Rooted and Unsettled

Over the last two weeks I’ve been traveling around the Midwest and Texas, playing pickleball exhibition matches, giving lessons and selling paddles. I’ve driven over 2,000 miles and worked 7 days a week. It’s been a fruitful, tiring and long trip.

As I’ve traveled, I’ve gotten to reconnect with my extended family across the region. I’ve stayed with aunts & uncles, second cousins, first cousins once removed – you name it. I love getting to meet these people as an adult, learning about how I’m connected to them and the interesting tidbits about our family tree.

It’s fascinating to me how rooted my family is in the United States. For at least 5 or 6 generations on each side, my entire family was born here. That goes back into at least the 1800s. Many have been here much longer than that. I have slave-owning ancestors in Georgia. There are abolitionists Arkansas. As legend has it, I have native American blood from Oklahoma. I get the sense of being rooted here, like I should belong because my family has so much history.

So what the heck happened to me? I barely qualify as American and although I have history, when asked where I’m from I don’t always answer America. It’s more complicated than that. I often wish for the simplicity of being from a single place. I wish I could be content never leaving, able to invest my life somewhere. I would know people, have unquestioning resolve in what I believe and listen to the global news with a concerned but uninvolved interest. I wouldn’t have any skin in the game. I wouldn’t have to answer the question, “Where should I live?” because it would be answered for me and other questions like “what should I do” and “who should I marry” would follow easily. When eating a banana in America I wouldn’t have to think about how much better it was in Africa. Life would certainly be simpler being from one place; not necessarily better, just simpler. Yet for one reason or another, that is not my story.

It makes me think of this quote:

“You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart will always be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.”

It is hard knowing people around the world. Yet I wouldn’t trade it for anything – It’s now on my bucket list to know someone from every single country. People are the same everywhere, but the hardships and struggles that they have overcome in some places are baffling. After hearing those stories, you can’t ever go back to not caring about what happens in other places.

One last comment. I recently listened to a book called Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche from Nigeria. What a cool name. Anyway, it made me laugh thinking about the funny quirks of Africa and how similar African cultures are. It also made me think about what it means to be an immigrant and the value of knowing more than one place. I would definitely recommend it, as in many ways it mirrored my own experiences.

That’s all for now. Thanks for reading

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The Merits of Being a Tourist

I usually hate the idea of being a tourist. The standard I try to avoid is the stereotypical Asian tourist: whirlwind travel of as many places as they can cram into an itinerary, awkward bulges created by fanny packs in bad places, cameras slung around their necks incessantly snapping every angle while forgetting to really take anything in. You’ve seen them. Ironically, I now herd these people around, although I try to have a positive influence by helping them see much more than big mountains or famous sites. Travel should change you. Helping people be affected by the places they experience is my mission as a tour guide.

That’s why my last day in Kenya was a strange experience. Over the last two months, I felt I had become a local, even on “the other side of town” where I lived and worked on our project. Although I rarely saw another white person and am under no illusion that I would ever fit in, I knew the routines and was comfortable enough following them. I had an informed opinion on Kenyan politics. I could speak enough Swahili to differentiate myself from the common muzungu. I knew the matatu routes. Besides the color of my skin, I was on my way to becoming a local.

Then a big group of muzungus came from the US and disrupted my world. We overlapped for only one day before I left Kenya, but in that day I experienced many things I hadn’t since I first arrived, almost 3 years ago. All of the sudden, I was no different from any of them, a tourist. During our overlapping day, each class at the school where I worked recited a poem or sang a song in honor of the visitors in a huge gathering. Afterwards, we stood in a line and hi-fived kids for a good 30 minutes before dishing up rice and beans for lunch. Later, we visited an orphanage where kids sang more songs and performed dances. In letting life become normal in Kenya, I had not made time for simple things like hanging out with these kids. It took the mission trip mentality to get me to do that.

Presenting Poems and Songs to the Muzungus

Presenting Poems and Songs to the Muzungus

The wonder and curiosity of being a tourist is something I want to capture and incorporate into my every day life. Why is it that wherever we live, we often stop experiencing new things? Life becomes routine and monotonous, when every place has so many things to keep us growing and learning for a lifetime.

That’s why when I had a 20-hour layover in Montreal, I decided to go experience something. After watching The Netherlands’ 5-1 spanking of Spain, all I really wanted to do was sleep but I rallied, walking somewhere – anywhere. I started out from my hotel until a bus pulled up next to me. Naturally, I entered, having no idea where it was going. Not knowing how to pay for the ticket either, the bus driver and I stared at each other for a good 5 seconds before I just sat down without saying anything. When the bus reached its final destination, I asked the driver how I should pay and he responded by giving me a free ticket – just for being a visitor. Since the bus ended at a metro station, I obviously had to see where it would take me. I picked a station that sounded nice (everything was in French) and got off, walking around for a while before eating fried rice at a cheap Chinese restaurant. As I looked out the window of the restaurant, I listened to Montrealers talk about playing bridge with their friends and different tax laws in Canada and the US.

