There’s nothing like contrast to make you think you’ve spotted the essence of things. Each trip home I pick up on 3-4 more anecdotal elements of our American/Western condition: some small, some big, but few of which I would have appreciated without having spent significant time in a very different sort of place. Things like: the wonder of clothes dryers; Americans’ obsessive over-scheduling; the speed of restaurant service.
This summer’s trip was no different. After spending much of July in Europe and the US, I’m back in East Africa and having some time to reflect on what shocked me during the trip home. Here are a few of them:
- You can leave your shoes on in the house—and sometimes even should! After 4 years in East Africa it’s become instinctive for me to want to remove my shoes upon entering a house. And for good reason, considering that everything is covered with a fine (and often not so fine) layer of grey dust and red dirt. But in Western cities, the outside is kept nearly as clean as the inside (no roads, parking lots, or foot paths made of dirt), so there’s not much to track in even if you leave your shoes on. It can even feel rude to take off your shoes inside someone else’s house: you feel as if you are making yourself too comfortable in a place that is not your home—indeed, almost like you are getting undressed!
- Americans are terrified of gluten. Wheat has been consumed by humans for 12,000 years. Coeliac disease affects only around 1% of people. Wheat is generally considered to be one of the healthiest staple foods: indeed, some scholars have cited wheat – and gluten’s nutritional benefits in particular – as one of the answers to the question “why did civilization arise in Eurasia before other parts of the world?” Despite these facts, seemingly half the stuff at grocery stores these days proclaims itself as “gluten-free,” even items you would not expect to have gluten in them. Gluten-free soy sauce. Gluten-free hummus. Even gluten free bath salts!
- Guns… wtf? Of course we all know that guns are everywhere in the United States, but there’s nothing like a holiday through multiple airports followed by a trip to Wal-Mart to crystalize the cognitive dissonance necessary to maintain our lax gun laws side by side with our over-zealous security regulations everywhere else. You’re telling me that one guy, once, in all of history tries—unsuccessfully—to blow up a plane with liquid explosives, and now I can’t carry a tube of toothpaste onto a plane; meanwhile mass shooters strike—successfully—every couple of months, and I can still walk into a Wal-Mart and buy a gun in 5 minutes? My friends, we are scared of the wrong things.
- You have to make reservations at restaurants! In four years in Africa, there have been exactly three times when I’ve not been able to get a seat at a restaurant. So when we showed up to a restaurant at 7:30 where my cousin had made 8:15 reservations, I still expected to be able to find a table somehow, or at least a seat at the bar. Of course we could not—even the bar was full! This must say something about the psychology of markets. Economics would predict that in response to such scarcity of seating, prices would rise, drawing more entrepreneurs to open more restaurants. Yet there is no doubt that even as we waited for an opening, countless other equally tasty DC restaurants sat at half-capacity or near-empty, and many will go out of business. With such “clumpy” demand, it’s apparent that good food (or perhaps more importantly, trendy food), is not just meeting the quantity of demand with physical supply.
- “First world scandals”: we seem to be getting more and more worked up over smaller and smaller things. An athlete may have reduced a ball’s air pressure by less than 10%. A presidential candidate sent some emails from the wrong email account. And these are considered huge scandals requiring 24-hour media attention? Those seem like pretty much the smallest scandals in history. In Uganda coaches steal money from players’ salaries; politicians steal millions from widows and orphans; and Presidents tear gas the opposition and throw them in jail. Now those are scandals! So when we find ourselves getting worked up into a fit over Hilary Clinton’s emails and Tom Brady’s footballs, just know we must have it pretty good!
- Quality is everywhere. During a 6-hour drive through Appalachia—often considered one of America’s poorest regions—there was never a moment when we thought we might not be able to find a clean toilet or disease-free food within a 15 minute drive. We ate gourmet Fro-Yo shop in the middle of Upstate New York farm country. We stopped at a Sheetz gas station in rural Pennsylvania where you can order custom-made pizzas, sandwiches, wraps, salads, and tacos from a touch screen menu. The highway is 4 lanes most of the way, and the rural roads are paved and have their own bridges wherever they cross the highway. Simply put, things are pretty good almost everywhere.
- Unnecessary food innovation. What is a “Coolata?” (Besides an attempt to make an unnecessarily creamed up and over-sugared drink sound Italian). Do we really need Oreo flavoured iced coffees? Is a pizza really improved by having extra-buttery crust that you can “rip and dip” in 5 zany sauces? And why is “zany” ever an adjective you’d want describing food? Oftentimes America’s restless proclivity to endless innovation really works—witness the rise of craft brewing—but other times the results are just… unnecessary. Try smoke-flavored beer and you’ll see what I mean.
- Gigantic specific stores. Cavenders Boot City. Bass Pro Shop. My girlfriend aptly dubbed these “gigantic specific stores.” The size of general big box stores is already startling, but when you see these specialized stores—selling just pet supplies, just Western wear, just fishing and outdoors equipment, and selling them in huge quantities and endless varieties—you start to realize just how and big, rich, innovative, and hungry the United States is. Big and rich because there are apparently enough people with enough money to buy enough stuff to keep these stores in business; innovative because inventors have managed to dream up enough varieties of tackle boxes to fill a gigantic store; and hungry because we want exactly what we want so bad that it behoves companies to give us these infinite varieties that can suit every need. In Kigali’s upper-class Simba Supermarket, there are exactly eight types of spices on sale; in the US you could fill a store that size with ONLY spices.
- Good roads can be bad times for careful deciders. The good thing about good roads is that you can drive at 70+ mph (116 kph). But when you’re trying to decide which exit to take on a 10-lane highway full of thousands of cars also driving at 70 mph, suddenly you find yourself wishing for Africa’s small, traffic-choked and lawless roads, where in a moment of uncertainty you can just stop and ask for directions, while all the cars behind you are obliged to find their way around. Lawlessness has its advantages when YOU are the one who benefits!
- You can get heated water from the sink. At first I couldn’t think of why it’s necessary to be able to wash your hands in warm water; after all it was warm outside! Then I remembered, summer doesn’t last forever here—it gets cold in the winter. And when it does, so is the water that comes out of the sink. Plus you may want to hand wash the dishes or something.
Oh, and apparently there’s a presidential election going on! (That makes 11)