America is the land of the rich. It is where everyone has jobs and the money for all the cars and homes they can afford. It’s the place you go for a beautiful spouse who will buy you nice clothes and take you to the best restaurants. It’s the home of celebrities and dreams come true.
This is Hollywood America. This is the America my Basotho students think I come from. While I do have my much more than they can ever imagine, it’s hard to explain that there is more to the United States than New York City and that Rihanna and Jay-Z do not represent the average American. It’s hard to see the Land of Free from their eyes – a wonder, a complete unknown.
One of Peace Corps’ objectives is to share the American culture with people of other nations and I use my country as a way to understand theirs. We discuss how lives of students differ in the United States compared to Lesotho and how the impact of HIV is not the same in my country as it is in theirs. And I try to strip down the stereotype and explain to them the America that I know: a great nation but not free of struggles.
I tell my students that it is hard for people to find work. I tell them that life isn’t always fair and those that have sometimes just get more. And that some people are so poor that they have no place to live and must sleep on the street, a concept that left their mouths open in amazement.
But I also tell them that the United States is land with both mountains and oceans. We have big cities and people from nearly every corner of the world. You can buy pizza at 2 a.m. or use a bank loan to buy your own car. Also, if you work really hard and do your best, good things will happen. It is the land of plenty and opportunity.
Before coming to Lesotho I never understand what it means to be an American. The United States is not a problem-free country and, even now, life is hard for many of its citizens. And it’s easy to forget what a truly special place it is.
Living abroad has given me a deep sense of pride for America. We are a land of big thinkers and big dreamers. We are free to choose our beliefs, work and social circles. We offer variety and the notion that any goal is achievable with hard work.
But, most of all, it is my country.
Life isn’t always great for the Basotho – poverty, HIV/AIDs, lack of access to basic amenities – but most love their country. They often ask what I think of it and are always pleased when I say that I like it. This is their home; they are proud of it.
By sharing my country with my students I’ve been able to see it in a way I never could when I lived on American soil. I enjoy living in Lesotho and will always cherish these two years, but I am an American. I will always sport the red, white and blue because it is who I am and where I come from. It is a piece of my definition.