A few weekends ago an American working at a nonprofit here in Cotonou joined the usual Embassy crowd for dinner. Each week we meet at the same restaurant, which caters to the expat demographic. Not only do they serve things like pizza and hamburgers and French fries, but more importantly, the food has never made anyone I know sick.
After a while conversation drifted to online shopping.
“Where do you get the best price on multi-grain Cheerios? Netgrocer?”
“Has anyone found a site that sells double-stuffed Oreos? Amazon only has regular ones now.”
“You know what you should really get for lunches? Annie Chun’s noodles. They’re so much better than that Ramen crap.”
One of the privileges we enjoy as diplomats is access to the diplomatic pouch. We can ship online purchases to a warehouse in Dulles, Virginia, and then the government transports it across the Atlantic for us for free. There are a few restrictions – no liquids, nothing huge or excessively heavy – but it’s still an extremely useful service. In addition to buying our favorite non-perishable food item we can keep up on American culture through magazine subscriptions and Netflix rentals.
As we Embassy workers exchanged online shopping tips, the nonprofit employee – who doesn’t of course have diplomatic pouch privileges — couldn’t help but shake her head and laugh. “Really? You guys can’t live without multi-grain Cheerios? You know they sell cereal at grocery stores here, right?”
“Yes but those cereals and bad, and so expensive too,” someone retorted.
“And noodle soups? Seriously? You know, you can just walk outside and order some Beninese stuff on the street.”
Of course she was absolutely right, and as I saw her reaction to our lifestyle I couldn’t help but think back to my experience as an exchange student in Niamey, Niger. I’d crossed paths with the Embassy crowd back then and had looked down at them for just the sort of conversations I was now engaging in. They seemed to be living in an American bubble, completely uninterested in local culture. I remember thinking: what was the point of living abroad if you were just going to recreate your life in America?
And now here I was, doing exactly that. That double-stuffed Oreos question? That one came from me. I watch American TV on the American Forces Network stations the government set up in my house. I take my People magazines with me to the beach. I teach my cook to make tacos and lasagna.
Before I committed to being a Foreign Service Officer, I asked a friend from that semester in Niger who was now a diplomat himself whether it was possible to approach oversees life just like we had as students. Could I eat local foods? Could I spend my free time with local people? Could I entertain myself however the locals did? “Of course,” he assured me. “There are people who build American bubbles around themselves, and there are people who don’t. It’s really your choice.”
Today is the fourth-month anniversary of our arrival in Benin. It’s an interesting time marker for me, because it’s the exact same amount of time I spent in Niger. Yet after four months in Niger I was fully integrated into the community. I felt so at ease that even now, 11 years later, I look back on those four months as some of the best in my life.
And after four months in Benin? Well, I still think of myself as a newcomer.
I’m fully aware that it’s my own fault. Do I eat local foods? Not very often, because they sometimes make me sick, and I can’t deal with being sick when I have 12-hour workdays to get through. Do I spend my free time with local people? Well, no. I have a kid – I’d rather spend my free time with him. Do I entertain myself as locals do? No, I don’t do that either. It’s exhausting to navigate traffic and crowds to get to the non-expat side of town. I can’t spent my free time doing things that are exhausting; I need to build back my energy to return to work.
Being abroad as an employee and a parent is a different beast than being abroad as a student. I can’t sit around all did drinking tea under a baobab tree; I have a job to do. I can’t venture off to a giant labyrinthian market on a whim; I have a baby’s safety to consider. Still, those things don’t explain everything. That America nonprofit worker has a demanding job too, and some of her colleagues with similarly demanding jobs have kids on top of that. Yet they are still better integrated into Beninese culture than most of my Embassy colleagues. Why?
The reason, I think, is because we don’t just have any job; our job is to serve the interests of the United States of America. That’s why we get paid to spend time between tours just hanging out in the U.S. If we forget what it’s like to be an American, then we have no business being American diplomats.
At the same, I think it’s important for American diplomats to show a willingness to embrace our host cultures. There was a big uproar a few weeks ago surrounding the U.S. Ambassador to Laos who made a bit of a fool of herself by rapping in Laotian. Yes, she looked silly. But I maintain she did more for Laotian-American relations by joining in than she would have sitting stiffly in the audience in a freshly pressed suit. I was surprised not to see a single blogger or editorialist come to her defense.
All that is just to say that I still do hope to bust out of my self-created American bubble more when Flynn’s a bit older and I’m a bit less tired, because I do think it’s important. But at the same time, I’m also not going to let myself feel guilty about my People magazines or double-stuffed Oreos. I’m an American, after all, and it’s even more important that I don’t forget that.
And as for that nonprofit worker who didn’t understand the Embassy crowd’s preoccupation with 0nline shopping, well, she gladly accepted my invitation to watch her favorite NFL team on my American TV channel. We all have our guilty pleasures.