Monday, January 18, 2010


Whether it was a Freudian slip or simply another manifestation of my post-Cambodia struggle with homophones, I sent several people to a non-existent website this week. While trying to direct folks to an article called “Whither Wheaton: the evangelical flagship college charts a new course”, I recommended several people check out – an appropriate mistake, one friend noted, considering the amount I’ve complained about the College in the last 2+ years.

While it’s true that Wheaton may not have been the best place for me, and that particularly my junior and senior years I felt out of place in chapels, chafed at the narrow ranges of views permitted among professors and guest lecturers, and sought out ways to study off campus, I don’t want to see Wheaton “wither”, and realize that I’ll probably reflect back on the experience more fondly with a few years’ distance. Despite my frustrations and frequent tirades (of which my parents and roommates were the long-suffering beneficiaries), I never seriously considered transferring, and am deeply grateful for the friendships and opportunities Wheaton gave me.

Still, I can’t help wondering how much of who I am and what I think today is a reaction against Wheaton’s conservative side. I’m for marriage equality and think abortion should be legal. I think global warming is a big enough problem that I’m holding off on owning a car for as long as possible and I’m living on an organic farm that can’t exactly escape the accusations of “hippie” and “commune”. I’m secretly rooting for the public option in healthcare reform in hopes that it will slowly take over until we have a single-payer system (and my politics would generally make me a better European than American). Though I wish he hadn’t ordered the surge in Afghanistan, I am apparently one of the only white people not souring on Barack Obama(and I’ve been a fan so long that I got up at 4am and stood outside in Springfield in January to hear him announce his run for president). All of these things are open to debate and subject to change. Knowing I would have vehemently disagreed with all of this four years ago helps keep things in perspective!

Still, I have the sneaky suspicion that this wasn’t where Wheaton meant me to end up - most importantly because I consider all of what I listed compatible with my identity as a Christian.

Also, I no longer consider myself an evangelical. I happily shed the term for two reasons:
a) Why hold on to something so loaded with connotations of social, political and theological beliefs I don’t hold? (And, for the record, I suspect that few people who do not consider themselves to be either an evangelical or a fundamentalist who recognizes a distinction between the two.)
b) I no longer believe that Christianity has a monopoly on spiritual truth or the sole vision of the way the world should be, so the evangelism part of it no longer applies.

That’s easier to say in a blog post after I had the humorous experience of “outing” myself to a number of Wheaton professors and administrators during a mock interview for the Rhodes. We spent a good 10 minutes on my definition of social justice and how it related to my understanding of salvation (which, needless to say, did not come up in my actual interview). Nonetheless, I post this with some trepidation. We’ll see if it stays up after I get comments from my most faithful reader (hi Mom!).


As I've read newspapers and browsed news websites in the past week, I've noticed myself consciously avoiding coverage of Haiti. I can't face the raw emotion of the pictures dominating the NY Times website or the only thing scarier than fatality and injury statistics - the fact that five days after the earthquake the situation is such a mess that there still aren't reliable statistics to give.

I haven't thought about Haiti much, and haven't really followed what's going on. Part of me feels bad about that, and part of me knows I don't have a choice. It's where my heart is right now.

One of my housemates asked earlier this week how I dealt/deal with exposure to poverty and deep human suffering. I think of it in three phases:

Though kids my own age begging at the windows of our car in Nairobi traffic was an everyday occurrence, something snapped inside me one now-infamous Christmas Eve. My parents had started buying peanuts from street vendors and opening the paper cones to give them to street kids (so they wouldn't re-sell the peanuts to buy glue). However, no matter how long we were stuck in traffic and how hungry I was, I was never allowed to eat those peanuts - too much of a health risk. After we'd each opened our one Christmas Eve present I proposed a new system where we would buy juice boxes or something else that I was allowed to eat. When my parents nixed the idea, I stormed off in tears, unable to understand how they would give another child something they considered dangerous to their own. I started volunteering at a clinic in Kibera, and remember not wanting to eat when I'd get home, and feeling paralyzed by the knowledge of how many people could be fed with the $10 I spent on a CD or seeing a movie. My response started (as it probably does for every privileged person) on a very personal level, in the tender (and I would say holy) space before I learned to rationalize inequality. I felt above all angry.

