Buena Vista is a town of around 2,600 people, roughly the same size as my Southern Californian high school. Living in a small American town is not quite as large a cultural jump as Nairobi, but there is definitely a leap to be made. There are certain things that you just need to embrace about living in a small rural town. Each one has it’s own particular character, since BV is tucked into the mountains and has a cold river that cuts right through it certain kinds of Americans are attracted to it. There is a contingent of retirees, yuppies telecommuting to fancy jobs in other shinier cities with less hiking, teachers and doctors who like the mountains so have chosen here over those other shiny cities, and, of course, a contingent of rednecks.
Another part of small town life that one must embrace is that everyone knows everyone. I usually drive my mother-in-laws sporty little aqua RAV-4, I have had people I didn’t know or recognize wave me down while driving it and ask questions about the goings on our home without introduction, I knew who they were and they knew who I was.
Earlier today Emma had hit her afternoon crabbies so I plopped her into a baby backpack and went for a walk down the trail that is a part of our housing development. At one point the trail passes through a meadow and buts up against a neighbors backyard, as I passed the brown house that owned that yard, a lady walked towards me, paint brush in hand, broad smile on her face, and said,
“Are you the Barnett’s daughter-in-law?” I knew that she knew who I was, and even thought I didn’t know her, and even before she spoke I was willing to bet large sums of money on the fact that my mother-in-law knew her. She said I gave myself away by the baby on my back. We had a pleasant conversation about my daughter and her grand-daughter (Ruth, born a day before Emma), about the trail I was walking on, and eventually she asked if Scott would like to help her finish painting her deck. Then she, with meaning, asked how it is to be back.
“How are you?”
“How is it to be back?”
“How was Kenya?” Are the three most difficult questions to answer right now.
How am I? At moments thankful to be back in a country where I understand the customs, I know when people are being rude to me or kind, I am not treated like a freak or foreigner, a country where there is an infrastructure that works. At times enraged to watch the most pampered population in the world complain about non-problems. At times depressed because maybe post-partum depression in nine months late in coming, or because we are unemployed, or because this sweet lady just offered us a job, that one would normally offer to a summering college student, to my Ph.D husband. Other moments hopeless thinking about the mess that is Africa. Sometimes relieved because abject poverty and corruption isn’t pressed up against my nose every day. Guilty because abject poverty and corruption isn’t pressed up against my nose every day and I’m relieved about it.
How is it to be back? Mostly I think about going shopping, a lot. I have eaten a lot of cheese, a lot of brie, gouda, cheddar. If you ask me what I want for lunch I’m usually thinking about a very large block of cheddar. Sometimes I sit down in the shower just to enjoy the hot beautiful water pressure. I still struggle to throw away Ziploc bags, I just leave them on the counter, I don’t really want to wash them, but it only had a sandwich in it…how do I go from struggling to get resources to struggling to save them?
How was Kenya? That was two years of my life, where I taught for the first time, lived in another country, and had my first child. Does anyone ever just ask, “How was the last two years of your life?” Not that you shouldn’t, not that I don’t want you to, it’s just hard to answer. Then there is the not knowing what people want to hear. What do they know about Africa? Because (spoiler alert) it’s not like what they show you on TV. If they even do show it on TV, because CNN is not very international. Do they want to hear cheesy God platitudes to make their world okay again? Do they want to know about the friends we made, the safari’s we went on, the baby we had, or the poverty, the hopelessness of a failing country. We worked with people, there aren’t good stats for what we did, we don’t have numbers.
I’m not saying don’t ask. Ask, but expect me to stall and squint and not know what to say. Narrowing down the subject line is great, what was it like to teach overseas? What was it like to have a baby overseas? What was it like running a household in Nairobi? I will probably still hem and haw a bit, but I will have a bite rather than trying to eat a whole steak in two sentences. I’m glad that you recognize where we’re at and care enough to ask instead of ignoring that we were never gone, thank you. Expect me to be a bit awkward about answering, they’re big questions. If you have asked me those questions please, please, please don’t feel bad, but maybe now you know why I might have said something kinda weird…