Re-examining an American Mindset

This essay (minus the photos) was published under a different title in The News Tribune of Tacoma, February 9, 2015.  To see the TNT article, click here.  

In recent years two of my three sons embarked on international life journeys, and in a smaller way, so did I.  My son Brendan and his wife moved to Peru in 2009 as missionaries.  In 2011 my son Patrick and his family left for Yaoundé, Cameroon with the U.S. State Department, and two years later they moved again to Manila.  Meanwhile I was writing a novel set in communist Hungary.  Since 2006, between visiting my sons and doing research, I have traveled to Cameroon and the Philippines, to Peru five times and Hungary three times.  After walking around in countries scarred by poverty or fear, I find myself rethinking our proud American optimism.  We don’t realize how blithely we live.

No matter how we complain about medical costs, Americans can plan on a fairly long life.  What if we couldn’t?  In Cameroon my son Patrick saw African lives ending early: his middle-aged secretary died, and so did the five-year-old daughter of an embassy 146mechanic and the baby of the local banana seller.  A sad fact of Cameroonian life is its shortness.  What does this do to a nation’s worldview, encountering sorrow with harrowing regularity and having to say, “If I live, if my children live . . .”?  We Americans don’t realize how much we have, just to be able to assume we will raise our children.

As Americans, we are an entrepreneurial bunch, loving to dream big.  If something is a good idea, it must be possible, right?  Not everywhere.  In Andean Peru, expanded markets for poor farmers would certainly be helpful.  But simply transporting goods can be nightmarish: the roads, where they exist, sometimes wash out in landslides; drivers don’t abide by safety regulations; cops expect Peru-July-2011-291-smbribes.   So the Andean people carry on with subsistence farming and hope that a bad crop season won’t wipe them out.  In Cameroon trade is even more difficult.  Systems of management and leadership hardly even exist.  As one African told Patrick, “Sir, if you asked me to take ten cows to the top of Mt. Febé (a nearby peak), I could do it.  If you asked me to take ten men to the top, we would never arrive.”

In America we have spent our whole history building up the systems of leadership, communication and infrastructure needed to take almost anything to the top of Mt. Febé, so to speak.  Here, new ideas can be tried out because the basics “work.”  Until I visited places where the basics are despairingly difficult, I didn’t realize how thoroughly American systems have made ingenuity possible.  We can scoff at fear of failure.  Such scoffing is dangerous in cultures where failure is almost inevitable—and very costly.

Whether or not we realize it, Americans are used to believing things will work out.  Not all countries share our optimism.  This became especially clear to me in a recent email conversation with a woman in Hungary.  Her nation has a reputation for pessimism—which is not surprising,  since Hungary’s history is full of invasions, lost wars and

View Across the Danube from Castle Hill, Budapest

View Across the Danube from Castle Hill, Budapest

unwanted regimes.  My Hungarian acquaintance, Judit, had read the manuscript of my novel about her country.  She enjoyed the story and said it was well-researched and accurate, but it seemed American to her: “optimistic, in spite of the difficulties,” she said.

By American standards, my novel is not optimistic.  The characters give up their dreams.  Yet they manage to create a meaningful life, and maybe that was what Judit was calling optimism.  I prefer to call it hope.   Optimism is based on good circumstances; hope, as Václav Havel said, is based on the belief that life and our deeds have meaning, even when things go badly.  Do we believe that?  If so, then we Americans are people of hope, and that is our greatest gift in this hurting world.




Cameroonian Life

In the last two posts I wrote about visiting Cameroon.  Here are some other things I found interesting while I was there:

  • People eat animals that it would never occur to us to eat: bats, cane rats, what-have-you.  We saw a boy standing beside the road, holding up a pangolin by the tail, hoping someone would stop and buy it for their dinner. 
  • The women carry their babies in slings on their backs.  This is often done fashionably, with the sling matching the mother’s dress, possibly even sewn into it.  The babies are used to sitting back and watching the world go by, sometimes getting into mischief.  I enjoyed watching a mother scolding her baby for the pulling the kerchief off her head.
Notice how the baby sling matches the mother’s dress.
  • Cameroonian men pee in public, wherever, whenever.  My husband and I were taking a walk on a very public road and stepped around a military man taking care of the matter.  (I’m not sure what the women do.)
  • You see few white people, but you do see some Chinese.  They are doing business there.  A Chinese-owned hamburger joint opened in Yaoundé while we were there, with a man walking around on stilts to draw attention to the new venture.
  • There are also people whose skin is white but whose features are very African.  These are African albinos.  I have heard that they are more accepted in Cameroon than in some other African countries, where they are regarded with suspicion and superstition.
  • Western-type whites like me tend to get swarmed by people selling things.  We went to an artisan market with my daughter-in-law.  On a previous trip there, she and my son had told the vendors that Americans don’t like to be pressured to buy.  This time around my daughter-in-law reminded the vendors of this dislike.  Okay, fine.  Then the vendors started in relentlessly with, “Come, madame, no buy!  Just look!  Look! No buy!”
  • As I mentioned in my previous post, the people re-use stuff all the time, sometimes in some pretty creative ways.  Want some Cameroonian peanuts?  Go down to the corner, and there you’ll find a guy selling them in old whiskey bottles.
  • We saw very few old people on the streets, and the overall population struck me as young.  But some of the people may be older than they seemed.  I met a man who looked young to me, but he is 45 and has 12 children.
  • A sad fact of Cameroonian life is that it can often be too short.  Sickness is very common, and people often don’t seek medical help until it is too late.  A Cameroonian woman explained that when people there get sick, these are the usual steps:  1.  Ignore being sick.  2.  Try an herb.  3.  See a witch doctor.  (In Cameroonian tradition, all sicknesses are explained as stemming from some problem in your life, like not getting along with your uncle.)  4.  Buy whatever remedy is cheap at the pharmacy.  5.  As a last resort, go to a medical clinic.

    At Kribi on Cameroon’s west coast