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Transformative

I lied to an elderly gentleman at the bus stop the other month.

I was reading a science fiction novel, one of those 500-page monsters that might double as a lethal weapon in a pinch.  The bus was late.  I interacted briefly with a few of the people loitering at the bus stop, but mostly stayed immersed in my book.

An elderly gentleman came up to me.  “Is that the Bible?”

There was clearly only one right answer to this question, but while I’d left the dust jacket at home, and while my novel might look like a Bible to a quick glance, anything more than cursory inspection would prove it to be otherwise.  And . . . there are some lines I’m not willing to cross.  “No.”

“For a class?”

An acceptable alternative to Biblical scholarship.  “Yes.”

He praised me a bit for being so studious, clearly a good girl, then asked where I went to school.

“Smith.  In Massachusetts.”

“What English classes did you take?”

Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction was again clearly the wrong answer.  Old English seemed unnecessarily obtuse, quite clearly a useless course of study.  But I had taken a literature class, if not strictly an English class (Inklings was, in fact, offered by the Religion department).  “I took a class on Christian literature.”  ‘Oxford,’ again, seemed an unnecessary complication.

“You did!”  His faith in me was restored.  “Is this for that class?”

In for a penny, in for a pound.  I assented.

“How long have you been doing that?”

I took this to mean that he wanted to know what year I was.  And if I was reading books for class, clearly I still needed to be in class . . . “I’m a junior.”

“No!  You can’t be that old!”

Actually, I’m about five years older than that.  I took the compliment in the spirit it was intended, and smiled and nodded.

“Is your father a pastor?”

Perhaps only pastors raise good Christian daughters.  “No.”  (It was only later that it occurred to me that I could have told him that my parents were church treasurers.)  “My grandfather was one.”

“Oh!  Your father’s father?”

“My mother’s.”

“You’re following in her footsteps!  That’s good!”

I never did figure out how we established that I was going to be a pastor.  Maybe taking a class on the Inklings shoehorned me in.  And here I thought I just liked Tolkien and Lewis and Sayers.

The conversation went on for a while, him telling me how smart I was, and how good it was that I was getting my degree, and how I shouldn’t stop learning, and always follow Jesus, and he knew that I was going to be successful, but if I wasn’t, well, that was all right; I was storing up treasures in heaven.  I smiled, and nodded, and said the proper things at the proper times.

He seemed to be wandering away, and the bus STILL hadn’t come, so I opened my book again and resumed reading.  But after a few sentences, he turned back.  I didn’t close the book quickly enough, and he took hold of one side and tilted it so that he could read it too.

It hadn’t occurred to me that he would read the book.  If that had been part of the range of social etiquette I’d been expecting, I would have closed the book and put it in my bag when it became clear what sort of conversation we were having.  As it was, I was mildly flabbergasted.  A quick scan of the next few paragraphs reassured me that I was not at a grossly unsuitable part of the book — but it was still clearly fiction.

“This is a part where they use stories to illustrate their points.  Sort of parables.”

“What’s that?”  He pointed to the text.

“Cleopatra.  It’s the name of the place they’re at.”  I breathed an inaudible sigh of relief.  Perhaps the indecipherable nature of science fiction would keep my deception from being revealed.

We puzzled over a few character names, him very impressed by my erudite reading material, and me worried the whole time that my web of falsehoods would come crashing down around my ears.

The bus came, and I escaped with relief.

I would like to say that I am not the sort of young woman who lies to complete strangers, particularly not her elders.  At least, I used to be.  I value my integrity and truthfulness.  It’s part of who I am.  Or it used to be.

The Miriam who went to Zambia two years ago would not have lied to that gentleman.  She would have selected her truths very carefully, and perhaps have found elements of her life that he could approve of — or perhaps not — but she would not have lied.

