Family, America, and Moving On

Last time I wrote I was in Liberia, and now I’m writing again from here. By the time I finish this, I might actually be next to you!

I’m thinking about so many things and I want to write about them all. I’ll see how many I can fit in.

Two Thursdays ago now, I rode into the rural country, zombie-like with a throbbing headache and a contorting stomach from a night of vomiting. The night before, for the first time in all my trips to Liberia, I got food poisoning. I didn’t want to get out of bed Thursday, yet I knew I needed to go on this field trip because these trips are when I really learn about this country. I slept in the car on the way to the field, sunglasses on, head knocking against the window. I love to look out the window as we drive, but I slept as we passed the villages of small mud houses with thatched roofs, groves of palm trees and deep jungles. I slept as we passed students, walking on the side of the road in their uniforms to school.

Three hours later, we arrived in the city of Grbanga, dropped our stuff at the hotel, and went into town for a Liberian dinner where I nibbled at rice.

After dinner, I had arranged a talk show at a local radio station to promote our project. I had organized for a teacher to give testimony about the program on the show. The teacher lived far from the radio station and would have had to ride a motorbike in the dark down the dusty roads in order to get to the station. It’s dangerous in the dark here. Their motorbike could hit a pothole, a car could not see them, they could be robbed- so a colleague and I drove to pick her up.

It was dark by the time we set out for the teacher. Liberia is so close to the equator that the sun sets around 5:30 nearly all year. When the sun sets here, everything is so black. Few people in the rural areas have electricity. No light pollution dilutes the blackness. In the car on the way to the teacher, with the night surrounding all sides of us, my colleague, Robert, talked to me about his family. Robert is quiet and acts deliberately. When I first met him, he would make eye contact so seldomly with me that I didn’t know if he understood me. This week, I have gotten to know him more and have been impressed by his attention to detail and thoughtfulness. His wife, he told me, as our car hummed through the dark, was a nurse who died during Ebola. At the time, their only child was one and a half. He has five siblings, all adults, and his mom. All his siblings, he said, live with him in Monrovia. They have partners and children, but he is the only one of the six adult children who has a job. He is the sole breadwinner for the entire family. Family, he says, is everything. He is so dedicated to them he takes care of all their needs. His mom had cataracts and couldn’t see. He paid for her to have surgery, and now she sees. When he moved to Monrovia for this job, his entire family moved with him.

This is a common story. One person in a family works and financially supports the entire family of nieces, parents, siblings, siblings-in-law: all of them. These breadwinners don’t have fabulous jobs. They are drivers, guards, car washers. Yet their one salary supports everyone. Family here is so important. There is rarely homelessness because all family members live together. People infrequently go hungry, because everyone shares.

It makes me think of the United States where I know people who hate their family, people who refuse to speak with their family. I know there are valid reasons why people hate their families. Their parents traumatized them, were unsupportive, gave them more pain than joy, perhaps. But it still seems crazy to me that you could hate the people that raised you, carried you, fed you, and sacrificed for you.

I was talking to an American about this difference and they mentioned that perhaps people here prioritize family higher simply because there is less here. Families provide valuable emotional support and financial support, but also, you can’t escape your family. You can’t move across the country and start over, go on a vacation, throw yourself into your job, or start a business. Jobs are like four-leaf clovers here, rare and lucky. The country isn’t big enough to move across, plus, there’s basically only one big city, Monrovia. There’s no money to go on vacations, or start businesses. People don’t have time or money for hobbies.

I thought about this value for family when I met a woman from Azerbaijan who works at the UN at a party on Saturday night. “I love this job because I get to meet people from around the world,” she told me. “It’s so great to connect with people who share my values, unlike Liberians. You know, if you don’t work hard, you don’t get anywhere.” Perhaps it is easy to see Liberians as lazy. Perhaps it is easy to see any poor person as lazy. ‘Why aren’t they middle class like me,’ some might think. ‘They must be doing something wrong.’ But with the amount of weight each of Liberian carries in their daily lives and with their deep loyalty to family, I don’t see them as lazy, I see them as inspirational, making joyful, loving lives out of no resources, no safety net, no security. I wonder if that woman has considered how her life would be if she had to walk a mile to pump her water and carry it back on her head herself, feed 5 children as a single parent because her husband has died, and needed to get her tasks done by 6:00 each night because the sun goes down and there is no electricity and no light? The UN woman’s values- I’m not certain what they are, but I don’t think I share them.

