Friday, March 20, 2009

I'd like to introduce you to...

...a feisty little gal I've started to call 'The Angry American.'

Never in my wildest dreams would I think I'd play this role in a foreign setting. I much prefer to don the slightly elitist, exceptionally culturally aware 'Sympathetic World Traveler' identity while abroad. The trouble is, when you move somewhere it's much harder to play any role at all. For me, it's against my nature, and even if I was a better actor than I am, there's just too much sensory overload to be anything but my most human and base self in my new home. Unfortunately, this can every once in awhile lead to the emergence of the aforementioned character with whom I'm trying to make peace. And, as with most things (dreams, fears, faults etc.), I think public admittance is half the battle.

The Angry American tends to emerge most often in food or beverage establishments. I might order a small beverage, and a large is delivered and added to my bill instead. Or, I mistakenly ask for a lime instead of a lemon (as lemons here are bright green) with my vodka tonic, and receive Rose's Lime Cordial instead (also added to my bill). Upon attempting to correct such errors I am often advised that once something is on the bill, it can't be remedied, and I just need to deal. The anger and frustration is not always valid - sometimes basic mistakes are made, and sometimes it's my fault. But such things don't happen in a vacuum, they happen in the context of a country where the color of your skin still says more about you to most people upon first meeting than anything else. As a mzungu you are expected to be wealthy, indulgent and unlikely to count pennies. I suppose this is the case for many white people and foreigners in Kenya. But it's not for me, and I have a hard time dealing with those who assume it is. Thus, even when such mistakes or a refusal to correct them are made with absolutely no relation to me as a mzungu, the collateral effects of daily life in this skin leave me brittle and overly sensitive.

I also struggle with my identity as someone entering the Development field under the pretext of "I'm here to help" (cue the Elle Woods accent my friend Adrienne donned in jest when I was preparing to leave last summer). After all, what right do I have to be here or to assume that in doing so I am, in fact, helping anyone at all? And, how do I know how to best maximize what resources I do have given the constant need and opportunities around me? If I did have all the money in the world, I'd be confident in knowing how to invest and offer it where I know it would be used wisely and to great benefit. As I don't, I am constantly wondering where what I do have can be best directed, and feeling guilty when it is sometimes spent on little indulgences or myself.

I think it's because of the thoughts above that when people attempt to play the "rich mzungu" card with me (or downright steal from me as happened on Friday night), The Angry American is ready and willing to respond. On a matatu coming home from one of Nairobi's priciest malls this past Sunday (I was there for a craft show), the tout refused to give me my change, though he had the correct coins in his hand. He was half flirting, but clearly hoped I'd brush the change off and leave it with him. After what happened Friday I was in no mood to indulge the assumption that I have cash to burn and don't think extremely carefully about each and every bit of money I have or spend here. The frustration of getting my purse snatched on Friday and the constant reminder that I just don't know how to balance spending with the need around me boiled up and I took the guy on. My anger appeared to entertain him and the rest of the passengers, who maybe had never seen a mzungu on public transport quite so upset (it's fairly rare to see a mzungu on matatus at all, to be honest). His persistence in withholding my change and taunting (at one point he outstretched his hand and then snapped it back when I went to take the coin) made my blood boil, and I felt completely helpless to do anything about it. Though I can now laugh (and cringe) at my threat to, "climb over the seat and clobber you if you don't give me my change!" the whole scene was wildly uncharacteristic for me. As a friend on facebook said, "Wow, Megan being mad??? You are like the nicest person in the world!!!" Let's just say this matatu full of people does not share that impression! Now a few days later, it's hard for me to imagine how such a small thing could so upset me, and I'd be horribly ashamed to witness the outburst - but at the time it was simply the final straw in a string of bad behavior and assumptions based solely on how I look (I asked the tout if he'd have pulled the same crap with any of the other, clearly Kenyan passengers - there's no way he would have).

