How To Be An American (When You’ve Forgotten How)

One year ago today I watched the sun set over the Kenyan highlands one last time. The next morning I watched it rise on the snow-covered Alpine peaks of southern France, and that evening I saw it set over my Lancaster County homeland. I had left behind the place that had been home for the previous four years and had returned to the place that had always been home before.

So it’s been quite the year. Every once in a while it still feels as if I might wake up some morning in my little house in Kenya and find that all this life since then has been a dream.

I decided to copy here a portion of an email that I wrote about two months after I had left Kenya:

What is it like to be a returned missionary? It’s a strange mixture of foreign and familiar. Those four years in Kenya have a way of seeming like an entirely different lifetime. In some ways it’s as though I’ve come back and picked up right where I ended with life in America. But other times I feel as if I’m from a different planet. Driving down the road, I try desperately to remember traffic rules. I forgot what it’s like to watch the speedometer; in Kenya you just go as fast as the speed bumps, pot holes, and slow traffic will allow.

Oops, that’s a shilling, not a quarter in my wallet. Better not give that to the cashier. Did I just use my best Africanized British accent while talking to a customer in the store who looked Asian and obviously didn’t speak English as her first language? I’m glad nobody was listening. Good thing I caught the words on the tip of my tongue before I threw in a common Swahili expression. Is Wal-mart classier than it used to be? My sister laughed at my question. I guess it all depends on perspective. The humidity is smothering, but air conditioning is freezing. Houses are enormous, and so are the people (overweight Kenyans are a rare sight). Oh, and please don’t let me hear one more question with any form of the word adjust in it.

It amazes me how everything in America is so orderly. Travel is incredibly easy. Have you ever thought about what a great invention traffic lights are? Road construction is not a problem at all. The flag man tells you when to stop and when to go, and all the cars stay in a nice line and wait their turn, instead of turning one lane into three or four.

Above all, I realize again how BLESSED we are here in America. The everyday things that we take for granted would be a dream come true for most people in the world. Also, our Amish/Mennonite heritage is priceless. What a blessing it is to be part of a culture that upholds honesty, integrity, and community!

I almost changed the word blessed in that last paragraph to lowercase just now because in general I think using all caps is kind of lame. So I usually avoid it. But I used it in the original email, and I decided to leave it that way—because I don’t think I can overemphasize that sentence. If I tried to make a list entitled “Things That Kenya Taught Me,” I could probably write all day, but gratefulness would be pretty close to the top of the list.

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End and Beginning

If you want your life to be divided neatly into chapters, go to school for a long time, or teach school—or do both. It dawned upon me just the other day that I have already completed 21 school years, either as a student or as a teacher. Strange how that end-of-the-school-year feeling is still the same after all these years—the feeling of freedom mixed with the wistfulness and nostalgia of leaving behind another era of my life. It’s a little like finishing a good book, turning the last page, and then sitting there staring at the back cover while trying to absorb and process all that you just read.

Spring semester at Faith Builders ended in one grand whirlwind. These last few months have been some of the craziest, most stressful, most delightful months of my life. And now it has already been three weeks since I came home, and my life has been transformed from a sleep-deprived frenzy of finishing a research paper and studying for final exams to a leisurely existence of picking strawberries, sewing, washing windows, and other such play. Oh, and working part time at Kauffman’s Fruit Farm, a job that will become more full time as peach harvest begins. I had visions of writing all the blog post ideas that have been scampering around in my head for the last few months—all those ideas that had to stay out of the way while assigned writing projects clamored for my attention. But I think my brain decided that it needed a vacation. Go away, writer’s block.