Wednesday, July 31, 2013

That Rich American Lady

“She’s that rich American lady.”

While I’ve never been referred to as “rich” in America, I have no doubt that it has been said about me here in Kenya.  Hawkers move their prices upward and distant acquaintances ask for loans based on that assumption.  Strangers approach me asking for employment. 

Of course I’m wealthy.  We are making American salaries in a country where the cost of living is a fraction of what it is back home.  I have a laptop. I drive a car.  I take trips around the country – for fun.  I have house help.  Hell, I have electricity and indoor plumbing. I buy indulgences like cheese and chocolate, each costing the equivalent of a local day’s wage. 

At the same time, we have tens of thousands of dollars of debt in student loans. Things like saving for our children’s education and retirement weigh heavy on our shoulders.  We budget ourselves and say "no" to things we want. Unlike some of our expat friends, we don’t have a washing machine, a generator, or a compound kept green by sprinklers.  Unlike our friends back in the US, we don’t own a home.  All of our permanent possessions fill a the corner of my parent's basement.  I think of what it means to be “rich” in America and laugh at the prospect that I might be included in that group.

But I know I’m rich here.   

It’s an uncomfortable tension, feeling simultaneously rich and lacking.  

Obviously how you feel about what you have depends a lot on what your neighbors have.  So, it all depends on who you consider your neighbors.  Here our neighbors span the global extremes.

A new study just came out that showed that over 70% of Americans with over $1 million in investable assets (people clearly in the top 1% of one of the wealthiest countries in the world) do not consider themselves “wealthy.” Why?  They can’t do everything they want with the money they have. And “everything they want” we can assume is defined by what they see others doing with their money.

Still, there’s something irrational here.  Sure, some of these millionaires might be on the lower part of the economic ladder in their very expensive neighborhood. They didn’t get to take the same luxury cruise that the Jones’s did.  But the law of averages tells us it wouldn’t be 70%.  So, the rich, and probably most of us, are actively choosing to look upward and focusing on what we don’t have instead of looking around and appreciating what we do.

Is this human nature?  Maybe.  Some would argue it – that drive for more wealth – is what keeps us growing, innovating and developing. Maybe. But it might also be what’s keeping us running in increasing numbers to the therapist's couch.  It might be what keeps us from ever feeling satisfied.  

But, in a lot of ways feeling rich or poor is a choice. I have two extremely different comparison groups to choose from.  

The problem is when I look at my relative wealth, I feel fortunate but also incredibly uneasy about it. Even though I've worked hard for what I have, I know that most of it is attributable to the geographic accident of my birth. I'm surrounded by smart and hard-working people who, despite their gifts and efforts, will never achieve this wealth. In that way I don't necessarily "deserve" what I have. Maybe none of us do. 

When I look at those who have more than me I have to admit feel a longing, and maybe a very subtle sense of relative failure.  Even though I don't care about a whit about things like luxury items or brand names and have a slightly communistic bent, those feelings still sometimes creep through.  

Neither direction is all that satisfying. 

So, I'll settle on this: I'll look at what I have and feel... thankful, lucky.  I won't stop feeling guilty, but I'll try and use that feeling to inspire generosity and compassion instead of defensiveness.  I'll spend what we need to be comfortable and try and comfortable with basic things.  I'll look at those who have more than me and and then shrug and look away.

In which direction do you look when you think about your wealth?  How do you cope with what you see?


Friday, July 26, 2013

Pre-yoga class jitters and how to beat them

Photo credit:
This week was my third week working as a yoga instructor.  I have been filling in for the teacher who had gone to visit family In Europe, so, really, I’ve been subbing. I’ve learned from grade school on that it’s hard being a sub. The class is used to their teacher, resentful of the interloper, and impatient when she does things differently.  They might throw spitballs.

And, Elin is a fantastic teacher, so the bar was high.  

Add to all that, appearances aside, I’m kind of a nervous person. I hate public speaking and have been known to clam up so much it feels like I’m having a panic attack – heart raising, pulse quickening, voice wavering.  So, the day of the first class I had a bit of anxiety. 

But, you know what’s really awesome for anxiety? 

Umm…. Yoga.

So, with this logic tucked in the back pocket of my yoga pants, I started my first class.  We worked on some breaths, and on each exhale I felt my anxiety leave my body a bit.   As we moved through the familiar poses, I found my voice. Like a bona fide yoga instructor I heard myself saying things like “lead with your heart,” “breath into the pose” and “absorb the benefits of your practice,” talking almost as much to myself as to everyone else.
And it worked!  The students did not mutiny or throw spitballs. There were no exasperated sighs or eye-rolls.  In fact, after my final Namaste, a few students even clapped!  (Maybe because they knew me from class and were simply being supportive, but I’ll take it.)   