I’m not that Miriam.  I lived for a year in Zambia, where the relationship, the feeling of the relationship, is far more important than the literal truth.  And the only regrets I felt were when I feared that my lies would be revealed.  Not because it’s so important to me what he thinks, or because I care that a stranger thinks me a liar — but because he would be disillusioned.  My careful construction, the story I was crafting for him — albeit half-unintentionally — would be destroyed, replaced by the exact opposite of my intention.  And it’s only that potential for disillusionment that makes me feel guilty.

I’ve thought about that a lot, since I met that man at the bus stop.  And I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not that truth is less important to me.  I still value truth, and truthfulness, and integrity.  But Zambia taught me to grow the definition of a “little white lie,” the socially acceptable lies that make our society run more smoothly.  Because there’s fact, and then there’s truth.

My friend the elderly gentleman met a Christian young woman at the bus stop the other week.  She was raised in a Christian family, and her faith is an important part of her life (even if she does not have any plans to become a pastor).  She worked hard in college, and reads a lot of challenging, intricate books.  That’s the truth.  And if most of the young people he sees are like my students: haven’t finished school, not going much of anywhere, probably have kids — then I AM an incredibly successful young woman.  And the fact that I exist, and live in his neighborhood, SHOULD be heartening to him.

In Zambia, I learned that truth is bigger than fact, and that sometimes, you tell the truth — the overall, big-picture truth, what you really mean — by lying.

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Further Thoughts from the Rocket Ship

When talking about re-entry into your home culture, people tell you that the culture shock may be as great as your initial culture shock in the country you visited.  They tell you that your home will look different and feel strange.  You are reminded that the people and places you knew will also have changed while you were away, so that you are not going back to the same place, and that you yourself are different, and will see them differently.

No one warned me that the US would remind me of Zambia.

I look at the Happy Holow Park or and compare it to a Hair Saloon or a Tarven.  What about Temptations Banquet Facility and Restaurant, near my house, or South Side Pizza — which, so far as I can tell, isn’t on the south side of ANYTHING, except perhaps the rest of the neighborhood.  What differentiates it from the Downtown Shop (on the side of a road with nothing else nearby) or any of the other incongruous store names that so amused me in Zambia?

Surely the fish truck at Wayne and Berkley, with the fish mural painted across one side, complete with a little ACCESS card in the corner, would be as charming and picturesque to a stranger as I found the man in Mazabuka, advertising his wares by grabbing the tail and waving them in the street?

The stores painted red and green, free advertising for Airtel or Zamtel, always seemed delightfully, uniquely Zambian.  But surely the product placement on the signs of many of the local beer establishments comes from a similar arrangement.

I am standing at the bus stop in the morning, and a young man wanders up.  “Which bus are you waiting for?”
“The 53.”
Silence for a bit, then, “You look nice.”
“Thank you.”  I did think that the black vest added a nice touch.
“I see you around sometimes.”
I nod.  “I live around.”  I wave a hand in the general direction of behind me.
“Maybe, if I see you around, I could get your phone number.”
“Maybe.”  I mean no, but why disturb the congeniality of the conversation by being blunt?
After a bit, he wanders off again, and I conclude that he wasn’t waiting for the bus — which implies that the entire point of that interaction was to chat me up.

That was a very Zambian conversation.  If we replace chat about the bus with chat about what country I’m from — both things immediately obvious to a casual glance — and replace the request for my phone number with a marriage proposal, it would only require a few changes to phrasing and syntax to make it one of numerous marriage proposals.  “No, I do not want.”  “All right.  Next time!”

I look at the people who set up stalls on Broad Street, selling clothes or shoes or this-and-that, and wonder how substantively different they are from street vendors in Zambia.  These stalls are usually movable, and collapse to be taken home every night, rather than sturdy, immobile constructions of logs, tin, and grass, and the vendors may be more or less officially sanctioned, but doesn’t it come down to the same thing?  My coworker G chats with the vendors at Broad and Girard as she passes; I just wave or nod, a brief acknowledgement.  She’s a better Zambian than I.

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