Dear Hassane

***I wrote this blog a few weeks ago in the midst of that overly observant readjustment period and I sincerely hope some of the generalizations I have made aren’t offensive to anyone, because that’s really all they are – superficial generalizations in which you may sometimes find a grain of truth.***

Dear Hassane,

Remember that day back in January or February when you asked me about America? It was during one of our Saturday English club gatherings and as usual our discussions had turned to comparing Senegal and the United States: culture, schools, values and ways of life. Life in Senegal is difficult, you kept repeating. You told me the story of your family, and how you, already at the age of eighteen had been forced to spend your summers working for minimal wages on the grapefruit and mandarine plantations and in the green-bean factory, to support your brothers and sisters. You expressed your desire to one day go to America to find the well-paying work that is so scarce in Senegal. I tried to explain to you then, as I have attempted to do for so many others, that life in America really isn’t as “easy” or as perfect as everyone who has never been is convinced it must be. Why? you asked and I struggled then to put all the pieces into words, working off of memories and stumbling through wavering definitions of success and happiness. But now that I have arrived home in America I may be able to respond with greater clarity. For your question goes hand in hand with some of my recent foremost thoughts.

For now I can say for sure that I understand how one could say that ‘life in America is easy.’ Stepping out of the airplane into the long, shining corridors of John F, Kennedy airport in New York, I had the impression of entering a sort of space world – ordered, sterilized and efficient. And indeed this description would fit pretty well the overall sum of the observations and impressions that I have been taking note of over the past few weeks of the landscape that is for me America and home – spaces indoor and outdoor, public and private (and please let me specify, this is an upper-class cross-section that I am describing, a section large enough yet to build up a world of its own). There was so much space, so much calm and quiet contained within the smooth and polished, glass and marble surfaces and contours of the airport building.

Abundant would be another word that keeps surfacing in my mind to describe the sites around me. Like along the Route Nationale heading into Dakar there are so many things to buy, but no, this is different. Not just fruit and nuts and cookies, although we’ve got plenty of those too, but every good imaginable and others that you can’t imagine, all laid out on shelves and hanging from hooks; displayed in cases and under spot-lights to look pretty. Shoes, hats, candy, electronics, books, cds, medicine, tshirts, toys, games, magazines, newspapers and many varieties of each. And all of this the most blatant evidence of that essential underlying fact that separates America from the rest of the world, that elevates it in your mind into that realm of dreams and future, and in mine up with the space ships and pixar movies. Yes, Assane, there is a lot of money in America. It doesn’t grow from trees, as I’ve often heard people joke, but you can sense it, feel it all around you.  And this does in certain ways make life “easier.”

How? Well, money translates into an array of amenities that we have at our disposal. Cars are the best example. Having one of these means you can go wherever you want, whenever you want, and most people have one. Then there are household appliances: everything from lawn mowers to vacuum cleaners to dish washers to food processors to every gadget and kitchen spoon designed to its specific function. I mean I guess pushing lots of buttons to get your daily chores done does make life easier; being able to core your mangoes in one swipe, dice all your vegetables with one pulse, leave your dishes in a box until they are clean. And then sometimes you don’t even have to cook, like when you can take saved food out of the refridgerator, or call someone to your house to drop off a just made meal, for a fee of course that you are more than able to pay. The average housewife can indeed cook and manage her domain in much less time, and with much less effort. Then when she leaves the home and travels long distances to do ‘erands’ there are other conveniences that assure she will succeed in her various tasks. She only has to go to one store, one very big store, to buy all she needs at once, all food and household products and even clothing and toys and school supplies for the children. And the prices of all these things are fixed, so she needn’t worry about bargaining and can be added up with another machine that has a sort of conveyor belt and that people stand in line to get to. I mean I guess life is easier with stairs that move, with disposable utensils in abundance, with doors that open when you merely step in front of them, with faucets emit water when you merely reach out your hand. Its like the world were redesigned, just for you. Your ticket into this world of ease? A sort of shiny card, the validity of which can be verified by other machines and which testifies to the shop keeper, the landlord, the car-leaser, stock-broker, bank-person that you have money, that your husband has money, that your husband’s boss has money, that your husband’s boss’s boss has money, that there IS, in fact money – so you can have that extra pair of those Halloween-patterned toe-socks.