Discovering a Secret Garden in Montreal

Discovering a Secret Garden in Montreal

I did make it back to the hotel, and although I was tired I’m glad I became a tourist in Montreal. It won’t be a major event in my life: it’s the attitude that’s important. Wherever we go and whatever we do, sometimes it’s important to be a tourist. You might feel out of place and it requires some effort, but it’s usually worth it.

Monica

Monica, our house-help (Maid) is one of my favorite people in Kenya. She is hilarious and some of my most entertaining conversations have taken place in the kitchen watching her cook.

First of all, she worries about me far too much. If I haven’t gotten home by 9:00 PM, she calls me and asks whether I am okay. If I’m too lazy to shave one morning, she’ll say, “Brother Dan, you need to shave to look smart”. If my shoes are dusty from the previous day, she won’t let me leave home until she’s had a chance to wipe them. In the evenings, she always makes sure I have my cup of tea, texting me instead of walking upstairs to my room. Last night’s said, “Hallo Dan, welcome 4 the cup of t”. Apparently bad texting grammar and laziness are not exclusively American problems. And even though she constantly walks around the house barefoot, if I attempt this daring feat she makes me put on sandals, saying my feet are not used to it.

Monica Shining Shoes

Monica Shining Shoes

She said one of my favorite lines ever the other day when I asked when Josephine and Pastor Brown would arrive home (the family I’m staying with). Straightening her posture like she was announcing the arrival of the Queen of England she replied in her Kenyan accent, “Brother Dan, I do not know when they shall arrive, but henceforth from now on they may arrive at anytime.”

We’ve also had some interesting conversations about Kenya, giving me deeper insight into the culture. I told her that Americans like to be slim but most of them are fat. Then I asked her why Africans like to be fat but most of them are slim. She corrected me, saying “People liked to be fat before because it meant you were rich. Now we know that being too fat is unhealthy. A person should not be too fat or too slim.” I couldn’t agree more Monica.

Then, there is her utter shock at the fact that in America, we don’t eat ugali. “It is my favorite food, I could eat it every day and never tire” she says enthusiastically of the unseasoned boiled cornmeal mixture. Personally, I think it’s just mediocre and could easily imagine life without it, but I didn’t mention that part.

Monica had been asking me to attend church with her for a while (she goes to a different church than the family) and yesterday, I honored her request. Knowing that Kenyan churches are in it for the long haul, however, I made a point of having to leave by 1:00. Leaving the house at 9:00 with Josephine who was driving in the same direction, I jumped out of the car at the “bus stop,” if you can call it that, waiting for Monica to join me. Monica fumbled around in the car for a while, looking for something. Apparently, in a moment of African blondeness, she had forgotten to bring her shoes! Josephine and I could not stop laughing. We quickly hatched a plan and I dropped Josephine off at her church, before taking Monica to buy shoes and attend her church. By 10:00 we were sitting in Monica’s church.

For some reason, evangelical churches in Africa feel the need to blast music as loud as possible and literally scream sermons into the microphone. Kenyans have told me that passers-by need to be able to hear the entire service because they might get interested and come inside. Monica’s church has about 20 members, and as the guest of honor (and probably the only white person who has ever stepped foot in the building) they put me front and center, right in front of the two loudspeakers. I was painstakingly aware of how absurdly loud everything was and I pondered why in a small tin shack with 20 people, we needed a PA system at all. When in Rome and To Each His Own I suppose.

Needless to say, this was not my most spiritually enlightening church experience, but I did it for Monica. As I watched the seconds slowly tick away, I prayed that God would grant me more patience. I also had the sermon to entertain me. From my perspective, the pastor seemed to be shouting out random God-related statements for an hour and a half, occasionally turning back to the Bible passage at hand. Taking meticulous notes for later use, some of his most interesting statements included:

 The devil is mute

I don’t believe in getting old

News is a disgrace to God

In the car I preach to myself

We don’t need government – be governors and senators of the word

Now I don’t want to ridicule, but let’s be honest, these are a bit ridiculous. Going to African church did, however, make me realize that as a result of my cultural upbringing, personality, or maybe attending a Christian university, my faith tends towards the academic rather than the emotional. Despite some theologically questionable statements, Christians in Kenya are undeniably passionate about God. After I left at 1:00, Monica attended the afternoon service, which continued until 6:00 PM. She was happy to stay all day and worship, not thinking about what else needed to be done or having personal time for herself. Sometimes I wish I had some more of that faith.