“Tell us about the American way of life,” the student asked, looking up from his notebook.
“The American Way of Life?” I repeated back, stalling for time. I stood before thirty students, eyes looking carefully, waiting for a simple response.
I sifted and stumbled through my own routine, my high school, my mother’s and father’s jobs, what my brother is studying at university, how I’d spend weekends with my friends; I told bits and pieces of my life, I didn’t draw anything out to America as a whole. I wasn’t answering the question.
I faded out; what could I tell them about Americans beyond my own life? Its been almost five months since I had seen my home, been absorbed in the oh-so quintessential American Way of Life. And apparently five months was long enough to forget what was quintessential.
As my words trickled out, Monsieur Diatta came knowingly in. “Yes, yes, he asked about the American Way of Life,” He wrote the words on the board. “In America they have Fast Food,” this was quickly written and underlined several times.
The board now read: “American Way of Life” and directly below “FAST FOOD”. I was amused, and a slight laugh built up as he described the wonders of fast food: you walk in, demand food, pay, and within minutes you have a meal.
My laughter took on nervous ring as Diatta pronounced the simple reasoning: Americans never stop working, they need fast food – they have no time to cook, to relax, or spend time with their family.
I stepped in. This was definitely not the defining connection that made Americans American and I certainly couldn’t let this be the center of what students learned about my country. I patiently explained that Americans didn’t spend everyday devouring McDonald’s hamburgers over business meetings. Spending dinner together as a family is as important in the US as it is here.
Monsieur Diatta overrode me and underlined American Way of Life a second time, and pushed the point that Americans have a relentless appetite for work, they never relax. With sudden clarity the student who had posed the question called out, “Time is Money!”.
“Yes!” Diatta exclaimed passionately.
I was stunned into silence and could form no response. Other questions were soon posed, we moved on, and time ran out. I left the class, amused by the glorious description of fast food and yet disturbed that the average Senegalese english student will walk away from a lesson on American culture knowing: “Time is Money”, fast food is wonderful, and Americans never stop working.
More disconcerting was that I had failed to right that impression. Shocked by the ease of a few blunt sentences, I didn’t push the issue. Despite being absolutely sure these quick summarizations couldn’t be the full American way of life, I couldn’t answer what was.
If it were October or November, would I have laughed at their depictions of Americans as workaholics, excessively working to the point where there isn’t time for a meal? Or would I have defensively turned the discussion on the class – why don’t the Senegalese work more?
Phrases and little summaries make it easy to feel like one has a hold on understanding a culture. The most challenging thing to describe about America is the huge degree of variety. If I describe my opinion on an issue, people jump into believing all Americans share my view. Pular culture is found in the characteristics that are shared in all people, knowing that actions and reactions will be almost the same across the board. American culture is a bag of contrasts, what unites us is the factors that drive us, not the outward results.
One of the essential drivers of Americans is a belief in our independence independence, we’re a people who pride ourselves on our differences, we’re a “self-made” people.
And how does one describe the immense variety of culture, attitudes, and opinions that arise out of that independent streak? How does one convey that that is a singular culture when it seems to go against the very definition of culture that my students know?
In reflection, I can realize these distinctions and ponder at how to convey them. But in shock and defense I could only express that Monsieur Diatta’s overly authoritative explanation was not correct.
I was the only American in the room, how could another, who had never even seen my land, claim to understand it so simply?
Abby, another fellow, once said to me, “All our talks seem to end with you just in love with America more.”
And it was true. I saw Senegalese society divided into strict general roles, and praised the soaring eagles and whipping American flags that my parents are both feminists, and that my brother and I were raised as equals, both taught the value of hard work and led by example.
I’d look at the sameness in attitudes, dress, and opinions and praise American Individuality. I’d talk to people in my village who weren’t bothered that they had only ever been as far away as Kedougou, the region’s main city, and contemplate the beauty of the Highway Act by imagining driving through the golden Great Plains and beautiful Rocky Mountains.
I missed the sense of movement and choice my life in the US had always provided. The first month I felt trapped in the compound, felt that endless afternoons just sitting were a deep waste of time. I wanted to get my hands dirty, work hard, fill my days to the brim, as I always have.
