États-Unis (Saturday, 2011 August 6)

August 12, 2011

As I type this I’m leaving America, the country so rich that it has four seasons, each with its own name — a country where motos have three wheels and soup is considered a meal. I got to see most everyone, got to eat and drink pretty much everything on the list. (I’m about ten pounds heavier.) We even successfully performed a sachet tasting (see Jenn’s report). I pushed myself, hardly sleeping in the last week, but like Adam says, it’s a kind of stressful relaxation that I’m hoping will invigorate me for what’s yet to come. I still can’t sleep on the fucking plane.

It’s normal for people to ask questions about my experience, but towards the end I was able to predict pretty well the kinds of things we’d talk about. The questions I got the most:

  • What do you do? I teach computers at a high-school level. Last year I taught 16 hours of class a week, which means sixteen hours of being at the front of a class, lecturing or supervising lab work. Writing and grading homework or tests isn’t counted. Neither is lesson planning, but then, I usually don’t. Strictly speaking 16 is over the maximum that we’re supposed to teach, and I think that’s part of why I’m so burnt out. I’d like to do 12 or even 8 and spend more time working on community problems, or clubs, or attack the bigger issue of why almost none of my students are capable of rubbing two thoughts together.

  • What’s it like? It’s like being on holiday with a bunch of Germans. Alternately, it’s like an endless First Contact situation. Climate-wise, my little village in the mountains isn’t much like what you think of as "Africa"; it’s green and temperate, sometimes getting outright cold, and at night you can freeze if you don’t have a good thick blanket. It’s rainy season now, so it’s a little bit colder. Fleeing my village for the comforts of a sweltering New York summer was foolishness.

  • How was the flight? I’m on the leg right now to get to Brussels, which is about six and a half hours. Then, another similar-duration flight gets me back to Douala. Including the layover, it comes out to about 20-22 hours. This seems to some people like an unbearable drag but to put it in context, I spent more time on the subway.

  • What have you learned? One big thing I’ve very deeply internalized is the lesson that when you open your mouth for the first time, you reveal a huge amount about yourself: what language you choose to speak, your accent, your mannerisms and figures-of-speech. I hadn’t realized the prevalence of the middle-America accent that Volunteers tend to settle around in Cameroon, but I was struck by the "street" English that you hear around my neighborhood or on the subway, or the vague Brooklyn accent Aunt Susan wields. I’m remembering a conversation I watched once between Gus and one of her friends about prejudice as it applies to nonevident characteristics (i.e. Judaism in Nazi Germany, or, yes, francophony in Quebec). "It’s all about who opens their mouth and who doesn’t," Gus was saying. In Cameroon I like to let other people start conversations, and follow them in what language they use — I’m hesitant, now, to start talking without "probable cause". Contrariwise, I know a lot better how hard it is to live in your second language, and I take very seriously pitching my language into a form that an interlocutor will understand. I’ve learned about race and about racism, and what it means to be an American. I’ve learned that I like shaving gel a lot better than I like aerosol cans of shaving cream. I’ve also gotten a lot better at managing my liquid intake so I don’t have to pee when I’m on a four-hour bus ride, or a one-hour subway ride.

    I’ve learned a bit about myself, too. I’m thinking now of a thing Leo wrote me when I was having an identity crisis around my birthday. He says that an experience like the one I’m in is best regarded not as a threat to your identity, but perhaps an expansion of it. "You’re not losing who you are," he writes, "you’re gaining a sense of who you still are when everything else changes." I’m still a programmer, even in Africa. It’s how I cope. I "imprint", like a baby goose. Johnny notes correctly that I act like I want flings and one-night stands, but really what happens is that something "sets" inside and suddenly I’m committed deeply and thoroughly to someone. I’ve learned how to be responsible for myself, more responsible than I have ever had to be.

    There’s other things I’ve learned in Cameroon, like the crisp numbing coldness of a bucket of rainwater, that I don’t think I can ever quite share.

