneath the blue suburban skies", after the lyrics to "Penny Lane" by The Beatles]
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A few months ago on the way home from another international junket I had the misfortune of being stuck behind a family of five in an airport security line. It seemed obvious that this family had been out of the USA for some time. Long enough, at least, to have forgotten that the way to get through security in American airports is to have your belt and shoes removed and your cell phone and keys in your bag before you arrive at the metal detector.
(Post-9/11 American airport security procedures and travelers who, even in 2008, are surprised to learn that they must remove their shoes before going through airport checkpoints may be the subjects of future posts. For now I’ll simply note that they hold prominent places on my personal list of travel annoyances.)
From what I could gather from their conversation and carry-on bags (out there in the open for all to see), this family were missionaries, stationed some place in Africa and returning to the Midwest for home-leave. And the stereotypes were all confirmed: they might just as well have been the cast from a Hollywood remake of Barbra Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible. Gaunt and rumpled, sporting the fashions of about 1997, unable to clear the metal detector in a single pass, and equally frazzled by the crush of the line from behind and the terse directions coming from a burly 20-something farm hand with a “TSA” patch sewn on to her uniform. The crowd began to murmur disapproval; the farm hand’s pupils began to dilate; the youngest of the three kids began to whimper; the wife began to bark orders at the husband.
It was not pretty.
And I could not help but feel sorry for them. I’ve been there. In late 1994 I returned home to the USA after a few years away to discover that in that time my cultural navigation system had become obsolete: Friends from university had gotten married, in some cases to people I didn’t even know; my clothes were completely out-of-date; People Magazine covered celebrities I’d never heard of; some new television drama (“ER” or something…) was all the rage; the radio was playing music I’d never heard by bands I’d never heard of; “grunge” had given way to “alternative”, heavy metal had become totally un-cool (sacre bleu!) and Beavis & Butthead had come and completely gone. Even the menu at Taco Bell had changed in the time I’d been away.
Culturally, I had no idea which way was up. As I reconnected and became re-acquainted with my old friends and even with my own family it became clear to me that there were subtle, and sometime not-so-subtle points at which we were just not connecting. We spoke the same language, literally, but were talking past each other. It was like being lost in the jungle at night.
15 or so years later, based for the moment in suburban America, but dividing my time between home and various field sites that I support, there are still many, many days when I feel lost in the jungle.
Some of my non-aid-worker friends get bits of it. For the most part, though, they think that it’s about the excitement of constantly going, and the adrenaline rushes that tend to accompany some of the places that I typically get sent to. And they’re not entirely wrong: For the last few years it’s true that much of my life in the USA has been about time between trips. I’ve either just returned from someplace, or I’m just about to head off to someplace. Getting on an airplane totally feels like work to me now. But more than two or three months without getting on an airplane bound for a distant port feels like “just sitting around” and I begin to get restless. There is something to the adrenaline rush side as well. Once you’ve spent a few nights in northern Sri Lanka listening to the rumble of not-very-distant shelling, and after you do that repeatedly, you slowly lose the ability to perceive whatever “edge” there might be in suburban American life. But neither the motion of frequent travel nor the rush of some of the places I go totally account for the feeling of disconnect back in the USA.
Perhaps another dimension would be that, even among some of my traveled friends, the places I go are so vastly different from the places they go and more different still from back home in America. Projecting just a bit of my own experience on the missionary family ahead of me in line, I’m guessing they encountered a deluge of questions from friends and family – questions that they knew immediately they could not answer. Could not answer, either because the question itself made no sense whatsoever to anyone with knowledge of where they’d been (“Were you in North Vietnam or South Vietnam?” is my favorite from my own Southeast Asia days.); or because a meaningful, truthful answer, if given, would only confuse the listener more (“The tsunami was 4 years ago… Why is it taking so long to rebuild Aceh?”). With nothing but love for my family and acquaintances who ask such questions, I observe that they simply have no point of reference or context within which to understand whatever I might say about my week in Phnom Penh. They would be as lost there as I was in Michigan in November of 1994.
What is more, people asking these questions frequently do not really want a long discussion. Perhaps this is simply because they don’t know what they don’t know: that the places we go are complex and challenging – nothing like vacations in Europe or manicured resorts in the Caymans. This was a hard lesson for me to learn back when I was first starting my career in humanitarian aid. Fresh home from the field, I was bursting to tell everyone, anyone all about where I’d been and how the experience had changed my outlook on so many different things. But eventually it did sink in. Even with pictures, you cannot really describe, let alone explain a place like Bangkok. Or Maputo. Or Sana’a. And for the most part, my neighbors do not really want to know much about those places. They ask because they’re piqued or perhaps just to be polite. In some cases they are openly looking for confirmation of what they already believe: that they made the right choice by simply staying in America.
It is difficult to explain without sounding condescending or self-important to people who have not had similar experiences. But a big part of the disconnect back in America has to do with what I actually deal with and do when I travel in terms of issues. Issues like poverty, food insecurity, human trafficking, conscription of child soldiers, mother-to-child transmission of HIV, UXO in school yards, protection of refugees, or “humanitarian space” in active conflict zones. After coming home from two weeks spent with Iraqi refugees in Jordan it is hard to feign emotional investment in a heated discussion about basketball or to take a strident stand in some neighborhood or local church issue. And it becomes hard to hide disdain for many aspects of popular culture – media attention to mediocre pop singers who shave their heads, get pregnant out of wedlock, or get busted for possession. It is hard to balance the requirements of fitting in socially, after hours, in a setting where sports or PTA are of great importance, against a day job that essentially is about trying to scrounge resources to fix some of the basic problems of the human condition... Problems that many Americans – perhaps most, and definitely most of those that I come in contact with regularly – are too removed from to have any meaningful comprehension of.
And this is not meant to be anything against my family and friends. Good for them, really, that they can focus on raising their families and accumulating wealth, and generally preparing another generation of red-blooded citizens of whatever country they’re from. Good for them that they can do all of this without having to also think through the issues of how to ensure that people living in the Sahel have enough food to eat in the context of global climate change. Good for them that they can tuck their children into bed each night without any specific or detailed knowledge of the threats being faced by children in other places. To be from a privileged demographic within a wealthy country and to also have direct and regular contact with the world's poor and disenfranchised - those people who comprise the extreme other end of the spectrum - represents something of an innocence lost. It doesn’t make me better than anyone, but it means that there is a great deal of my experience that it is just easier to keep to myself when I am not around those who have not had similar experience.
What it means practically is that I have to divide my personality or identity (there’s probably a psychological term for this), more or less as I divide my time between places. To my neighbors, acquaintances, friends, and even to some of my own relatives I am one person. These days I rarely talk in any depth about my work or travel to non-colleagues (anyone who does now or has in the past been involved with humanitarian work). To the aid work non-insiders I stick with brief, predictable anecdotes about bad traffic and weird food. I’ve learned over the years to stay un-obviously reserved with these people.
To my wife, colleagues and friends in the humanitarian aid industry I can be someone a bit different. In a room full of aid workers there is palpable release. These are people who understand. Maybe we won’t talk about aid work (but we usually do). Maybe we’ll discuss the latest TV drama or which teenage celebrity is living out a public train wreck. We attend PTA meetings and neighborhood picnics. We barbecue and shop in malls. And we consume western popular culture.
But still we feel like foreigners in our own countries, sometimes like tourists, sometimes like interlopers. Like the vampires in Anne Rice novels, we have learned to assimilate into “normal” society with such great skill that few can recognize us, but ourselves never able to forget that despite appearances we are not totally "from here." We live our lives fully inhabiting two very different worlds, never quite fitting into the one that most people think matters.