Tuesday, June 22

Back in the States

There was a week in Montana immediately after flying in to America, but now I am back in Minnesota, my home before Nakuru and Spokane before that. It's nice. I enjoy being new places and discovering the new things in them, but it is good to return to the familiar and see how it has changed, what has been built, what has been destroyed, what has opened, what has moved, what has closed and all the rest that is different after eighteen months.

It's nice to be back in the States, too, and see how it has changed in the past year. It's hard to comprehend a year away from a place especially when it feels as brief as this past one. I've tried to give it some context by imagining all the things that I have missed. A season of Gonzaga basketball. The Saints' Super Bowl victory. The Tiger Woods scandal. The emergence of Justin Bieber. The release of Lady Gaga's "Telephone." The series finales of LOST and 24. The first weeks of the Gulf oil spill. The election of Scott Brown and the rise of the Tea Party. John Paul Stevens' retirement from and Elena Kagan's nomination to the Supreme Court. The reports on Fr. Murphy's abuse of deaf children and the Church's failure to act. With the Internet, it has been a smoother return as none are surprises, but it remains strange to only be told that they are happening and that they are important. It's like a junior high English teacher trying to teach transitive verbs and subjective pronouns. You may admit they exist but seeing how they matter is another thing entirely. Most of these may not be world altering events, but at some point, they did matter and became part of the cultural consciousness, a consciousness that I missed.

Of course, it's not just the country that has changed. A lot remains the same here after just a year, but I see it differently after my time on Nakuru's outskirts and during trips into Pokot. Like physical space. Yes, my first days back were spent in Montana where there are approximately six people per square mile, but please, consider the strip mall. A shopping complex whose retail space is rivaled by that of the park lot. Absolutely ridiculous. Consider the traditional mall. The halls between RadioShack and Bath & Body Works are wider than Balinese and Kenyan highways. I have been in American closets larger than clothing shops in Nairobi.

Consider, too, the sense of that space. Bali, as a volcanic island, has beaches at the bases of mountains, and Kenya has the expanse of the Rift Valley, but these landscapes are taken as a given. Construction takes place within the boundaries set by these natural features. Rice grows in terraces alongside the Balinese mountain sides. Farms are on an incline along the Rift Valley's walls. In America, though, the land is changed to suit our needs. Hills are built for freeway interchanges, hills leveled for future neighborhoods and tons of earth shifted for the purposes of forming land better suited to knocking a white ball into a distant hole. Urban American land is whatever we want it to be.

As long ago as my months in Munich, I learned that it was a good idea to keep private English conversations quiet. It was a strong bet that someone within hearing on the U-Bahn could speak English fluently. While those odds are not quite the same in Kenya or Bali, they are good enough to keep it quiet still and speak quickly with an accent. English fluency is even higher in America, but it is has taken me aback to realize that again I can understand people's conversations in restaurants and in the halls. Feel like an awful eavesdropper now when I catch even a single phrase in passing.

And no one notices when the white guy goes by. It's good to be back.

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