(Famous Blue Marble photo of Earth, taken from Apollo 17 and borrowed by me from Wikipedia.)
I have referred several times recently to dealing with culture shock/fatigue by pretending that the United States and the place where I usually live exist on different planets. The reason for this is that if I am constantly comparing the two places, it is hard for me to enjoy being here in the US. I see acres of clothing in a store and I think about the second-hand clothing sold on the street at home. I go to the library and start feeling emotional because I wish such a bounty of books was available to kids in my neighborhood. I even teared up at the park, and at Cheekwood, for the same reason. I can't avoid feeling overwhelmed some of the time, but I try to minimize that feeling.
Also, I often blurt out strange things that people don't understand. For example, once I was walking down the street in early August and a family was emptying the kiddie pool they had had in their back yard during the summer. As I saw the water flowing down the street, I felt almost sick. "Do they realize how many times they could have flushed the toilet with that water?" I started to rant. "Do they know how many people have to carry water miles on their heads, and they are just pouring it out on the street?" Fortunately, only my family heard this tirade. Comments like that tend to make people uncomfortable, in my experience. I say this sort of thing less often if I am doing my other-planet fantasy.
The fact is, I can't help thinking of the following passage from Tracy Kidder's book Mountains Beyond Mountains (great book, by the way).
He [Paul Farmer] went on writing his letter. I looked around. The airport, Charles de Gaulle [in Paris], has an angular, steel-and-glass simplicity, which struck me just then as frighteningly complex, which made me feel projected into a future I didn't understand. I thought of its duty-free shop, where one could buy first-class pâté, confit d'oie, grand cru wines. "You started that letter on a hike in rural Haiti," I mused aloud, thinking now of those arid highlands, of medieval peasant huts, donkey ambulances. "It seems like another world."
Farmer looked up, smiling, and in a chirpy-sounding voice he said, "But that feeling has the disadvantage of being..." He paused a beat. "Wrong."
"Well," I retorted, "it depends on how you look at it."
"No, it doesn't," he replied, in a very pleasant voice. "The polite thing to say would be, 'You're right. It's a parallel universe. There really is no relation between the massive accumulation of wealth in one part of the world and abject misery in another.'" He looked at me. He'd made me laugh. "You know I'm being funny about something serious," he said.
One time I listened to Farmer give a talk on HIV to a class at the Harvard School of Public Health, and in the midst of reciting data, he mentioned the Haitian phrase "looking for life, destroying life." Then he explained, "It's an expression Haitians use if a poor woman selling mangoes falls off a truck and dies." I felt as if for that moment I could see a little way into his mind. It seemed like a place of hyperconnectivity. At moments like that, I thought that what he wanted was to erase both time and geography, connecting all parts of his life and tying them instrumentally between the gleaming corporate offices of Paris and New York and a legless man lying on the mud floor of a hut in the remotest part of remote Haiti. Of all the world's errors, he seemed to feel, the most fundamental was the "erasing" of people, the "hiding away" of suffering. "My big struggle is how people can not care, erase, not remember."
It's easier for me if I don't remember, if I don't think about the huge differences between the first world and the third. But I think Farmer is right. It's hard to live between worlds, but some days I have no choice. Because thinking there is no connection has the disadvantage of being...wrong.