I spent most of college moving my understanding of poverty from a personal, micro level, to the systemic. My classes taught me about debt and unfair trading policies and the mixed records of multi-national corporations, putting the images of poverty I struggled to deal with in context. The shift in scale only made me feel more overwhelmed by the enormity of the world's problems, and my complicity in its broken systems. I felt above all guilty.

something like healing
My six months in Cambodia swung me back towards the personal, and opened up a space for me to rest. I wouldn't have predicted that living next to a sweatshop would lighten the burden of guilt I felt for being a privileged white girl, but it did. Snapshots of poverty, like the images of disaster zones or the impressions of a walk through a slum neighborhood, don't tell the whole story. Becoming, in a very imperfect way, a part of the community I lived in in Phnom Penh taught me that - obvious as it sounds - suffering people and poor communities are more than the sum of their problems. I don't say this to minimize the violence, hunger, disease and exploitation my neighbors faced, and I realized they were far from the most destitute people - but there was a concentration of life in that community that went beyond the density of the people living there. Yes, many of my neighbors were poor, but they were also moto drivers and factory workers and cooks, young and old, brassy and shy and funny and considerate and blunt and creative. My strongest impressions a year after I left are of who they were, not of the difficulties of their circumstances.

Returning to the US and feeling again the temptation to be overwhelmed by feelings of guilt and helplessness at the world's problems, I offered myself some space: to not try and wrap my head around more than what could fit in my heart for awhile, to allow myself to feel pain and anger for the suffering of the people I know, but not to try and extend those feelings to every painful situation I hear about. Right now, that means there’s not much room in me for Haiti.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


Sitting on the tarmac in Nairobi (plane air-conditioning off, toddlers screaming), I had plenty of time to anticipate the sinking feeling waiting for me when I touched down in LA. Much as I love where I am and what I'm doing right now, it's always a bit hard for me to return to the US without knowing when I'll be out of the country again. For a couple of months after I got back from Cambodia I would wake up every morning and have to spend the first few minutes of my day trying to find something exciting enough to get me out of bed. A bit of post-viral depression might have been involved, but I also sensed that the things I once used to hang my days on (I'm having lunch with so-and-so, or I'm getting a paper back - and yes, I am that big of a nerd) were no longer sufficient. After six months of constantly reaching for new words and tying my brain in knots around another culture, the safety and predictability of life in the US left me bored and unsatisfied. And as I've started to think about what I'd liked to be doing six months from now when my time at the Farm is over, I'm realizing that where I live and work (meaning not in the US) is almost as important as what I do.

Enter the Economist. Insightful as that publication is, reading it isn’t usually much of an exercise in self-discovery, but around Hour 4 of my marathon trip from Kenya back to the Farm in Oxnard, I found some food for thought on pg 85. An article entitled “The Others” explored the draw of choosing to be a foreigner, and gave me some words to start describing my addiction to anything not here.

The article described how being in a foreign environment can make the mundane “super real”, intensifying otherwise routine experiences and evoking, “the emotions of childhood: novelty, surprise, anxiety, relief, powerlessness, frustration and irresponsibility”. Every night in Phnom Penh I’d be in bed by 9:00 (most of my family wouldn’t be asleep until 11:00), exhausted from the stress of biking through traffic, the elation of being called “granddaughter” for the first time, the difficulty of trying to learn a card game in Khmer. The range of emotions was so intense the first week I wasn’t sure I’d be able to handle 25 more.

I find myself particularly identifying with (and relishing) the last feeling mentioned – irresponsibility. Anyone who’s lived with me in the US knows that I’m always wound up about something (or lots of things) in this culture. Being abroad, even in places where the injustice that bothers me might be worse or more blatant, lets me relax because I don’t have to feel as implicated or responsible.

And then there’s the fact that living somewhere else is entertaining when not downright hilarious. Other cultures’ social codes can be “arbitrary and absurd” and “if you happen to stand outside of them, as a foreigner always does, then life can be a continuous comedy” – Kenyans with the need to shake hands with everyone in the room, Cambodians telling me I was fat before they even knew my name…

Part of my decision to go back to Nairobi last month was to start exploring what role that part of the world might have in my future. Rich as my time there was, and as much as I felt at home, I left increasingly convinced that the sense of boredom I sometimes get in the US isn’t due to homesickness but wanderlust. I’m addicted to being foreign.