Today marks six months since Michaela and I finished our two year service overseas with the Peace Corps.
Coming home after service is supposed to feel strange. Transitioning from a life created in a community where opportunity is lacking to a society where it’s relatively plentiful, albeit unevenly distributed, is an adjustment just as significant as doing the reverse. Some cognitive discordance is to be expected as your mind tries to make sense of your new surroundings, which offer the material pleasures you once craved but also contain constant reminders of what led you to leave in the first place. There is a heightened awareness of the disproportionate level of access everyone enjoys here to even the most basic public goods, such as well-kept roads, running water, and reliable electricity. Sure, there are gaps, but it looks like an unfettered utopia coming from a nation that has a GDP .07 percent the size of ours.
Finding a job, working in a pristine air-conditioned (and heated!) office, tying a tie — these all come back surprisingly fast. Other things take more time, such as rediscovering your sense of agency in a culture that not only allows you to speak up, but indeed expects it. On the flight back from Central America, I observed a stewardess promise a woman she’d bring the cabin’s temperature down after the woman complained about the heat. At the time, I found the reaction to such a bold and self-important request astounding. Then, I remembered this is perfectly appropriate behavior in a place where the squeaky wheel gets the grease.
In Managua, I joked that the motto for customer service was, “The customer is not always right. In fact, sometimes they’re just flat out wrong.” Too hot on a bus? Too bad. Here in America, you go to a restaurant and send your dish back if it doesn’t look right. Feel cheated or swindled? Seek your revenge on Yelp. It’s amazing what technology and a thriving service economy can do. Likewise, in my current job, working for a public relations firm, I am disposed to always be thinking about client satisfaction and how I can surpass expectations to keep our company ahead of competition. Produce a product that satisfies a need, but stay in tune with micro and macro trends that give clients the experience they crave.
Within a few weeks, I was back in the swing of speaking up for fuller, better experiences. In fact, I feel much more willing to speak up about things that bother me here because, well, you can! You can ask movie theater patrons to scoot down a chair so you and your date can squeeze into a row that isn’t in the front. You can tell someone they can’t park in an illegal spot that blocks you from passing. You can vow to never go to an overpriced restaurant again, because there are a hundred other options that serve better food and have stronger coffee. You can push in a way that isn’t perceived as aggressive, but rather assertive, and certainly not antagonistic as it would be in Nicaragua.
(I should note that United Airlines is doing a good job challenging this norm.)
There were other things besides convenience and choice, of course, that made being back in an advanced economy an almost euphoric experience, but after a while the novelty found in familiarity begins to wear off and first-world habits accumulated over a lifetime reboot themselves with little to no effort. Whereas my first few months were spent thinking about how thankful I was to not be sitting on a cramped bus sandwiched between two large people with beads of sweat running down my forehead, in recent weeks I’ve grown nostalgic for my daily commute in an old school bus to my school in La Esperanza. I miss hanging out at my counterpart’s house and feeding my students’ curiosity about life in the United States.
Six months into our return, I find myself wondering when I might get a chance to return to Nicaragua. Whether it was on the street or in the classroom, I miss the we’re-in-this-together mentality people possess and the feeling that the only direction was up (with the exception of boarding a bus, where it was every last man, woman, and infant baby for themselves). I miss how hard people worked in spite of the oppressive heat. I miss their sense of ingenuity and resourcefulness. Unless I was teaching English grammar, I rarely heard people complain. There was simply true grit, a passion and persistence that I had never encountered before – a fierce drive to persevere in the face of adversity to get things done. It’s no wonder that in spite of economic and political barriers, it was recently recognized as making the greatest gains in overall happiness in the World Happiness Report 2017.
Fortunately, my sense of gratitude for really simple things— like free refills of coffee at a local diner and the hot tub at my apartment complex— hasn’t dissipated. Hot showers are still amazing. Being close to family again is priceless.
Overall, I expected to have these feelings. I expected the culture shock. What I certainly didn’t expect was to have to grapple with a political earthquake that felt like a tectonic plate had been ripped from the Earth’s crust and flipped completely upside down to reveal an ugly, festering accumulation of resentment, fear, and scapegoating. Navigating this has been one of the most difficult aspects of our return. Like most, I was surprised. Like most, I was disappointed. And like most, I am disheartened to see our nation divided in a way I have never seen in my lifetime. Even more concerning is the eroding level of trust that the American public appears to have with its institutions, with its media outlets, and, worst of all, with each other. Like everyone that reads the news or looks at Facebook, I’m overwhelmed with the amount of information thrown at us daily by a movement that feeds off outrage from all sides.
My mind is still processing what happened, what’s happening, and where we’re headed. To some extent, I have managed to turn off the noise because I think the barrage of news (and tweets) is in some manner intentional and there must be a way to be as proactive as we have been reactive. It could be that all of this chaos contains the seeds of its own destruction, but I remember hearing this back in 2015, so I am trying to retain a healthy sense of pessimism and instead assume that it will persist for some time going forward.
