Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Not at Home

I want to preface this entry by saying that the drugs the med office put me on for stomach stuff make me feel like I'm dying of old age or something. So I'm a little fuzzy-headed at the moment. If there are bits of this post that maybe don't make a lot of sense, do the charitable thing and write it off to the medicine.


I played softball for one year in middle school, though I can’t remember exactly why. The soccer season was over, and I guess I just didn’t have enough to do during my afternoons and evenings. In any case, I hated it. None of the other girls on my team seemed to be having any fun: during games, they were too busy heckling the other teams to even enjoy some of the field’s delicious spicy nachos. I wasn’t rabidly interested in winning or in making the girls on the other teams cry, so it looked to the others like I lacked team spirit, or maybe even some more fundamental quality like patriotism, seeing as how softball is pretty much as Americana as it gets. I finished out the season and didn’t sign up for the next year, and I returned happily to soccer and pick-up football games to fill the hours after school.

The annual West African Invitational Softball Tournament (yeah, we call it WAIST, and you better believe that it’s an appropriate acronym), held this weekend in Dakar, was therefore not initially very compelling to me. Teams of Peace Corps volunteers came from every region in Senegal, as well as from a few other West African countries. We were joined by a handful of teams of ex-pats from Dakar, mostly Americans who are living and working at the Embassy or with an NGO here in the city. Some of the teams are pretty competitive, but for the most part the volunteers think of WAIST as one long party. Each volunteer team even picks a theme for their clothing, and for many of us more energy goes into finding costume accoutrements than into batting practice. There’s a lot of delicious food, pools full of beer (not literally), and all the comforts of Dakar. The ex-pats bring their kids, and everyone sits around a big swimming pool (seriously, it’s just chlorinated water, I swear) eating cheeseburgers and swilling beer until it’s time to troop out to the field for another game.

Knowing already that I didn’t like softball, I wasn’t too thrilled about the competitive aspect of the weekend. I would, of course, be rooting for my regional team and showing up to cheer on my friends who had made the cut for the more competitive Senegalese national team, but I didn’t imagine I’d be getting too into it.

The problem started when we played our first ex-pat team. We couldn’t have made a more ridiculous contrast with our opponents. They were dressed in sports shorts and t-shirts. We were decked out in denim, plaid, and suspenders, since we had decided to all dress up as lumberjacks for WAIST. Our team manager had produced a sack of mitts and bats from the nether regions of the Kaolack house, and now that the games are over, they’ve been hidden until next year. Our opponents, on the other hands, probably play together once a week. Most of our team members drank while playing, and a few even brought their beers with them while fielding. In spite of all that, Kaolack’s got a pretty competitive team. We came to win, but damned if we didn’t feel entitled to a beer or two in the outfield.

The contempt began building up in my heart even before we were even losing the game to this ex-pat team. It was a combination of things: the bulky idiotic dog whose careless American owners let it scamper around the field, tripping up the players and generally being a nuisance; the balding man in his fifties wearing those absurd Nikes that you can pump air into for a good fit; the clean, healthy kids cheering on their dads from the sidelines. Suddenly, for no rational reason, I couldn’t stand it. All I could feel for these perfectly normal Americans abroad was hatred and disgust. As they put the elements of their lifestyle on display during that game, everything I saw – the hours spent in leisure, the easy access to food and other consumer goods, the cheerful good health and clean, new clothing – filled me with irrational anger. I wanted our team to win, not only because it would mean good things for Kaolack, but also so that those men and women would feel the sting of defeat and be shamed in front of their children.

Some of my reaction was in reference to what I had come to know in my village: these fat American kids were growing up, eating imported American food in bulk and attending private schools in Dakar, within hours of Ndiago and countless other villages just like it. The children and adults in my compound wear sandals that cost one dollar (when they wear shoes at all): I thought of them while watching the man with the fancy Nikes run around in his absurd gear.

I’m cutting the list short, though these things were just the beginning. The comparisons are cheap, obvious, and facile, the first of thousands that could be drawn, and the fact that I let them flame the fire of my anger embarrasses me. And of course I chose not to console myself with the thought that many of these ex-pats were working for organizations like USAID: even though they had dedicated a part of their lives to working for good here in Senegal, I couldn’t help but think of them as mired in the bad faith of their willfully ignorant Dakar-bound lifestyle. Aid workers they may be, but all I could see was the high wall they had put up between themselves and all of Senegal. It was as if they felt insecure in being so far from home, and so decided that the only path to security and assurance was in painting on the Americana so thickly that nothing of Senegal could get past it. The fields where our games were held were surrounded by such literal walls and topped with barbed wire. A metal detector was placed at the front entrance of the games’ main venue, and everyone submitted to a bag check upon entering. What were they looking for in my bag? What part of Senegal was I not allowed to carry with me when I entered this temporary America?

As I’m writing this today, about a week after the games ended, I’m still attempting to deal with my anger. It’s not fair to the people I met in Dakar to say these things about them. My disgust is misplaced. I don’t really know anything about these families, about what they gave up to come here and why. I have no right to pass judgment on any of them. But when I began to write all these things out and come to terms with what I was feeling, I realized that this is culture shock. Those few days in Dakar were as close as I’ve come to being at home in America in a year, and it completely spun me. If this was a preview of what I have waiting for me at home, I’m a little terrified. I don’t like the person I became in the face of it, I don’t like the things I thought and said in those days.

All this came at a strange time. After about a year into my service, I had recently started realizing how fundamentally comfortable I was with parts of American culture. In the States, once I became an adult, I knew the cultural mindset and vocabulary so well that I was able to navigate every situation myself. If someone was picking on me, flirting with me, ignoring me, or standing in my way, I had at the very least a vague sense of what combination of words and actions would change the situation. I don’t think I ever had a conception of how important a shared culture could be for communication: we don’t think of our daily context as vital until it’s gone, and we’re stuck looking for another way of functioning.

Before going to WAIST, I had been longing for the straightforwardness and ease of American daily life. I had, with some initial reluctance, begun to discover that some parts of me are really American in nature. But after seeing the exaggerated emphasis put on a shared culture during the softball games, after seeing so many people trying to hard to pretend that we were no longer in Senegal, I’m not sure anymore. Why should my own culture make me so deeply uncomfortable, even though I recognize the elements of it in myself that make me an outsider in Senegal?

Anyway, Sunday is the anniversary of our arrival in Senegal. I'm grateful for the experiences I've had, the friends I've made, and the lessons learned in that time. So far, so good.

Love and guts,



  1. Good read! Ha! You're American as can be. You people are so combative, competitive, knowing that your way is best . . . you must triumph!
    I'm with you on this. I LIKE the American way! It triumphs over the Russian way that I toiled in. Triumphs over lots of things. Hope you keep swinging for the fences in all arenas.

  2. hey seiler! i hear you on all counts. living in asia has reminded me that i really do love the comforts of the west, and i miss them, and wrestling with that is fun. i feel guilty when i find myself wistfully longing for some good-old first world problems, because they're problems that i know how to handle. and i know that as soon as i have those problems again, i won't want them like i think i did.

    in any event, we're learning. that's all we can do.

    ps. i miss you!
    love, a