Normally, after yoga I get a “yoga high” or a “yoga buzz.”  Yogis will tell you about it.  It’s a rush of something… endorphins, adrenaline, relaxins (is that a thing?)… I don’t know.  But I feel calm and at peace.  A little dopey and oddly patient.  I move slower, and that pace doesn’t seem to bother me.  And another thing: I don’t so much care how others might judge me – an affliction I’m normally plagued with.  I feel wholly comfortable in my own skin. 

So, at just that moment at the end of class when all my pre-class nerves would have begged for some positive affirmation, I didn’t need it.  I wanted people to like the class because what that would mean for them - for their ability to also reach that peaceful state.  But not for what it would mean for my typically fragile ego.  And that lesson is what I’m taking with me to all following classes:  Work towards helping others find some peace, not making them like you.

If I can focus on that goal, I can escape some of the pre-yoga class jitters and probably lead a better class in the process.

What's made you nervous? How do you do to escape anxiety? 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Ndere Island

“You live in Kenya!?!”  I get that incredulous exclamation every time I mention where we live on visits back to the US, from moms at the park, commuters on the train, old friends.  I always wonder what they're thinking. Generally, people seem either envious or bewildered.

Unlike a lot of African nations (say Burkino Faso or Lesotho), "Kenya" at least registers in Americans' popular imagination. They might know where it is, and they probably picture grand safaris and majestic animals.  How lucky we are to be in such close proximity of the long stretches of African savanna, giraffes silhouetted in a descending sun, bla bla bla...

But the truth is, we live pretty far removed from the tourist track.  We’re in one of the most densely populated part of the country, but we don’t run into any of the millions of tourists that flock to see the “Big 5.”  

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of beauty just outside our doorstep.  And the best part is that a lot of it is off the well trodden tourist track, so prices are low, crowds are non-existent and local people are unjaded by a constant stream of visitors.

Perfect example: last month we visited Ndere island.  It was only a 45 minute drive to the boat which would take us to the small island – only 1.5 sq miles – uninhabited except for impala and small monkeys.  The island is run by the Kenyan Wildlife Service, though when we arrived at their office the staff were lounging under the shade of a tree, and the boat driver showed up only because we phoned ahead. Like all KWS parks it's well run, but why rush around for visitors who rarely arrive?  

After checking in, we bought some fish to cook at the island's lone campsite and set out to board the boat for the island.  It was large wooden fishing boat, with a fresh coat of yellow paint, water sloshing up through the slats as we crossed the lake.  The motor cut out about part way to the island. But our captain didn't seem worried, so neither were we, and he finally got it going again.  When we arrived at the island there was no dock, so the boat just kind of rammed up to the shore and we all climbed carefully down from the boat to hike up to the top of the island.  

The island is pretty and serene. I could look from the top of the hill and see water on opposite sides of the island, which made me feel kind of possessive of the island, like I had conquered it. The small hills just rolled out like crumpled bed sheets, and the tall prairie grass waved in the breeze, making it's own kind of rippling golden lake.  

The vistas were beautiful, but we saw them mainly from under the largest tree we could find since temperatures can soar on the island.  Still, it was a kind of peaceful solitude you can't easily find in such a populous part of the country, and I felt myself exhale a bit. 

Our family only stayed for the lunch and a small hike, since we didn't want to jeopardize Emmet's newly found all night sleep awesomeness by camping. But our friends camped the night, which they said was magnificent. Maybe I'm projecting, but I imagine being on that small island looking at the twinkling stars at night and then the orange sun slowly illuminating the world in the morning, might have felt like those riches of the cosmos were for their eyes alone. Like that island was their own little planet. I think that's how I'd feel. I guess we'll have to camp next time and find out for sure.

After our stay, we heard rumors of a plan to bring more exciting animal to the island - giraffe, zebra and ostrich - which would come over, Noah’s Arc style, in the same wooden fishing boats we used. The prospect of this made us salivate.  A small island filled with the kind of charismatic mega-fauna (it's a word) that normally draw people to heavily trafficked game reserves might just put our corner of Kenya on the tourist map. Probably a mixed blessing, but if it happens, we'll take it!  And I'll probably get an even more interesting post out of it. 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

More Light Topics: Race and the Trayvon Martin Case

After a bit of a writing drought, I just submitted a pieceto the Huffington Post about, oh, you know... something light and non-controversial: race and the Trayvon Martin case.  Why do I do this? I must be a glutton for punishment because I can pretty much predict given the topic I'll get some tasty comments.  I’m a little terrified. (Maybe they'll bury the piece and no one will see it, which could be a mixed blessing.) 

