April 18, 2011

Attack of the Nacirema

Recently, on the phone with my parents, I burst into an insane-sounding cackle at my own rather lame joke. While expounding on my endless powers of self-amusement, my mother interrupted across the delay: "Honey, when you laugh like that at your own joke, it means you have been living alone too long." It was at exactly that moment that I began to dread my re-entry into society...

Once, in my religious theories class we read an essay about a strange tribe known as the Nacirema. It described in great detail the odd habits of its members, their extraordinary interactions and societal constructs, not to mention the profound weirdness of its various religions. It wasn't until the end of the article that I- not so quick on the uptake- realized that I was reading about my own culture. Nacirema is, of course, American spelled backwards.

The point of this little mind-bender was defamiliarization, a process in which we disengage from what we think we already know, step outside of it, and embrace a new, removed perspective. In the case of the Nacirema, I was tricked into buying in. In the case of Peace Corps- far, far from the land I was once so familiar with- the disengagement process has been gradual but no less shocking. Or effective: I cannot tell you how weird America looks from the outside.

Recently, however, I was able to test (pinkie-toe test) the waters of societal reintroduction when I visited my family for a week in Italy. No, Italy is not America, but as my parents are leading a study abroad program, a fairly large contingent of the Nacirema (fervid, collegiate Nacirema) were present to reinforce just how unfamiliar it had all become.

For months, I had set aside my best and cleanest clothes, saving them in my locker where they molded anyway. From the minute I set foot on the plane, it was clear that despite my best efforts I was the grungy kid and I was treading an alien landscape. All those innocent tourists undoubtedly wondered who I was, hoarding snacks and shoving small children aside at the drink cart. I may have actually clapped when my airplane meal was placed before me and I know I had to resist the urge to stand up and announce "CLEAN PLATE CLUB!!" Despite the fact that Charles de Gaulle airport was an overwhelming behemoth of cars and trucks, trains and planes, I thought it the greatest place on earth because it all made sense. This rousing reintroduction to the world of logic may have reinforced above all just how distanced I have become. And of course, a 12-hour delay was devastating, until I found solace in the flavored-yogurt paradise that was the breakfast buffet.

Upon arrival, a day late and ever the grungier for it, I faced the true onslaught of the Nacirema as they wielded their dual weapons of current events and pop culture. In my PC life there is a clear divide: what came before and what falls after October 2009 departure. You might understand then why it might be shocking to not only learn of the existence of Jersey Shore, but also to be told with a straight face that it "defines" American culture. Strange indeed, this tribe where the haircut of a 16 year old boy is not just news, but more, an event of the utmost culture importance.

As unfamiliar as this all was, I managed to keep it together. I never once stood up in a restaurant and yelled, "for godsake, where is the rice?" I didn't ask a single stranger if I could have something they were wearing. In fact, by the end of the week, I had pledged my undying allegiance to both Team Jacob and Team Rihanna.

Thus, societal re-entry was not as difficult as dreaded, the attack has been beaten back. Returned to the relative normality of Madagascar with much to mull over (I mean, it's just a haircut), I maintain awe at my homeland's profound weirdness and continue to enjoy my outsider perspective.

For now, at least, I still prefer American spelled backwards.

Beautiful State of Decay

As it falls apart before our eyes, Madagascar is a beautiful disaster. Roads disintegrate. Hillsides collapse. All crumbles and slides, helpless to withstand the irreversible acts of water. Overgrown trails run red with their own demise and wide, sweeping rivers empty murkily into the sea. Vegetation creeps, tendrils not long beaten back by human hands. The earth is in sway and civilization itself fights a slow-motion collapse. In villages of tumbledown shacks and ramshackle backways, even houses of residence share the architecture of those abandoned: a tilted geometry of failing angles.

My house too, though of stone sturdiness, is carved out from under and within by industrious ants and determined vermin. Vines creep up the porch and spiders extend their webs out of reach. Termite dust drifts down from the rafters, water leaks from the corners, and one awaits the day of total, irrevocable roof, or wall, or foundation collapse.

Even, or maybe especially, the cities of this country-- with their worn and tattered centers, their dirt-roaded, rust-roofed sprawl-- speak to the more prosperous days past and the steady corrosive passage of time since. In decrepit Diego, the university looms like a bombed-out, Soviet era establishment, the glassless windows of the dormitories aglow at night with the light of students' cooking fires. Palm trees twine their way up through the foundations of a colonial mansion, seeking the sun. Only the hulk remains- stone steps that lead to nowhere, shattered, spidery marble, frames that gaze emptily over the vast and placid bay- a remnant of something gone but not forgotten.

The fabric of the nation itself clings tenuously. Linked by an infrastructure that is frail and failing, the federal government- in perpetual limbo- attempts to right its ship and cohere its state. But as the vegetation enfolds, as stone houses crumble and palm houses tilt with the sliding earth, as rivers pour brackish-brown into the sea, Madagascar's periphery retreats to a local existence long-trusted. Compartmentalized, it follows ancient rhythms and disregards the call of modernity with few taxes collected and fewer services provided, a cycle of indifference further divorces national politics from the vast peripheral populations: police are supported by bribes, teachers are paid in rice. This is the state of decay.

But there is beauty of untold scale in this collapse. In those crumbling roads and failing angles, in the tattered cities and ramshackle villages, one finds a world apart and a world resilient. Here, one believes, what falls apart may once again be.