This is something that has been forming in my mind for some time now. I realized yesterday that not only will it be an important piece for my transition process, but it is also timely, given recent events in the United States. At least, I think it’s all connected.
A few months after I had returned to the United States, while I was still trying to figure out what was next, my mother was gracious enough to open her home to me. We decided I would stay there for a few months while I was on the last leg of my self-proclaimed sabbatical. No matter what the struggles have been in our relationship, there’s always a warmth and comfort when I’m staying with my mom.
For one thing, she has a washer and dryer in her house, for clothes I mean.
Judge me if you must, but one of the greatest joys for me when I came home was being able to wash and dry my clothing in machines. For the majority of the three years while I lived in South Sudan, my clothes were washed by hand and line dried in the sun. On the occasions when I traveled to Nairobi, I would stay at a guesthouse with washing and drying machines. As time went on, it felt more and more luxurious each time I used them.
And then, for the last three months of my time in Juba, I lived in a new apartment complex with access to washers and dryers. I also had air conditioning in the apartment, and access to a swimming pool and a treadmill. Those last three months were actually a great beginning to the re-acclimatization process I would face upon returning to the United States. (I also visited Cape Town and the Western Cape in South Africa for ten days, which was another way the blow was lessened.)
About five months after I had returned to the States, while I was staying at my mom’s house with her washer and dryer, I looked at a crumpled, wrinkled shirt I had. I was planning to wear the shirt somewhere and got frustrated with myself for leaving it crumpled up like that to get wrinkled. A moment of internal crises ensued.
Hmm, I thought. How am I going to fix this? Do I have any more of that magic fabric softener wrinkle releaser stuff? Does mom have an iron? Surely mom must have an iron. I hate ironing. And then it hit me. “OH YEAH!” I thought. I’M BACK IN THE LAND OF WASHERS AND DRYERS! My mom has a dryer. And then I said it, out loud to myself:
“I can always throw it in the dryer.”
There have been a few, intense moments since I’ve returned home when I’ve known something significant was happening in my mind and in my spirit. Another of these times was when I was hyper-aware of all the clean water being poured to all of the smiling people in the sun on an outdoor patio of a restaurant in Los Angeles the morning after I landed at LAX, when I first got home. I will never forget the feeling that time had slowed down when I realized how much clean water I was surrounded by.
The moment I said the words, “I CAN ALWAYS…” at my mother’s house was another one of these moments.
I said the words out loud, gleefully as I tossed the shirt aside and then a moment later, BOOM. It hit me. I realized I hadn’t said those words in over three years. “I can always…” is not a phrase one uses in South Sudan, at least not in my experience. Before living overseas, and especially before my experience in South Sudan, I wouldn’t have thought twice about this phraseology. I realize the wrinkled shirt is a bit of a silly example, but the underlying issue is not.
This phrase, “I can always…” is indicative of privilege. Some examples, just from personal experience:
“I can always go to the store to get ingredient or product x, y or z.”
“I can always turn on the heater if it gets too cold outside.”
“I can always withdraw money from the bank to pay for __.”
“I can always turn off the news if it’s too depressing.” (Here, I’m getting into the reason why my aha moment with “I can always” also applies to current events in the United States.)
While I lived in South Sudan, I became increasingly aware of the fact that in the United States, one of the greatest riches people enjoy is access. (US)Americans, you have access to anything and everything there is under the sun. Do you realize that? Even your passport, if you have one, is a token of privilege.
I recently got to visit two of my best friends from South Sudan while they were in the country. I found out they had an orientation in Pennsylvania, and within two hours, I booked a flight. (“I can always book a flight to __.”) We had the best time together, catching up and talking politics and everything else. Political conversation is not so much of a choice in South Sudan as a lifestyle. Again, “I can always decide not to talk about or care about politics.”
I love these people. I love them with all of my being. I would gladly do anything for them, including drive them to Walmart two days in a row to make sure they get everything they need to take back home with them. As I meandered around Walmart with them, over the course of several hours, I watched them look at the products with a certain kind of reverence. Please do not misunderstand me. I’m not saying my friends were idolizing stuff. What I am saying is that my friends had to be incredibly thoughtful about what to buy.
They do not have the privilege of saying, “I can always go back to the market and get __.”
Yes, there are markets in Juba. Yes, there are markets in other East African countries they visit. Yes, they have both been to places with lots of stuff on offer. But living in Juba, neither one of them has that daily ease of knowing they have access to whatever they need. And I’m not just talking about some silly phone.
I’m talking about quality medical care. I’m talking about sufficient materials for housing to protect them from the elements. I’m talking about electricity. I’m talking about fuel for their vehicles. I’m talking about food that is reasonably priced.
After I had landed at LAX from my trip to Pennsylvania, I got into my boyfriend’s car. I greeted him, and then reclined the seat and lay down. I was exhausted, physically, but there was more going on than that. I told him something funny about the trip and laughed a little. And then, suddenly, I just started to cry.