The point of the piece was that instead of hyper-analyzing the minutia of the case, we should turn that scrutiny inward and examine our own biases.  We still live in a profoundly unequal world and there’s too much evidence that the typical American harbors subconscious biases – especially when it comes to race and crime, which doubtlessly played into the verdict.  I suggested that we honestly air our own views about race in order to scrutinize and even cleanse them.  So…. I guess I should go first:

So, I’m going to take a nice big breath and try and write from the heart about my own history with race in America...

I was brought up on a diet of 'Free to be You and Me" and the rainbow (muppet and human) of Sesame Street characters. We didn’t have nightly discussions about race and racism, but we lived in a community of immigrants (Russians, Chinese, South Koreans) and judging anyone because they looked or spoke differently was simply not tolerated in our house, and we never heard my parents say anything derogatory, really about anyone. 

Being Jewish, we learned of our own oppression and the unfairness of being sorted and placed at the bottom of the heap based on superficial differences. Every year at Passover we were reminded that we were liberated, once slaves ourselves.  My Hebrew school teacher bore a tattoo from the holocaust; we recited the banner of the aftermath: “Never Again.”  

Even though we moved to a less diverse area, middle school reinforced this liberal pluralistic credo, and, I, like so many other children was outraged when I learned in detail about the treatment of Native Americans and African slaves.  Ghandi and Martin Luther King were easy and popular heroes to obvious past injustices.  But it was easy to feel indignant and self-righteous  in a homogenous suburb of Chicago, never having to face the fallout of resentment or lingering marginalization or my place in the resulting unequal distribution.

Still, other things sat uncomfortably and unspoken. My grandmother,  a short, spunky woman who was rough around the edges of her enormous heart, seemed to best reach across all social and cultural divides.  She called everyone from the diner waitress to the bus driver to her grandchildren “honey.”  She’d touch their hands affectionately with a conspiratorial twinkling in her eyes.  Even at the end of her life in the assisted living community, the staff – all immigrants and minorities – would pull us aside and tell us she, who they nicknamed “the mayor,” was their favorite, the one who treated them all like her own grandchildren.  But as a child I remember watching an episode of Good Times with her,  Thelma dancing to disco music in her hip hugging flared bell-bottom jeans, hearing my grandmother say, “those people sure can dance.”  My brother, sister and I shifted uncomfortably in our seats, knowing that “you shouldn’t say such things,” but finding it hard to square this with the woman who said them. 

In college, I had my ideals both refined and tested.  I learned about the subtle structural inequalities that pervade our education and justice systems and the efforts to redress them.  I learned about the messy intertwining of race and class. The Bell Curve, that racist tract disguised as science, had just come out and we took down the arguments piece by piece.  We considered ourselves open-minded, even mind expanding.  But I looked around and saw that the college cafeteria was self-segregated, as were the parties and most of the student housing.  The only places true mixing was taking place was in athletics or the arts (for me it was my dance troupe), where some deeper common passion had the chance to override our differences. 

My sophomore year, I spent a semester abroad here in Kenya.  Again, I studied the colonial history and braced myself to be hated for the color of my skin, for my implicit association with past evils.  But instead I found myself welcomed, something in between a curiosity and a celebrity, even admired, for my skin color. And I wondered if this wasn’t somehow worse.  

I lived with a family in a small informal settlement in Nairobi, the first time, at 19, surrounded, enveloped, completely by people with darker skin.  I thought about deeply segregated Chicago, where the newsmedia covered the distant all black neighborhoods only for crime – gun violence, drugs and murder.  I examined my feelings honestly, still unafraid to be self-reflective aloud, and I remarked to another American student, “It’s funny, I think I associate darker skin with danger, even though I know that’s not fair and I know I shouldn’t.”   The other student shot back, “well, in my family, we learned to see all people equally. It’s just how I was brought up.”   It shut me up and made me feel ashamed and also misunderstood.  But I learned not to voice these things. 

But that was the wrong lesson, and it’s taken years to unlearn it.  I still get nervous talking about race, for fear of being misunderstood.  Maybe that’s typically American.  But overall my life has blessed me with an opportunity to come to know and to love people of vastly different backgrounds, and that helps break down false assumptions.  It’s part of what I cherish about living abroad and among people who come from different backgrounds and perspectives, who teach me, in ways lessons about Ghandi and Martin Luther King cannot, that we have more in common than not.  

Friday, July 5, 2013

Raising Kids Not to Care about Color in a World that Does

When we decided to move to rural-ish Kenya with a toddler in tow, we convinced ourselves this was a good move not only for us, but for our son.  He would have the opportunity to learn a second language, and he’d spend his days outdoors, in creative play, away from hyper-scheduled play dates and runaway consumerism.  He’d have an implicit understanding about the range of human condition in the world and be appreciative of his relative wealth, and hopefully empathetic to the deprivation of others. He’d absorb this from the very ether of his surroundings.  We’d barely have to work at it.

