Wednesday, January 26, 2011

John Mayer, I feel you, yo.

I spent a decent chunk of the afternoon Monday restocking on groceries and various accoutrements of Western living (hair-dye, body-wash, oh the luxury!). After schlepping through Costco I ran to Safeway for cereal and eggs that came in less than Duggar-sized quantities. As I was checking out, the cash register and I were chatting about the *shudder* snow storm we are supposed to get today. I mentioned I just left 85 degree Cambodia, and was not looking forward to wintry mix (le sigh). When he handed me my hermetically sealed, plastic wrapped cereal and metal canned goods after I paid he said "Welcome back to the real world!"

His tone was so friendly, but I couldn't help but reply "Fake world" immediately. It wasn't that I was trying to be rude (it just comes naturally sometimes! Seriously though, I'm working on it), but the whole day I had been trying to wrap my brain around the differences I feel and see here vs. in Cambodia,and can't help but think that some of what we consider 'developed' is really far less enlightened than what the 'developing' world has got goin' on.

The two biggest things that have struck me so far:

I had a conversation with my sister Sunday night about my (beautiful, amazing, brilliant) niece, and she was telling me about "attachment parenting"- based on Eastern principles of keeping your children close, not using strollers and swings to occupy your kids and keep them apart, etc. I was thinking about this today as I was stuck behind a minivan in traffic. The license plate said "BZEMOM" and the back window had those stickers where each family member has their own little personality depicted with cute charactatures. Looking at this lady's van, I thought of the Cambodian equivalent: motobike with up to six family members stuffed on the back. The streets are filled with them in Phnom Penh. Everywhere you look there are moms riding sidesaddle with babies tucked in their arms, their husbands driving while a young child- or two- is stuffed between the parents. The other day Beth and Adrienne, two women in the Center for Global Ed program with me, and I were at a cafe and we saw a woman driving with two boys on the back of her motobike. The one in back had his arms around his brother (I'm presuming the relationship) and was holding on to his mom- his brother sandwiched in between them, out cold asleep. I saw countless toddlers crouched between their mother or father's legs as the parent drove, the kid holding onto the handle bars and balancing on the foot post, with other family members sitting behind the driver.

Despite the safety factors that would lead the US Department of Children and Families to apprehend any parent in the US that even attempted to do this, there appeared (from my outsider's perspective) to be an upside to this system. These families are really together- really, really closely together. The "BZEMOM" in front of me today had a whole Honda Odyssey of space between her and her children. This is not really a 'problem', or a negative or anything, but I do think that we have come to value personal space to the point that we have built in large barriers between ourselves and those we love. We have McMansions where each family member can have their own floor. We strive to give our kids a sense of independence and confidence, so we enroll them in a bazillion different sports and extracurriculars, and are so pressed for time that we swing through the drive-thru and skip family dinner, time where we would not only be fostering closeness, but where kids would truly gain the confidence that comes from knowing they are loved, valued and appreciated.

And then there's the food issues where I definitely feel that we are more in a fake, plastic-wrapped world than the developing world. One of my FAVORITE experiences I had on the entire trip was when an employee of Jimmy's uncle ran into us at the market. I was on the prowl for fruit to give as gifts to folks I had interviewed, and Ming (which means aunt in Khmer, Jimmy told me she cares for him as if he's her nephew, and that I should role with the term as well) decided to embrace the mission. No sooner than had Jimmy explained what we were up to, Ming grabbed my arm and started dragging me through Central Market, chatting up friends along the way. We went to a half-dozen fruit stands, where she haggled her way into a great deal on some beautiful baskets filled with fresh yummy produce.

So in the process of getting absolutely-fresh-from-the-tree fruit, we also got to support local, small business owners and interact with a multitude of Ming's friends. It's a rare day when I run into a pal at Safeway (and not because I don't have any friends). Our world is so spaced out here. In the 'burbs where I'm staying with my mom we live in houses where we have to get in the car to go pretty much anywhere. We value 'food safety' over real food- embracing the joys of processed, packaged corn starch concoctions over honest-to-goodness food that doesn't hail from mysterious origins.

My favorite meals while in Cambodia involved fruit purchased from a street stand. They're everywhere, and the fruit is amazing. I would purchase a small pineapple (there's a specific species over there that is a little baby one, so cute and delish!) for 2000 riel, which is exactly $.50. The fruit stand person would peel the pineapple, then cut it with this notched design that made it possible to eat right off the core, corn-cob style. Not only was this amazingly delicious, it also skipped so much of the ridiculous carbon emitting process that we build into our food production here. The fruit guy gets his fruit directly from the farmer, skips the expensive and land filling packaging process, and then sells it to me. Easy.

I bought a pineapple at Costco and was looking at it ripening on my counter this morning. I am sure it had quite a flight from its country of origin, and a few fun trips in a truck to get to Chantilly Costco, then the car ride (it's ultra-low emissions, I promise!) to get to my house. So many steps, and it's still not even ripe because it had to be picked off the tree well before it's time so it wouldn't rot before getting to me. Yikes.

On top of the geographical nuttiness that went into my pineapple procurement, the good people at the Dole fruit company decided that the pineapple on it's own was somehow not enough. Perhaps the beautiful ridges and resplendent fronds were not enough of a selling point that I, an informed, nutritious conscious consumer, would want to partake of their product. So they stuck a tag in it, informing me that the pineapple is a "Super-food!", and "Good for my joints!" (Insert mental image of jazz hands here) I'm really down with Dole doing whatever they feel is best to move their product, and I get that if I, in the midst of a DC winter, want to enjoy the wonders of a tropical pineapple I must embrace the carbon footprint that comes along with my gastrointestinal longings. It's just that all of this makes my pineapple seem less, well, real.

I don't know that what I am feeling right now is culture shock, so much as a deep questioning of the assumptions I have had about what the "real world" is. So, I'm with you, John Mayer. I do feel like I just found out there's no such thing as the real world. And I don't know what that means for me and Will's future, although I am guessing it will involve more transnational flights and anti-malaria pills. What I do know for now is that I am much more skeptical of the idea of aiding 'developing' countries with a particular idea of what that development should look like.

The other thing I do know for certain: If being able to buy a hermetically sealed package of Mott's blueberry-apple sauce and a package of Dunkaroo's to eat in my Honda Odyssey is the epitome of development, count me out.

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