Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Becoming a foreigner at home

May 24, 2013. Sal Salvador, El Salvador. United States Embassy.

It’s a quarter past noon and I’m sitting in an air-conditioned room for the first time since arriving here with the Loyola delegation four days ago. We’ve been listening to Dave, Joy, Ian and Kristen describe their jobs at the embassy for the past 40 minutes, and at this moment, I struggle to admit, I feel least proud of being a “United States-ian.” The representatives explain that they have short stays at the embassies in the different countries in order to retain “institutional memory” of the policies they must implement on behalf of the U.S.

So instead of just sitting there accepting my resentment, I decide to make things a little awkward for everyone in the room. My hand goes up. This’ll be interesting.

“Have you ever felt morally or ethically conflicted because of how your job requires you to think and what it requires you to do?” I’m frustrated because they’ve all just defended the fact that they don’t stay long enough in a country to get to know the people, the histories and the perspectives that lie outside of what our U.S. government provides. They started the session making small talk about ordering McDonald’s and going surfing.

It takes two seconds for Ian to decide how best to answer my question while remaining true to his job description. “We can’t compromise the implementation of U.S. policies,” he says. Even if those policies are directly detrimental to the Salvadoran people, the people whose country you have resided in though refused to call your home for the past two years, I silently note. “I don’t see any U.S. policy that is detrimental to El Salvador,” Dave adds. Right, except CAFTA, I’m thinking. “And if you don’t want the job, you can always leave.” It seems so easy: Go to the country you’re assigned to. Live in a beautiful, guarded residence that mimics your home in the U.S. Do not step outside of your comfort zone or get to know too many people. Leave once you’re at risk of seeing things from a new perspective.

In that moment, I resented my fellow “Americans” because I came here to see El Salvador the way Salvadorans do. I felt like a foreigner in what should have been a home away from home, and I was consciously trying to avoid understanding the embassy's perspective.

Thinking back on the experience now, though, I can admit that I was really privileged to feel that resentment. Because of the education I’ve received thanks to being born in the U.S., I can criticize the U.S.—its policies, its government employees, its less informed citizens. And that’s a little bit elitist, even if some of the criticism is deserved. I traveled to El Salvador for a very different reason than Ian and Dave did. It’s less important to decide which reason is a better reason, and more important to see what truths are revealed based on those different lenses. For me, it’s been important to grapple with the possibility that multiple lenses can be equally legitimate at the same time.

The reading “Paths to Glory” from Tales of the Tikongs pushed me to think further on this matter. The tipsy taxi driver toward the end of the tale says, “I don’t believe you saying that you don’t belong up there, that you belong nowhere, and that you are just you. You belong up there with the rest of the educated bastards. You deny it because you’re trying to be humble” (46). I  believe that accusation could have been directed at the men and women in the embassy, but it could have easily been directed at me as well. Regardless of where we’d like to belong, regardless of where we work toward being accepted, we come from a specific cultural perspective and other perspectives that we take on are still filtered through the one we’re born with. Acting hypocritically, albeit unintentionally, is a concern if we cannot own our lenses. Without this self-awareness it is possible to become a foreigner in our own land.

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