Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Open Mouth, Insert Foot

Brad and I shared a professor at Drew by the name of Obiri Addo. Dr. Addo is from Ghana and has organized and participated in dozens of cross cultural trips. In fact, he was on my trip with me to Egypt and he helped plan Brad's trip to Ghana. Dr. Addo has a term that uses to describe a very specific interaction that almost always occurs: uh oh moments. Those are the moments where an American is discussing some financial aspect of their lives in a very candid way with someone from a developing nation. The American perhaps is talking about how they need a brand new car or the computer that they can't afford to buy. And in that moment, that very specific moment, the American looks up, remembers who they are talking to and adds an addendum to their statement. "Well, you know, necessary in American terms." "I mean, I know I don't need another computer, but it's different in the US." It's that uncomfortable moment where, as an American, you become painfully aware of how fortunate we are in comparison to the rest of the world. Well, I had my first. And instead of talking to one individual, I was talking to four. And I walked away feeling dumb. As if I had fulfilled the stereotype.

A few of my labmates invited me to go out and have some tea with them at the canteen. I quickly said yes and grabbed my bottle of water. I explained to them that I only like hot beverages when I'm cold, which perhaps sets the tone for the whole conversation: this American chick is weird. We sat down and they started asking me the questions you would expect: Why are you here in India? How long are you staying? How are you adjusting? I answered as honestly as I could. One of the girls then mentioned that she had wanted to take some time off after graduating from her undergraduate program, but her parents hadn't let her. She was lamenting the Indian system, and saying that she wished she lived in America where people took time off to travel and fulfill their whims. (I didn't tell her that most people can't afford that.) I started talking about taking time off and how hard it was to make the decision to go back to school. I know it was for me. I gave up a very good job and a lot of freedom to go deep into debt. Then, I choose to go deeper into debt with my husband by moving to India for two years. No, the decision to take time off is hard.

That's when it happened, when my own little disaster struck. I started rambling about how we had sold our house to move here and we were living on ever dwindling savings. That when we move back to the states, we're both going to be enrolled in post-graduate programs, feeding the flames of debt even more. How we may never be able to afford a house again, depending upon how things go in life. I was captivated with myself and my situation. Never has there been a situation as dire as ours, from the sounds of it. Oh, whoa is me, for this life that I've chosen. How can I stand it? How can I deal with the absolute freedom to move around the world for two years and the savings to provide? How, people, HOW?

Well, those pesky, rational thoughts quickly crawled in and took over. I am lucky. I am probably going to own a home again. I have more money in the bank than these kids may make in their entire lives. My uh oh moment had arrived. "You know, poor by American standards." I looked down at the table and took a swig from my water bottle. Silence descended upon the group. No one said a word for a few moments. Finally, someone mumbled something about being ready to head back to the lab.

I was paralyzed with fear for a few days. (Okay, paralyzed is an obvious exaggeration, but doesn't it sound nice?) I was convinced that these people had now written me off as an ignorant, arrogant American. And you know what? I would have supported that conclusion, based on the small amount of time that they'd spent with me. How foolish of me! However, their superior Indian intellect has prevailed. Mirab helped me out all day in the lab, describing protocols for me. The woman whose name I couldn't pronounce smiled at me today. And I mean, a real smile, all the way up to the eyes!

So while my first uh oh moment has passed, I find myself unscathed. Perhaps I should have been. It would have been deserved. But what I'm really hoping is that the next time an uh oh moment starts to rear its ugly head, I'll be ready for it and try to present a more dignified view of Americans.


Anonymous said...

In my small window of opportunity (ie, no one is hollering, bawling or obtaining new heights from the dining room table) I wanted to say a quick hello and hope you know I think of you way more often than I pen. I heard a new standard for measuring wealth the other day and it involved being able to read and also being able to purchase a book that you might want to read. I am more and more convicted by the amount of useless waste in my house trying to immortalize a memory or filling a temporary fix in my demanding nature, thus compelling it to flourish. Once you lose all your stuff a couple of times and realize mourning it wasted a good afternoon, stuff becomes just that, stuff. It's really the love and compassion of the ones God has put in our paths that matters so much to the heart. My window of opportunity now closes, and Evan says hi...among some other things. Love cass

Anonymous said...

Dearest Beth,
Welcome to the world living abroad. I have had MANY "ah ha" or "oh... ooops" moments in the last 11 years. And the funny thing is, that they still sometimes creep up... mostly now when I go back to the states. If that isn't a cosmic joke ! :))
It sounds like you are doing just fine, learning ALOT and living life to its fullest. Enjoy. It is a remarkable experience. Good for you, that you are so courageous to go for it and have the contact to so many different people.
Lots of love, Whitney

E(Liz)a(Beth) said...

Thanks, Whitney! It means so much that you took the time to read our blog. I can't help but think of you often, and wonder what your experiences were while you spent time here. I didn't expect it to be so hard and I didn't think I could have so much fun.