Justifications for restrictive policies on immigration appear to manifest themselves in two forms: thwarting a security threat or reclaiming our sovereignty to reduce a burden on an already beleaguered nation-state that doesn’t work the same way it once did. When people feel anxious, they retreat into their “tribe” and resort to blaming. Nativism takes root. Ethnic nationalism increases and policies that keep foreigners out (or kick them out) find the support they need to succeed politically. We’re seeing this play out worldwide.
Most concerning about the policies being discussed (slowing immigration, deporting undocumented residents, decreasing our international affairs budget, and increasing our defense budget with no clear strategic purpose), is that doing so would be turning our backs on a part of the world that is increasingly impossible to ignore, not just because they outnumber us, but also because they are the key to progress. By not constructively engaging with nations in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia, we are cutting ourselves off from a vast source of human capital, from populations that are smart, innovative, and resourceful. It’s no coincidence that the most innovative places in the United States are also its most diverse places, or that the smartest are increasingly children of immigrants. Strength and creativity stems from diversity and, to me, it’s abundantly clear that the more we try to insulate ourselves from the world, the less likely we will continue to be the innovative hub of the planet.
Unfortunately, the opposite is happening with diversity being viewed as a threat to thwart rather than a challenge to confront or, better yet, an untapped strength to exploit.
What is happening right now in some ways reminds me of issues I grappled with internally as a Peace Corps volunteer. There are structural things that are increasingly being revealed to us through our politics that we have never grappled with before as a nation. That is, who are we and what does it mean to be an American? Why are some of us Mexican-American, African-American, Native-American, while others are simply American? These are questions Peace Corps volunteers are forced to grapple with on a daily basis and I think inevitably, you begin to think of America as something more than a bordered, homogeneous society restrained by geography or defined by a single, static cultural condition. It’s much more dynamic than that, especially now that many populations increasingly live in networks that reject borders (e.g. Facebook, ISIS, etc.).
Instead, you begin to think of America, first and foremost, as an idea – an idea that can be felt around the world, an idea that infects people and pulls them inside, makes them pick up and leave to settle in the place where that idea was born. It also inspires them to lead efforts at home in an attempt to emulate that same concept. In Peace Corps, I met “Americans” who had never traveled outside Nicaragua and probably never will. I can’t exactly describe why I got this feeling, but something jumped out at me that felt like a brotherhood or a kinship that resided in some shared dream for progress, acceptance, equality – values that transcend nationality and are rooted in something much more fundamental to us. They’re the Enlightenment values that underpin our entire order.
Part of the problem and the challenge, I think, is that America is still articulating that idea and it’s being stressed in a way that hasn’t happened in my lifetime. It’s being tested especially as we grapple with terrorism as well as the changes brought about by globalization and technology. And because of this, more than ever, we must ask ourselves, who are we? Until we answer that, I’m afraid the partisanship we’re experiencing will only continue. Until we answer that, a vision of banning people, building walls, and attacking with bomb strikes will persist. Identity gives us intention and purpose, which we’ve lost with the growing integration of market economies. A lot of people feel great, more connected than ever – especially college-educated Americans living in cities. At the same time, a lot of people feel left out and forgotten, overlooked by a prideful progressive movement that seems to be leaving them in the dust. I’m not saying these emotions are entirely based in reality, but whether we like it or not, feelings can have a profound impact on elections.
President Obama began to acknowledge this trend towards the end of 2016 when he said:
“The same forces of globalization and technology and integration that have delivered so much progress, have created so much wealth, have also revealed deep fault lines … that this global integration is increasing the tendencies towards inequality, both between nations and within nations, at an accelerated pace”.
This was somewhat visible in Nicaragua, where the disparities between well-connected, accessible cities and remote, hard to reach corners were apparent. In his acceptance speech of his Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr. once spoke about how poverty in America is in some ways more frustrating than in less developed nations, because the poor in America know they live in the wealthiest nation in the world. Whereas poverty in poor nations is a “shared misery, a fact of life for the vast majority; they are all poor together as a result of years of exploitation and underdevelopment.” Fifty years later, as economic policies have reduced trade barriers and opened up financial markets to some of the world’s poorest nations, I question how true that remains. Wealth is becoming more concentrated for many nations these days.
But as vile and polemical as things have become in our political discourse, I am so happy to be back in the country I love. There is nowhere in the world where the values I espouse are more alive and more protected than here. Right now, I feel like the process of addressing the challenges posed by migration, global poverty, and an economy increasingly rooted in service rather than manufacturing is merely playing out before our eyes, and a smart and thoughtful dialogue is bound to come along – I just can’t say when.
One thing I do know is that, more than ever, the ordinary actions of private citizens are extremely important.
In an attempt to show gratitude for the radical kindness that was shown to us as foreigners from the day we set foot in Nicaragua to the day we caught our bus out, I have started fundraising for an international aid organization called Help Educate, which was started in 2004 by returned Peace Corps volunteers. The organization gives scholarships and leadership training to rural Nicaraguans pursuing higher education. As development director, I’m excited to jump in and continue supporting students in the Land of Lakes and Volcanoes.
If you’re interested in learning more, check out our website: http://helpeducate.org/.