A Yemeni asked me recently what the U.S. is like. Of all the adjectives that appeared in my head: “fun,” “beautiful,” “amazing,” and some word that would encapsulate the fact that you could pick two random people from the U.S. and they could very well have completely opposite views on politics, religion, and social justice (yet not kill each other over those differences) — “diametric”? But one word was stronger than all those others.
So I told this person: “Easy.”
Maybe life was feeling hard for me that day. It had been a while since I had cheese and going for a reinvigorating walk around the city just isn’t an option for me. Maybe it wasn’t the best word to tell a Yemeni because no doubt if he came to the U.S., his life wouldn’t be as easy as mine has been. Plus, many people have hard lives in the U.S., just the same as anywhere else. But I’m totally going through that American guilt thing that I hear happens when you travel out of a First World country and you’re like “Damn, I have it so good in America.”
First, I meant the U.S. is easy in terms of convenience. Since I’ve been in Yemen, when I’ve run out of toiletries like shampoo or contact lens solution, I’ve either had to wait until we go on one of our sporadic grocery trips and pantomime hair washing to a Yemeni grocery store worker, ask a local staff to pick me up something (which worked in the contact solution instance, but I was told that it wasn’t easy to find) or order it from Amazon, which has become like a best friend to me since I’ve moved here. Well, if my best friend sent me things like batteries, TV cables, and new release hardcover books. (Which she totally should, hint, hint). I know I have a skewed vision here about convenience since I have practically no mobility. I’m sure there are plenty of Yemenis (and other Westerners too) who live in this city that can run to grocery store, pick up everything on their list, make an awesome dinner, and then duck out to the corner stand to pick up something for dessert. But I also know there are rolling blackouts all the time, so that dinner is likely to be interrupted by having no power, and I’m sure they’re always conscious of their water use since water in Yemen is expected to be depleted within five years (some estimates say it’s closer to a decade). As for the many people who don’t have a steady water supply, life is not so convenient.
But mostly, life in the U.S. has been easy for me in terms of opportunities. I grew up in a comfortable house, I did whatever activities and pursuits I felt like, and always felt safe doing them. I got a decent education in public schools. I didn’t pay a dime out of my own pocket for college, thanks to a college fund my grandpa set up, and my parents paying for the rest. Despite graduating from a so-so university, I made my way just fine in Washington DC and even had the same types of jobs that my Ivy League friends held. I certainly was very broke in DC for a number of years. But my very broke meant living in a luxury apartment, but going into credit card debt over it. And no matter what the balance in my bank account was, that never stopped me from cooking lavish dinners and eating very well.
I’ve had two experienced recently that further made me realize how easy I had it (have it).
The first: Mr.YemenEm works with high school kids as part of his job and recently set up a tutoring session for high school students studying for the SAT because they want to go to college in America. I tried to help (even though where I come from, most people, including me, took the ACT, not the SAT). I talked one of the students through some reading problems. Damn, the SAT be hard. And I’m a native English speaker. I tried to explain to this guy why the answer containing the words “frenetic” and “discombobulated” was the right one. I asked if he knew those words, and he said no. Well then. Focus on the math, I said. No, I didn’t say that. He actually probably has a pretty good shot of getting a passable score in reading. But the point is, geez, I showed up late and sick to the ACT, got an okay score, and got into an okay college, all with very little effort. And these kids are studying for two hours each day of the week (in addition to going to school) because that’s how bad they want to go to college in the U.S. Definitely made me feel like I took a thing or two for granted.
Next, for my job, I recently met with a remarkable woman who runs a cooperative of female coffee farmers in rural Yemen. Through her cooperative, more than 150 women farmers sell their beans, create crafts, and even teach each other to read. I just sat there during a meeting with her, looking at her almost completely shrouded figure, and thinking how hard that must have been in a country where women certainly don’t have that kind of power to start a group that gives these other women a sense of purpose, and a livelihood.
So yes, “easy,” is the word I’d used to describe what life is like for me in the U.S.
Last night at dinner, Mr.YemenEm and I were talking with an Army Colonel who’s rarely been back to the U.S. in the past 12 years. He said one time when his platoon was approaching American soil, all the soldiers broke into “America the Beautiful,” tears streaming down their faces. That type of touching story might have had me thinking “Aw, cute story bro” a few months ago. But, last night, I almost got a little teary too.
So indulge me as I become one of the millions of Americans who have traveled out of their comfort zones and saw barefoot kids, skeletal dogs, and women with veiled faces and said “Wow, America is pretty damn great. I’m very lucky to be an American.”
Cue the music,