Africa · California · Congo

Thoughts on America: Chapter 1

You know what? So the title is pompous. It sounds like what Jean Baudrillard would write, or Bernard-Henry-Levy. But whatever, I’m also entitled to think about America, even if I’m not a constructivist or Lacanian! :-)

The thing is, you’re bound to have thoughts about “Africa” “America” “Development” “Third World” when you shuttle back and forth between Pointe-Noire, Congo and Los Angles, California. Mostly those thoughts are centered around material things, infrastructure, and culture. Maybe that’s a good place to start. 3 chapters at 3 AM. I’m definitely going to try to go back to bed after this, because eventually I have to sleep the way normal people do. Two days ago, I went to bed at midnight and got up at 3 AM, and filed my taxes, applied for 3 jobs, posted stuff on my blog, ordered a book on Amazon, cleaned out my entire room, planned my week and sorted out all my bills, then had coffee at my favorite coffee shop, applied for a job at said coffee shop, drove down 1 hour in rush hour traffic to the West side, had a job interview for a technical staffing company, got my car washed, drove down to San Diego, stopping in Torrance for In’n’Out, and finally arrived in Coronado. Pretty productive day, but I felt like a zombie the entire time.

Chapter 1: The blackout diary

What can I say? I’m a lightweight. Mom and dad don’t even notice really, when the power goes out. They’re SO used to it. That’s the first thing I realized when I got back to Congo: they’ve been there, in a pretty unbroken stay, since the summer of 1981. I, on the other hand, spent 14 years there from ages 3 to 17, my formative years that cemented my identity, and then proceeded to live the next 15 years in America. So yeah, I kept a diary of the blackouts to see if there was any rhyme or reason to them. There was one unbroken period of almost a week where we had no power cuts and it was absolutely amazing. So the blackouts, and resulting lack of running water are part of these material things that you have to get used to.

The main thing I noticed was the quiet inside my head. No advertisement, no stores, no shopping. In fact, after 3 months in Europe and in Congo, my relationship to buying things changed a lot, and I’m really noticing that now that I’m back in the US. I was watching a particularly fantastic episode of House a couple of weeks ago, and the ads were so violent to me. It was like someone was standing on a pedestal in between the segments of this amazing show, and yelling at me, at the top of their lungs and through a loudspeaker: YOU’RE DEPRESSED, BUY THIS ANTIDEPRESSANT! YOU’RE NOT STYLISH ENOUGH, BUY THESE CLOTHES! YOU’RE NOT THE MAN YOU THINK YOU ARE, BUY THIS CAR! YOU DON’T KNOW HOW TO COOK, BUY THIS FOOD AT THIS RESTAURANT! BUY! BUY! BUY! BUY! BUY!

It was so loud, and so forceful, and I hadn’t seen American ads fro so long, that I couldn’t negotiate both the ads and the TV show, their conflicting narratives were too confusing for me. Yeah. I’ve been away so long that those stupid ads now form a block of narrative for me. But I’m being straight. That’s exactly what it felt like for me.

I walked into Kinko’s the other day, the way I would have if it was in Congo, and I pulled out  my wallet. The guy comes up to the desk and says, “How can I help you?” to which I reply “I’d like to purchase 10 sheets of white paper, please.” He comes back with 50 that he just plops down in front of me. “How much do I owe you?” “Nothing! I have hundreds of thousands of them. Just take them.” He was so nonchalant about it, my jaw dislocated as it dropped. I think I actually managed to thank him through my shock. I’m still not used to this yet…everything is so new to me, again.

I don’t know what else to say about the material things. I think the majority of it I said here. The gist of this first chapter is “In America we have a lot of crap, in Africa we deal with a lot of crap”. Partly, I have so little to say about it because it’s the least interesting aspect of the culture wars that wage constantly inside my head. Sure, the weather is different, sure, the products are different, the food is different, and when I’m in Congo, I have to sleep under a mosquito neck constantly. But really, what I want to talk about is the rest of the stuff. Culture and Infrastructure. That’ll take me a while…

I will say this: Congo is a funny mixture of trash strewn on the streets and recycling. The ground is basically the equivalent of the city dump. People just litter. It’s not intentional, it’s just the way it is. You’re done with your plastic bag, just throw it down, you finish with your corn on the cob, the husk gets dropped as you walk. But some things are recycled ad infinitum. Whisky bottles are reused as containers for roasted peanuts. Bugspray cans are recycled into sculptures, 25-liter yellow cooking oil tubs are used as water containers because most of the city doesn’t have running water, the very tops of any aerosol are used as the neck for brooms (don’t ask, I’ll post a picture that explains this on Monday).

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