I see unfairness and lack of recourse all the time here. People are mugged, houses are robbed, consumers are screwed and the apathy and corruption on the part of law makers leaves little option but to suck it up and count your losses. Couple this with the basic human need found in urban and rural settings right alongside the average person's preference to look out for their own interests (myself included) and I start to understand why The Angry American is so readily available. That said, I don't like her at all, and while for the most part I feel my indignation is justified, I'd like to overcome the anger that presents me as someone other than a foreigner who is desperate to have her presence here be a good one.

As I process my own personal journey I always try and look at things in the broader context. Realities and perceptions don't exist in a vacuum, and as I try to deal with those projected on me and how I react, I'm realizing that in order to deal with the problems facing humanity you have to be willing to admit your own identity therein. Though I don't like to, I must admit this often includes the good, the bad and yes, even the utterly irrational and just plain angry.


Kevin said...


I totally second the comments made on your Facebook page that you are the nicest coolest person in the world!

And the Angry American may have been misconstrued as some culturally insensitive traveler but from what you describe above you had every right to be mad after the robbery and the very silly and idiotic tout who was refusing to give you change.

But this should not make you lose heart dear. As someone who interfaces with you in a myriad of platforms you have assimilated very well Megan. Frankly, it’s me who get conscious that Megan is not only from the New World but also white.

All in all, keep your head high, keep smiling and yes do let it out and don’t regret ever expressing what you feel!

As the article I sent you says.... repressing emotions leads to unhappiness. Anger increases people's sense of control, provides a sense of certainty and prepares people for action…… and if you want to be promoted and attain true happiness, you should get angry.

Phil said...

I disagree that admitting a problem is half the battle. It's at best a start. But I think you're beating yourself up over nothing. Anybody would have reacted similarly to you in response to that childish taunting in the matatu - most people, far worse in fact. And being overcharged on a bill should never be accepted anywhere.

In regards to how best to maximise your resources in the face of so much need, I think you need to not lose sight of the fact you have already sacrificed so much to do what you are doing. You've given up (if not permanently then at least for a considerable period of time) a life of relative comfort and a plush career, in return for starting over at the bottom of the ladder, in a field that will be demanding & frustrating in equal measure, albeit hopefully also very rewarding. You have given up your own short-term financial security in exchange for the chance to do something that hopefully will end up bringing a lot to a lot of people.

To feel guilty over little indulgences along the way is crazy, and it won't help anyone in the long run if you burn yourself out, physically, emotionally or financially, on your journey to where you want to be.

You're just a totally inspiring person, don't even think about changing!

All that said, I would have loved to have seen you threaten to clobber that matatu tout! I'm sure you managed to smile about it after you'd calmed down again though :-)

Frank said...

“The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”

Rosa Parks


Jamie said...

"The Angry American" - I like that!
I've definitely felt myself become the "Angry American" in Nairobi and your explanation was perfect...something about the petty corruption - condoned in part by Kenya's leaders through their own scandels - along with the assumptions based on skin town really wear you out and down. I've had people in matatus turn to me after I've argued with a tout over the correct fare for 15 minutes say "you know they do always over charge wazungu!" to which I thought, "so why the hell didn't you stand up for me? And by the way how many wazungu tourists do u know actually take matatus! only locals do!" and the poor posta people...they often have felt the wrath of many angry americans...

so basically, i hear ya girl and hang in there and take care of yourself too (I know I've had my worst AA moments when I've been run down or sick..."

see ya in a couple of weeks!

Rog said...

Hey Schindler, don't beat youself up too hard! Just focus on what you have control over - worrying about everything else is pretty counterproductive. I know it's rough on you because you're such a caring and empathetic person.

Here's an article I read recently from "the other side" that you might find interesting.

Keep up the quality work & blogging Megs!

Obi-Mac BakDon said...

Good reflection Sis. You know yourself well and your introspection serves you well. Peace and love