But, maybe most importantly, we thought, he wouldn’t see “color,” or, rather, not in the way Americans do, loaded with historical and cultural baggage that has yet to be purged from our collective consciousness.  He’d see it; he simply wouldn’t care about it. 

And during the first year here, when Caleb was the only white kid in our town, this seemed to be largely the case. He made quick and dear friends with the neighborhood kids.  He loved being in their very presence, and would look crestfallen when they would leave to go home.  He picked up Kiswahili the way he picked up his friends, effortlessly and with no awareness of the process.  We proudly posted pictures on facebook of Caleb running around with his Busia friends, the very tableau of inter-racial harmony. People would make comments like “Oh, children have so much to teach us” and “a poster for cross-cultural understanding.”   
Like this one

And this
But even then I noticed that he was more fearful of Kenyan women than white women, probably because they were in the habit of always attempting to pluck him from my arms and would then laugh heartily at his protestations. A small cultural difference that might have loomed large for him. Maybe because his mom, his universe, is white, he warmed up quicker to white women. But it made my liberal heart blanche that he was developing those sorts of preferences. Facebook pictures be damned, he was clearly seeing color and sorting people.

Then during our visits to South Africa, where there was a larger population of white people mixing or, commonly not mixing, with black people, he started to ask, “What color is she?” “What color is he?”  Then, “What color am I?”

“You’re white, Caleb.  And Maxon is black.”  I’d say. But like a typical American, the sentences stuck a bit my throat, the full weight of our complicated and ugly racial history weighing down the words. But the words were not loaded for him, and maybe in telling him the simple fact of our superficial differences, in a breezy, off-handed manner, I could diffuse the power of those differences even for myself.  

We have since moved to a larger city with a larger ex-pat population.  He’s no longer the only white kid. In efforts to move beyond the so-called “expat bubble” and solidify his cross-cultural worldview and language skills, we entered him into a Kenyan school.  He was once again the only white kid. He didn’t hate it, but sometimes after I dropped him off at school, I’d see him alone in the corner not talking to the other kids, feeling, maybe more profoundly than before, his “otherness.” 

That would have probably gone away with time, as his novelty wore off and his innate and overpowering desire for friends and play took over. But too many times I’d drop him off late for school and the teacher would have yet to arrive. The 14 students the school told us were enrolled turned into 28.  The corporal punishment we were told was not used was betrayed by the kiboko (whacking stick) parked ominously in the corner.  And Caleb came home singing the “shame” song one too many times (the song all the other students join with the teacher in singing to a student who has misbehaved). It all jarred too much with our American notions of pre-school education.

So ultimately, pragmatism trumped idealism the way it does with liberal urban-dwellers in the US who exit en masse to less “gritty and diverse” areas as soon as their hipster credentials clash with their progeny’s educational prospects.  We enrolled Caleb in the local international school, filled with children of all colors but who are uniformly privileged.       
His birthday party held at the International School
And none of these socio-economic differences can escape his attention.  Most of his friends who have a lot of “stuff” in their homes are white.  The ones who make play dates, have cars and who can afford to take weekend trips with us are almost all (but not entirely) white.  Not a single laborer, guard or house help is anything but black.  Every white family we know has a comfortable house. 

Weekend trip
This is not apartheid South Africa or the US South in the 1940s.  None of this is institutionalized.  And, of course, Kenya is predominantly black, with black people inhabiting every social strata.  Still, light skinned expats are uniformly at the top – the racial inequities of the globe personified. 
So, I’m left wondering what lesson he’s learning. 

I could drive home the point that there are differences – language, color, customs, possessions – but that they don’t matter.  “We are all God’s children,” or some agnostic equivalent.  But I think a lot of it comes back down to “stuff” with kids. (And maybe, in the end, with adults too).  He notices that some people have more things than others, and these differences fall largely along color lines.  That’s not a difference I want to celebrate or even dismiss.

I guess the point is that your skin color, or the celestial lottery which determines the place of your birth, shouldn’t limit what you have.  But shouldn’t is a harder concept than is.    

He’s too young to understand colonialism and differential distribution of opportunity and geographic determinism and such, so it’s hard to make sense of the inequality that cannot escape his attention.   I suppose the real point we should be imparting is that we should treat people equally even if the world hasn’t. 

And maybe also that we should focus on what makes us commonly human.  That we all feel joy and pain and loss and sorrow.  We all make good and bad choices. We all have gifts and complications.

And as I watch Caleb play with equal parts glee and mischief with his friends of all colors, calling 3 of his friends (of different colors) “my best fighters” and another 2 “the fastest runners,” I  realized he’s probably already got that lesson down.