Monday, December 19, 2011

Realizing how badly America has Americanized me

It started by checking my balance with Sallie Mae as I had a late night video conversation with a friend. I was checking as we spoke, worried about payment deadlines, and if I would make it without having them bombard my inbox and send their polite threats. Many like myself, US graduates with degrees from accredited universities, have been forced to flee abroad as the job market shriveled upon our graduation. And so I thought a return to the homeland would be a pleasant time to catch up with my history.

I did not tell my friend what I was doing online, and the conversation continued as usual. Jokes, laughter, the typical check in. And then--my face contorted in the way it typically does when I am upset, my eyes got huge and damp, and before my friend was able to ask what was wrong with my face, I was already making a long distance call.

"What's wrong?"

I said to my friend that she wouldn't understand, that I did not like to talk about how universities in the US literally take ownership of your future so long as you are indebted to them. That I had to pay this off. Suddenly this energy to look for a new job surged in me, this sense of uber obligation to clearing my name of debt took flight. It was the American adrenaline I was feeling, a rush I absolutely hated.

The conversation grew into one about employment and worst case scenarios. My friend told me that thankfully she has worked the same desk job since graduation, praised God, and said that she was happy and content. My face contorted and I found myself looking like that melted faced villain from Batman.

"What's wrong?"

I grew wild. How was she satisfied with that job, where her employers barred her from getting certification, and so she was kept at minimal pay? What would she do if she lost that job--she had no credential to show that she worked her actual position, and she lacked a college degree in an unrelated field. And she always spoke about how much she hated it, so why settle for it?

She said, "In the end I have my family to go back to if I lose my job. It would be a blessing."

"Well why don't you open doors, look for options, take courses, and try to secure yourself so that is not the worst case scenario?"

This was the emotional breaking point for me: after all the exhaustion I saw my family put in for me to get a degree, from the after school programs to help with tuition, I told her I would kill myself if I had to go back to my family and be a burden on them. In other words, I found it to be a failure to not produce,  that I was not a contributing part to the household or society.

"But being at home with my family is enough."

"Being a burden, you mean."

"No, even if I was completely unable to work, I know my parents would help me."

My mind began to churn almost mechanically, ready to explode into CV building, job searching, personal statement writing fervor. I was prepared all my life to expect that my parents would not always be there, that I would be their retirement fund source, that I would be the one sending my younger siblings to study in college. I was brought up to understand that my family would finally rest. I was taught that I have to build my credit, and put things in my name, and build my score so that I can have a good repetoire, so that I would be able to take out a loan if I needed to. So that I could acquire more debt with respect. And now the prospect of forbearance was like a slap to the face.

An activist earns nothing, and I began to question what it was I was doing here. 

I needed to work and be owned so I could live.

"But how could you be ok with yourself as you sit at home doing nothing?" I barked. "Is that what your parents want, more burdens? Don't you think you should look for options no matter what God sends us our way?"

"Sometimes the little we have is enough," she said. "I am not saying that that would be it for me, but in the end that is what it comes down to for us. When we find a job, we keep it. We don't have time to be picky."

I realized how many jobs I had turned down here, how many times I was dissatisfied with the employer's politics or use of the Palestinian plight. Although my friend was speaking to me from Egypt, she told me that they did not get the chance to think about options or career builders. They just took what they could so that they could live. It isn't much different here either.

While the issue of being a burden burned through me, it didn't exist in this part of the world. There is a difference between burden and obligation. It is an obligation for family to take care of each other, not to view each other as burdens--not to look at life as one tiring venture until we finally retire when we are too old to move. They were not brought up like this here. Yet while our cultural landscape was changing to fit the needs of capitalism, it was a shame capitalism had already molded my brain into a mere bolt in the system, unable to differentiate between the blessing of having family to fall back on and the issue of burden. 

In America you are an individual, and an individual is enough to take out a family. Here it was the opposite.

 I didn't know the difference between being optimistic and simply privileged enough to be. I didn't know if this was a fault of being brought up in the US, or just my own personal experience, or if perhaps I really just was a super competitive person.

 My friend tried to change the subject.

"I got an email that says, 'Exciting Christmas Sale Offer,''' she said. "These offers are only good in America, Too bad we are not in America."

I cried.

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