What America Means to Me

“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”

– Miriam Adeney

When I reflect on the major holidays over the past few years, I have to first recall in which country I lived at the time. Over the past year alone I spent Thanksgiving in Kenya, Christmas in Mexico, New Years in Japan, and July 4th in America. Each so different, yet I spent quality time with amazing people in each. Sometimes it’s difficult to keep things straight, but I suppose I wouldn’t have it any other way.

July 4th always makes me think about what America means to me. Growing up, it was my unrivaled promise land. I spent two months here every summer free from school, going to camp and hanging out with grandparents and relatives who spoiled me. Returning to Japan at the end of summer meant going back to classrooms and homework and real life. Under those conditions, who wouldn’t love America?

In Kenya, I got to learn about what America meant to Africans. When I chose to tell the short version of my story, simply saying I was American, people responded in one of two ways. Like clockwork, wealthier Kenyans would respond by saying I should find a nice girl, marry her and stay forever. Others (generally poorer) were more perplexed at my living in Kenya, asking why I would leave the place they could only dream about living in to come to Kenya. Why would I give that up for this? I often wondered the same thing, especially when the power went out for 24 hours or someone showed up 2 hours late to a meeting. Yet I thought the response was revealing. Africa is a really nice place if you have money. Like the European masses, it’s only the poor that dream about building a better life in a new world. Though it has its flaws, America has remained the symbol of opportunity and a better life for people across the world. Other countries are achieving the same level of prosperity, but haven’t attained America’s unique status as a symbol of hope.

This brings me to what America means to me. I actually enjoy hearing the blanket statement “America is the best country in the world” because I don’t think it makes much sense. First, I think about how subjective that statement is: it really depends on who you ask. Second, I wonder how you can judge the best country in the world without having visited them all. There are some pretty cool places out there. Finally, I think, “The best country for what?” For food? Again, subjective but I’d go with Thailand. Highest standard of living? Norway. Most hot dog eating contest wins? America.

What a place means to you is totally personal. Do I think America is the best country in the world across all factors we could ever study? I don’t know, it’s possible. I’m not sure why we need to label it the best in the world though. I love certain aspects of this country, like its natural beauty, freedom, opportunities, people. I love certain things about other places too though and that doesn’t need to take away from the fact that I love this country. Like anywhere else, there’s good and bad and it’s full of broken people who ultimately need God. That’s my perspective on America this July 4th. Happy Birthday 🙂

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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.

Mt. Kenya

I had an incredible trip to Mt. Kenya with my friend Steve. I thought the best way to describe my trip would be through pictures

Before the Trip

Before the trip with our guide Solomon

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Hiking across the Equator, pretty cool

Lord of the Rings-esque scenery on the way up. Just a casual stroll up to Mordor

Lord of the Rings-esque scenery on the way up

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Hanging out

Campsite Night 1

Campsite Night 1

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Campsite Night 2. It was freezing

Picnic on top of the world. Mt. Kenya in the background

Awesome picnic spot. Mt. Kenya in the background

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On top of the world at Point Lenana, 16,355 ft! It was freezing

Sunrise on Mt. Kenya

Sunrise on Mt. Kenya

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There is indeed snow in Africa

 

Overall it was a pretty awesome trip. I’m so glad I made the time to have an adventure and do something I will remember for the rest of my life! In two days I return to the US! Crazy to think that my time in Kenya has ended. I’m excited to see what’s next and stay involved in our project here 🙂