Yet, I could not transplant the American Way of Life into Ibel, Senegal. But American I was born and American I rest, so I haven’t been living the Senegalese Way of Life. The challenge in the early months was swinging between desperately attempting to be Senegalese and speaking english with joy and feeling American again when I was with my fellow fellows.
I was missing the opportunity living in a foreign country provides: you can take the best of both worlds, and examine and free yourself of the unpleasant of both worlds.
Context shapes culture, shapes understanding of culture. If I was told to relax all afternoon under the shade of a tree in Connecticut, I couldn’t actually relax, the nagging feeling of wasting productive hours would dig into me. Yet, as the heat continues to rise in the afternoons here, the afternoon simply can’t be productive hours.
Working dawn to night as I did in high school could not happen here. I had the benefit of electricity, safe roads, guaranteed transportation, a sturdy high school building, all of which allowed me to be at school all day and study at night. Here, life is dependent on the weather. School started a month after the official date because the lashing rains continued and fields needed to be harvested. You have to eat before you can study.
So while in October or November I may have turned the conversation: Why don’t Senegalese work more? I had yet to see the scope of what a turn of season brings. The Senegalese work hard, as hard as Americans but our schedules for relaxation, for rest from work are different. The hot afternoons are for rest here, as my weekends were in the US.
This year, Ive chosen my work carefully and I care deeply about what I do. I started and run the art program at the Elementary school while assisting a little in the English Classes at the middle school. But I’m not worn down. I work in the mornings, eat a delicious lunch, and spend the afternoon relaxing, I read books, play with my siblings, study a little Pular, and simply pass the time in peace.
There’s a beautiful balance always, I can chat away with people or open my book, plan the next lesson or wait until after I nap. The beauty of the balance comes from how I’ve taken bits and pieces about both cultures. I relax by reading, writing, or drawing instead of napping or sitting around. In a way, I still work morning until night but the pressure is lifted, the choice is mine in how and what I work on.
Perhaps an outsider can understand another culture’s way of life in more clarity. But I will not concede that Americans can be summarized as McDonalds-binging-workaholics. Stronger than an outsiders clarity, is someone who has gone outside their own culture, and looked back over their shoulder and learned.
Saying that, still I didn’t have a quick description and explanation of the American Way of Life to give to that class. I struggled. But its a difficult question, because the answer will never quite match to one’s personal way of life.
A country’s “way of life”, is difficult to squish into exact words, into a country’s motto, into the routine of The Average Joe (or the Average Souleyman). Every person can remember flashes of images of their childhood, smells of their food, the lighting, the feeling of home, the way a crowd feels, the days of the year most precious. Definitions for a country’s “way of life” derive from where these images overlap. Words and mottos begin to form around common images; images connect to larger ideas and the ideas begin to overlap. Soon enough, there’s enough overlap to pull out little phrases, common ideals.
These little ideas take on a life of their own so that my memories of spaghetti and garlic bread become the ideal of Sunday Dinner with The Family. Or, enough business men in the US say “Time is Money” that an English student half way around the world sees that as an essential element of every American’s life.
The part of my identity based in experience and emotion is being formed by a similar process. I believe one begins to discover their personal way of life, when one is placed into a new one. Adjustment must happen, but what you retain is your essence.
I can see my life in the US: turning up the radio and singing loudly in the car, glancing over to the passenger seat to see my friend’s laughing face, my dad flipping pancakes on a Sunday morning, my mom laughing over her burger and beer at Plan B, happy to have reached another Friday; my giant puppy running and sliding across the hardwood floor to tackle me in a bear hug; I see the piles of books and my brother’s and my musical instruments.
I can see my life in Senegal: the tree whose roots spread out across the yard and under whose shade I havespent hours reading and laughing; I see myself pushing the bike through the gate after Pular class to have Moussa run up and hug me, Mari to chant out “Safi arti! Safi arti!”, and Rama to take my bike from me; I hear my Baaba’s laugh; I see my Nenee carefully pouring tea and her quick but understanding nod as I thank her for a glass; I hear neighbors calling out the morning greeting as they go to the well.
Who I am and what my way of life is, is contained in the overlaps, the parts that mesh together, and the parts that grow together. They’re both so beautiful and in many ways so caught up in the context of time and place. And I will continue to find new contexts and within those see more connections to other places and times and perhaps in all of that I will find who I am, who I want to create myself to be and how my way of life should be. The essence will remain.