Tag Archives: re-entry

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.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized


I love my city.

I love walking it. I love the neighborhoods. I love pedestrian sidewalks almost anywhere I care to go, though they may rise and buckle like a study in plate tectonics.

I love riding through it on my bike, flying across the city on the power of my own two legs. I love the graceful ease of pavement under my wheels, and the near-frictionless glide of the machine, despite its weight and whatever load I may be carrying.

I love the view of it from an elevated train track, rushing past little patches of people’s lives, laid out alongside fences and swingsets and patios. I love the snippets of conversations, teasers for stories I will never hear. (Three young men, all British: “Should we get a map? Or do you think we can iPhone it across the country?” “A map would be a good idea.”) I love the silence-over-modulating-hum when they turn off the engine and we ride forward on nothing but that barely-audible song and the force of what came before.

I love the tall trees and the broad streets, the little yards and the variety of people that live in them. I love the range of people and style and color, the diversity grown on the bones of rowhouses that once all looked the same.

I love the excitement.

Don’t get me wrong. I liked Zambia, too. I found it fascinating. I learned new things all the time. But for all its newness and difference, it cannot compete with this city that is my home, my stomping-ground, my familiar streets and well-known routes hiding something rich and strange around any corner.

The gritty roughness of the city gives me energy in a way that the wide-open spaces, endless blue sky, scrubby plants in red dust, and quiet community of the village cannot compete with.

When I traveled in Zambia, I looked out the window all the time, never knowing what I might see. Kids with kites made of a few sticks and a bit of string and plastic bags. Five people riding one bicycle. A woman carrying a live goat on her head. A girl, five or six years old, with a chitenge tied to her back and the flop-ears of a stuffed rabbit peeking out over her shoulder, in imitation of the older women in her life.

I found it endlessly fascinating. I saw all sorts of things in Zambia.

But I have realized that in Philadelphia, I might see ANYTHING. I cannot, at this moment in time, think of anything of which I can confidently say, “I would not see that in Philadelphia.”* And that, more than anything, is what I love about this city.

Before I left a year ago, someone who grew up in Macha, talking about the range of languages, said to me, “I know people who would need to speak five languages other than English in order to talk to all of the people within one day’s walk of where they lived.” At the time, I found that pretty impressive. I still do, in fact. But you know what? I am willing to bet that I would need at least twice that many to speak all the native languages of the people who use my train stop, or live in the catchment district of the local public elementary school.

This is the city. Keep your eyes open. You’ll see sparrows in 30th Street Station, Catulpa trees growing in drainspouts, drama worthy of soap operas acted out on the street, graffiti on abandoned warehouses and under bridges,** world-class musicians in the subway, farmer’s markets and community gardens, London Plane trees with diameters larger than their little patches of dirt, shih-tzus riding regional rail, and maybe, if you look at just the right time, a gal in a skirt with a chitenge handkerchief under her helmet riding an extra-long bicycle.

Samantha hangs out while waiting for her train.

Samantha hangs out while waiting for her train.

I don’t always see it. Sometimes the city is sticky and tiresome and crowded and it smells bad. But I think it’s always there, and I just need to remember what I’m looking for and how to notice.


*I was going to say a banana tree. But then I started thinking of situations under which I might encounter one, and now I’m not even sure about that.

**LAOS–> What does it mean? Is it a tag? A statement of geographic identity? A helpful navigational direction?

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Rocket Ship

Life on Earth can be an adventure too… you just need to know where to look!
Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen), The Sarah Jane Adventures

I’ve been back in Philadelphia for almost two weeks now, visiting people, unpacking (my room was rented out while I was gone, so this involves not just a fairly modest two suitcases, but instead almost everything I own), hanging out, and looking for work. I’m over jetlag, but my life has been moving at a leisurely pace, with few events that seem blog-worthy. I love being back in Philadelphia (more on that later, perhaps); I’d never been away from home for as long as 11 months before, and while I didn’t feel it in Zambia, I certainly felt it upon my return.

We went to a performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor last week, which was lots of fun, and raucous and bawdy, and the whole trip reminded me of the diversity and the vibrancy I love about Philadelphia . . . and round about Act III or IV, the sky got very dark and it started pouring. So I never did see the end of the play, but my chitenge served very admirably as a semi-permeable raincape (Use #22 of a Chitenge. #23 is padding for carrying things on your head, #24 is a shawl when the room is over-airconditioned and you’re cold. Chitenge is pronounched chi-teng-gee, chi as in chimpanzee, teng like ten with an extra g, and gee like ghee, clarified butter), and all-in-all we had a very satisfying evening.

I did laundry this morning, and when I pulled my sheets in off the line, I found a small passenger.

I think it's a juvenile lacewing.

I think it’s a juvenile lacewing.

I had a terribly difficult time getting him (her?) off, too: I persuaded the little fellow onto my finger, but then it did not wish to get off, and I eventually had to use a maple seed as a miniature spatula. Even so, it was difficult to get the lacewing onto the maple leaf, rather than throwing it to the winds.

Are curious minds satisfied?

Are curious minds satisfied?

When I was walking to the library later, I passed a woman doing ballet in the Citizen’s Bank parking lot, using a vertical yellow pole as a makeshift bar. She did not have the typical ballerina figure, but there was a grace in the strength of her movements all the same, and in the calm poise with which she was practicing pliés and relevés alone, standing by the sidewalk, holding a chunk of yellow-orange cement.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized