Sweet Home __________ (fill in the blank)
I haven’t lived in Alabama since April 2003. In March of that year, with no job or source of steady income, I packed up all my belongings and headed off to pursue my dream of working on Capitol Hill. What played out in my head as a picture perfect fantasy turned out to be a roller coaster reality. I struggled to embrace the changing weather patterns of the Mid-Atlantic, found it difficult to relate to the people who didn’t say Hello when passing and struggled to meet ends meet. It was a tough dose of reality. But I am glad I took the gamble and made the move. Since that faithful move, my work has led me all over the United States and even the world.
But those experiences have shaped my world view and even changed the way I speak. This has also made it somewhat challenging when returning to Alabama. I have found myself asking people to repeat themselves when ordering food or seeking service. The longer I stay away from Alabama, the more difficult it is for my ear to pick up the local accent. I constantly tell my wife that while Americans and British speak English, they are unofficially two different languages. Chips in the US mean potato chips – think Doritos, Lays, Golden Flake – while in the U.K. Chips mean French fries. I was visiting relatives in Alabama recently and they all began to comment that I had not only lost my southern accent but was also losing my American accent. The southern accent has been on the way out since my time in Washington, DC. While living in DC, I became frustrated each time someone asked me to repeat myself…
Another incident involved my wife during a recent trip to the doctor’s office. She was filling out the lengthy medical forms when she asked me what she should write as race. When I looked at the form, she had written African. I looked back at her and she was beaming from ear to ear. I told her that we are in the US, there are only a few classifications of race in the US…white, non-Hispanic; black, non-Hispanic; Hispanic, non white and Hispanic, non-black. Occasionally you will see Asian and Pacific Islander but once a black person arrives in the US, you are categorized as Black…when I lived in the US I use to count the number of black people in a room but now, I count the number of white people in a room.
You don’t realize how over the top Americans are when it comes to customer service until you live in a place where the customer is never right. Welcome to Africa where people tell you that the bad food you are eating is nice and that you’ll like it and the hot, sweltering room is actually cold! I’ve never forget my first experience in a restaurant in South Sudan. When I walked through the door, the people stared at me. After a minute or so, I asked, do you serve food. The woman mumbled and pointed to a table in the middle of the room. When she approached my table, she stood waiting for me to order but hadn’t given me a menu. I was thinking, this customer service sucks. What I didn’t know was, while this was really bad service, it didn’t get much better than this. To experience an overzealous waiter or waitress with an menu eight pages long and 12 ways to drink a fountain drink, it’s a tab bit overwhelming. Excuse me if I look like a dear in headlights when ordering a meal.
The global citizen life is not an easy one. You never fully fit in in the country you are living and never feel as comfortable at home as you use too. You live somewhere in between and you have to be careful not to offend your neighbors in your resident country and your home country when analyzing life. It’s not easy …but we try oooh (as my Nigerian neighbor say).