On the plane ride into Chicago on 9/14 I talked with a young Congolese woman, 21 years old, on her way to the States for the first time to study at Northern Illinois University (crash course in English) with a goal of landing at Bethany Lutheran in the Twin Cities to study environmental science, with the hope of going home to give her government some ideas for how to clean up Kinshasa (smog and trash everywhere). It’s a daunting task.
Even before she lands the culture shock begins. She is given a meal but isn’t hungry. An hour later she hands the tray, untouched, back to the flight attendant. She turns to me and says “they’ll give it to the next person, right? Or will they throw it in the trash?” Sorry, kid, they’re going to throw it in the trash. In fact, you’re going to see so much waste it’s going to sicken you. We don’t leave trash all over our cities the way they do in Kinshasa, waiting for the rains to wash it down and out to the Atlantic through the Congo River, but we do waste a phenomenal amount of food. There’s no concept here of taking what’s left on your plate and giving it to a sibling or neighbor to make sure nobody goes hungry.
But after beating myself up for a while on all the crappy things Americans do (I’m grieving for her ahead of time thinking of all the ways she’ll find American hubris to disgust her) I realize that we’ve got a lot going for us, too. “I’ll get a very good education here, won’t I?” she asks; this is paramount for her. Yes, I concede, you will get an excellent education! As we cruise into Chicago I point over to the roadways, I-90 and I-294 around O’Hare airport. Immediately she sees that “they’re very well organized!”
A trip to Congo affords me the opportunity to see clearly those things in our culture that are good and bad, even though it’s only 10 days, and though it mostly entails stuff I already know.