Ok, so we can go where we want to when we want to, buy what we want when we want, eat any type of food at any time of day (with some limitations of course). There are so many options, choices, different brands of kleenex to chose from. Its one type of freedom. Life is evidently easier with fewer worries about essential things like food, shelter and other basics (not to mention other services that a wealthy country can provide like health care, insurance, schools and libraries)…but I wouldn’t exactly say that we in the United States are a care-free people. In fact, rarely do you meet Americans lounging as relaxedly in their swiveling chairs in from of their touch-screen computers, or behind the wheels of spacious air-conditioned vehicles, as the Senegalese in those slivers of shade from the blazing sun, waving away black flies and sipping the dregs of strong, sweet tea. I guess you could say that material ease comes with a price. I remember how I talked about competition, and work ethic and how everyone in America has to work hard to achieve the standard of living that they have. But it goes beyond that, beyond the day you secure that dynamite job, buy the house, the car and the family boat. Americans are so good at finding ways to make their lives more complicated, or perhaps you could say, more interesting. Its like we’ve created a vacuum of necessity that must be filled with something; spare time that must be occupied, spare change to be spent, spare space to be furnished. And we can get pretty creative. I mean, isn’t it in these spaces that artistic creations are born, in music, fine arts, literature, fashion, cooking and film? Sports and other forms of entertainment, too. Such ingenuity and beauty becomes possible, it is true. But then the creativity extends into spaces that you didn’t even know were there. Like the contents of your grande, extra-shot, non-fat mocha frappuccino. And then into spaces that were only created by the problems caused by abundances that become excesses. Like fake sugar and tred-mills. A lack that causes an abundance that causes another lack. Makes you wonder if there is really a solution to anything.

It gets really confusing and I swear I’m trying to keep this straight-forward, Hassane. Trying to stick to the point: Is life easier or not? But let me digress just one more moment. My first time in a Starbucks after seven months. I had just gone with my grandmother to her morning pilates class, which is sort of recreational sport that older woman do to keep their bodies pain-free and healthy with the strange, sedentary life-styles people lead these days. I walked down the near-empty main street of the town, watching myself in the tall, tranquil glass panes of store fronts, enjoying the many traffic signals blinking for the cars and people that weren’t there. Inside Barnes and Nobles book store I couldn’t bring myself to be interested in the titles of books, or the pretty designs on gift cards that I knew would ordinarily give me pleasure. My eyes looked up at the cavernous ceiling and counted skimmed the rows of shelves and the rows of books on the shelves as though counting. In line at the Barnes and Noble-Starbucks-cafe I wasn’t really looking that carefully, wasn’t too concerned about reading the list of options above the counter to make sure I made the right choice. Anything would be good enough. When I finally opened my mouth to speak it was with some surprise that I said the words ‘one chai latte please.’ There is no way I could have brought myself, back on that first day back in America, to be as particular about my choice of beverage as I would have been seven months ago. I felt there was some piece of my experience in Senegal that a overly involved order would betray. Whether it was with detachment or deliberate defiance, I might as well have said. I’ll just have tea, thank you.

And yet here I am, three weeks later, and yesterday I swear I asked for one of my longest, mostly complicated concoctions ever, without a drop of remorse. Its quite amazing how quickly one’s perspective can shift, and how one’s feelings and judgement  can shift along with it. I mean really, how significant is a cup of coffee? When its all you are looking forward to at 7 o’clock in the morning its surely something crucial, but when you put it next to the pair of shoes you’ve been saving up for for weeks, the school you really want to get into, your journal, your piano, family, love and life, well, maybe not so much. When its just one empty cup at the bottom of your kitchen waste basket who cares, but when it becomes millions in the hazardous landfill encroaching on the school playground? And then you can throw it into a statistic. Like compare the amount of money Americans spend on coffee each year, to the amount of money it would take to end illiteracy in the world, or eradicate AIDS.

And that’s I think where the kernel of the question and my quest for conclusions can come back. We Americans may have far surpassed material ease, but this does not mean we are not without needs. ‘Cluttering’ is the word that always comes back to me to describe the way we have encumbered the clarity of our lives, the way we can spend too much time peering down the necks of our bottomless coffee cups, searching for meaning. We have indeed achieved so much, but have we made the right things easy? Like what use is it to have that dream job if it means you are too busy to spend time with your mother when she comes to visit? You could call me a traveler-snob, the way I still refuse sensory input and material comforts as if to say I don’t need those things! My heart is too full of the sounds of bare feet and laughter pattering in the courtyard, the smell of my host mother’s incense and Kine’s porridge, the sight of a friend’s extended hand, reaching out to me from down a long sandy street, calling my name.

I don’t have all the answers, Hassane, but at the very least I can say: be careful what you wish for. Come to America to make your money if that is what you need – I guess we’ve concluded that that part is easier – but then make sure you go home, back to where you have friends and family.