The fourth of July came and went. For me it was just another day in Botswana. It was on a Wednesday. There was no Peachtree Road Race. No red, white and blue. No cook-outs with burgers, baked beans and deviled eggs, watermelon, ice cream and Bud Light. There were no fireworks lighting up the sky at night. No music blasting, “I’m proud to be an American…”, in a deep country voice.
Living in another country has caused me to reflect on what it is about America that I really value – the things you don’t even notice when you live there – the things you take for granted. I’m not talking about the luxuries we enjoy. I’m talking about some of the goodness of our culture.
The HIV epidemic in Botswana has resulted in stigma associated with the disease. Perhaps this stems from HIV being a sexually transmitted disease, initially associated with sexual promiscuity. With that came shame. With shame, those living with HIV went in to the closet. It’s not that HIV is not discussed. It is taught about in schools, there are billboards that encourage getting tested, and a lot of government jobs are connected to HIV. It’s just that no one talks openly about living with HIV. No one talks about the hassle of taking medicine twice a day for the rest of your life, and the sometimes horrendous side effects. No one talks about their fears related to entering relationships, the how and when to tell a potential partner about their HIV status. No one talks about how being HIV positive makes you wonder if you will ever have children, or even consider it. And since no one is talking, no one is providing emotional support to those living in silence.
In the US, for every social ill, someone is willing to stand up and speak out and take the risk that comes with doing so. Indeed, for every brave individual who speaks out, there may be a few who judge and ridicule. But for each one of those judgmental individuals, there are hundreds who gather in strong support of the person hurting. Americans band together and correct injustices. We start foundations, and organize awareness raising events. Oprah invites us on her show to talk openly about our challenges. Personalities with clout become spokespersons. People with money donate. Legislators respond with laws to protect individual rights. And slowly wrongs get righted. And it is rare that someone lives in shame of who they are. They become supported by not only their loved ones, but by an empathetic American society. I love that about America.
I also love the American work ethic. Most of us work hard and take pride in doing a job well, going the extra mile, and getting it right. Integrity is valued. We know if we strive to be the best and give our clients excellent products and service, our businesses will likely succeed. Sure we are competitive, but competitiveness sparks creativity. Creativity makes for an interesting and ever changing private sector. We don’t have to settle for inferior service, because there is always someone who is willing to excel.
I love that we adore and celebrate our children. I recently conducted a life skill session with the teens at Stepping Stones about American culture. First, they formulated questions they had. Then I tried to answer them, while giving a comparison to Botswana culture. They wanted to know how we celebrate a new child, a baby. In Botswana, when a child is born, the baby is kept in the home with the mother for a period of 3-6 months, isolated from family and friends. When that confinement period ends, there is a big party. They also have baby showers before the child is born, similar to the US. In answering this, I put my emphasis on birthday parties. I told them that each year, on the child’s birthday; we have a party that includes cake and gifts for the child. I did this because I was astonished when I learned that many of the kids at Stepping Stones cannot tell me their date of birth. I realized this, when I was measuring height and weight, to plot growth status. I needed the exact birthdate to see if their growth was in a healthy range. It made me incredibly sad, to think that some children, especially these orphaned and vulnerable children, rarely get recognized as being special, just for being who they are. I told them that my 89 year old mom still celebrates my birthday with me, every year, even though I am 57 and no longer a child. They were amazed, truly amazed.
I am proud to be an American. Sure there are things I dislike about American culture. Living abroad has helped me to see America in a different light. And what I see is mostly good.