America’s been a trip. It’s easy to talk about the daily strangeness in Cameroon, when it comes hot and heavy (my favorite is the story where I found Brondon eating mayonnaise out of his hand, accompanied by cubes of sugar), but America’s got it’s share of oddity too. Dog grooming salons. A sake bar that was covered, entirely covered, in graffiti. I swear to you that I saw a restaurant whose patrons were made entirely of wax. Hair’s coming back, as a fashion; I saw a few proto-‘fros, and one honest-to-God mullet. All the more reason to get rid of mine (I hate being like other people).

I tried to read some stuff so I could vote for the Hugo, but it just came so fast and I ran out of time. Everything I read was fair to brilliant. I liked "Lifecycle of Software Objects", though it was a little unsatisfying at the end. I found "Maiden Voyage of the Bellerophon" terribly fascinating, dreamy, unstable, fundamentally about love, of people for other people, of people for their craft and their quirky hobbies, though they make us nerds and losers. Feed by Mira Grant surprised me. I appreciate the appeal of the zombie apocalypse, and I can see the Mary Sue thrill of the News being supplanted by a New World Order of bloggers, but both at the same time strained my credulity. But then the story took a turn and suddenly I was crying in my bedroom about a character I hadn’t even liked all that much. Thanks for nothing, Mira Grant.

I also read The Magicians, which was a good time. Laugh-out-loud funny in a lot of places. My copy’s a little soggy, but it’s coming with me to Cameroon, so be sure to borrow it.

I’ve been running up against Dunbar’s number, which made it tangibly difficult to care about some people and their silly mouth-noises, like my heart was in molasses. I’ve met so many people in the last year, and have to juggle them for another year yet, that my monkey brain refuses to cope. System overload. Thanks for nothing, Darwin. I’d always hoped that social technology would enable us to push that number a little bit, but no such luck apparently.

Packing was easier this time. No panic whatsoever. I’d allowed a day, figuring I’d spend it doing nothing but putting things in suitcases, but then a friend invited me to go out that night and visit a sake bar, and let’s be honest, that was much more important. I got a solid five hours of sleep, and impressed myself by packing basically everything in only a few short hours [although N.B. I’m at post and noticing I left a few things behind: a package of pens for a Cameroonian dude, my brown messenger bag]. Periodically I entertain myself with thoughts of what Cameroonian customs is going to think or do about my laptops (six, counting the one I’m typing on) or my cameras (seven, if you include mine). Then again, maybe they’ll be more confused by my books (three, including one hardcover). I had to leave behind approximately four pounds of candy due to weight limits, and it turns out that I had to check the second bag for $50 anyhow, so, uh, screw.

Chiz asked me how I felt about going back. The best answer I’ve got is "resigned". In as many words, I don’t want to go back. Maybe I’m "not ready", maybe I’ll never be ready. I thought I was excited for a minute when I was packing, but it turned out to just be anxiety. I’m thinking of something Jenny Wang said, that instead of going home for vacation, it might be better to take the money and just get a room at the Yaoundé Hilton for a couple weeks, so you don’t spoil yourself for Cameroon again. I know I was on holiday, and it’s hard to compare against the drudgery of the last year, but I’m just so much happier being home and (selfish being that I am) I don’t wanna give that up. See, I’m not like Cheri, who went off to Singapore for a couple years for no reason whatsoever that I can tell, or any of our other globe-trotting compatriots who run around the world farming Alpaca and having adventures. I’m like Chiz and (no offense Chiz) I am boring and responsible and while I still have the flavor of the sweet life in my mouth, I just want to have a life like that again — spend time with a soft, sweet, guileless if somewhat unsophisticated woman, get a relatively ordinary job as a nerd-for-hire where I can talk about CouchDB and Mongo and make fun of people who have to work with PHP. I want to start my real life, in other words. I’m done with this second collegehood stuff. I want to run away and be an adult. But to be an adult, you have to be ready to own up to your responsibilities… So, uh, remind me again why can’t we just stay where the ocean is warm all year?

I’m seated in the very back of a Boeing 777-200, aisle seat in the middle column. I can’t see the window hardly at all, but that suits me fine. I don’t need to have my face rubbed in what’s slipping away.

Just get ready to breathe
Give your lines and make them love you
And I’m not ready to leave
Get to the set and go home wasted

—Bridges and Powerlines, "The Golden Age"

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