We are lucky as Americans. We are fortunate that our country has some sort of safety net. We are lucky that we can distract ourselves with jobs, or afford vacations and move across time zones to a new city and find capital for a business. But this luckiness makes us less reliant on our families, and less likely to need them and care about that bond. I wish people didn’t hate their families. I wish Americans were more loving and kind towards their family. I don’t want to judge people who don’t like their families, but I do wish our society valued family more.

The other thing I wanted to talk about was the US. Man, Europeans don’t like us. I forget, living in the US—or maybe I never fully realized.

Saturday night I went to a pool party with a host of other expats. It was at one of the nicest apartment complexes in Monrovia. There was a DJ and probably 50 people there from around the world: Sweden, the UK, the Netherlands, Spain, Lebanon, Azerbaijan, Ireland, who knows where else. I love being able to talk with so many people from around the world and see our commonalities and differences. But one thing stood out more than I expected: the disdain for the US. One man I spoke with from the UK even seemed hateful towards us, saying how he would never step foot in our country.

I know we’re far from perfect. We are racist, we don’t provide a safety net for the poor (mainly because we’re racist), we have guns in schools. But still, I find it hard to think that the UK is oh-so-much holier than we are. They have quite their fair share of racism, particularly evident in the wake of Brexit. They led colonization, taking over tens of countries and forcing those countries to act and speak like them. Abortion and same-sex marriage are both illegal in parts of the UK.

I think many parts of Europe are fed news about America’s shootings, cops shooting unarmed black men, Donald Trump’s “wall” and, perhaps, they hear how we tear apart hardworking families with deportation. All these are true, and things I abhor, yet I still feel the need to defend our country. I think most Americans would agree with me that the positives of our country outweigh the negatives.

Despite our racism I have not yet seen a country as diverse as ours. Yes, every wave of immigrants had difficulties. Immigrants perhaps have more difficulties today than before, although I am not necessarily convinced about that because our history boasts Japanese internment camps, the Chinese Exclusion Act, a Jew quota, and so much more. Eventually, though, acceptance occurs and immigrants are woven into the story of America. This year, Harvard Business School accepted more minorities than whites. I am not saying this slow pace of progress is right, but I am saying that I have yet to see a country as diverse as ours.

From Silicon Valley, to gay pride parades, to the best research institutions in the world, our country is creative, and industrious, and expressive. We have backwards laws and processes, but we know it and we are not afraid to speak out for what we think is wrong. It makes me sad to think there is so much anger and disgust towards our country. I don’t have hatred towards my country. In fact, I believe so strongly in our country that I have a passion to make it better. That is why I joined the march against the Muslim ban this year, that is why I joined the march for climate change this year, that is why I protested the pipeline, that is why I support the ACLU. Although I am surprised there hasn’t been more of a revolution in the advent of Trump, I think our country’s passion for expression, for vocalizing our opinions, and participation in democracy is evident.

I don’t want to sound like a blind patriot. I think the US does a ton of things incorrectly, we start wars, we kill our own citizens, but that doesn’t mean we are all only bad.

The other topic I wanted to write on was relationships, just about how hard it is to de-couple from Nik. I miss him. I miss having a best friend here. I miss having a best friend to go on adventures with. I miss the adventures we would do together. I love adventures. I love feeling alive, and he would make that happen. I know that this period is going to be hard. And I know that it’s going to be ok. I will find friends, I will spend time with myself. I will meet people that make me curious. And hopefully, I will be able to be friends once again with him.

I love you!

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