Three different countries were represented at that table in the restaurant down the street from the hostel; and things were going pretty well! At a break in conversation, I looked up from our Chinka cuisine and barked a laugh. The table was split down the middle, as if there were an invisible demarcation: Europeans with their knife and fork on one side, and Americans with our mighty, all-purpose fork on the other.
This wasn’t the only difference. habits for one party can act as a signal for another–the Texan and I resting elbows on the table resulted in raised eyebrows from the English and Dutch, for example. What seemed like a casual opportunity for comfort for And the Europeans fiercely defended the need of a fork and knife to eat something as scoopable (or shovel-able as they good-naturedly teased) as fried rice–something that caused the American brows to furrow in amusement.
The enlightenment kept on coming, this time over late night, post-dancing McDonald’s.
A slightly different group, I was a lone American amongst Europeans. But there were no forks or knives to decry our loyalties here–only fingers for the fast food. At last, our habits were the same. But it was not the case with our opinions.
Perhaps it was exhaustion, or perhaps it was the multiple pisco sours enjoyed over the course of the night…whatever the case, no one had the energy to sugar coat anything.
We laughed hard and yawned hard, and sentiments were delivered with the jarring force that accompanies brazen honesty.
Topics were raised arbitrarily, but eventually blow after well-deserved blow was aimed at the absurdity of the brokenness of the American welfare/healthcare/education system.
Having spent semesters in London and Copenhagen, the critiques posed weren’t unfamiliar. But for some reason they cut more deeply on this night of all nights. To hear the systems held up next to those of the British and Dutch of my comrades made me squirm in my seat.
And I was angry. And I was embarrassed. And I was perplexed. And then before I knew it, I was being urged out the door.
Now, the source of distress wasn’t necessarily the discussion of my country’s shortcomings. While there’s plenty the U.S does right, I know there is so much that could be improved. And I know the systems which seem so supportive have their problems as well.
No–I wasn’t so disturbed by a system’s failure to help, but rather my failure to help. I’ve had the immense privilege of being unaware of many systemic shortcomings (both locally and globally) because I haven’t directly experienced them–but many people have. I fluctuate from being overwhelmed to apathetic.
French fries conquered and unwanted chicken nuggets successfully redistributed to willing mouths, the vibe was amiable as we made our way back to our hostel.
But as my friends were scanning the traffic for a place to cross the street, questions were swirling around my mind.
How can I have a hand in making the broken systems better? How can I have a hand in supporting those the system has moved past?
Can the first step be as easy as learning how to use a knife?