Triangles and circles: meditations on returning to America
Written by Jordan Petteys
I am a triangle, I live among other triangles, and, three months ago, I left for a religiously affiliated mentorship opportunity in Southeast Asia as a triangle. I then spent three months living among circles: some thinner or rounder around the edges, but ultimately structured the same. I became very aware of my hard edges, straight lines and three sides and noticed there was something physically, emotionally and spiritually different between me and my new neighbors.
For the next 90 days, I shopped at their markets, learned about their traditions, ate their food, and completely immersed myself into a culture so radically divergent from my own. By the time I got off my last motorbike ride, I felt like a new person. My identity and beliefs were still intact, but I felt a little softer on my sides, as if my triangle shape had molded into more of an awkward oval. When I arrived back home, grocery stores with 14 different types of toilet paper, eight versions of creamy and crunchy peanut butter and no live animals or strange smells felt insanely foreign to me. I could go anywhere I wanted by a five minute car ride and absolutely anything I wanted to purchase was at my disposal.
I’ll admit, I’ve wrestled with feeling like my education, home and wardrobe is selfish. I often worry whether I have too much or too little. I don’t understand how I managed three months without a phone, and now it seems I can’t leave my house without it glued to my pocket. I struggle to reason with cracking open a new set of expensive paints I’ll use one time when I had to make one travel size bottle of shampoo stretch three months. Discovering consistency in American chaos resembled adaptation to extreme humidity, language barriers, and pig ear salad.
However, comparing cultures is like comparing apples to lampshades, triangles to circles. We shouldn’t pretend to be similar when we are very different. I will never be able to understand a little girl who spends her whole life mastering dye techniques and stitching patterns in order to feed her family when I grew up playing with Webkinz and Littlest Pet Shop, never worrying about where my next meal was coming from. Even still, the trials we face in America are valid issues, and it makes sense that a broken heart, the loss of a job, or a failed test causes pain regardless of demographic. We shouldn’t minimize our own situation by assuming that a more aggressive circumstance is far worse.
I hold myself to an incredibly unfair standard if I base my perceptions of my experiences on another culture’s customs. Arguing that things could be worse doesn’t tend to make anything better. Joy and pain must dance with each other––we must to know one well to know the other. To truly appreciate and experience the fullness of our emotions, we must let them in.
That being said, it’s still unproductive for me to sulk in my longing for Southeast Asia. I don’t want to live only for the dreams I create with my eyes closed when life to the fullest is offered to me now. I remember when just two years ago, attending SCAD in the fall of 2017 was my dream come true. I couldn’t wait to get out of high school. Now, two years later, I attend photography classes twice a week and have all the equipment I could ever ask for at my fingertips. I’ve produced my best work yet, explored my creativity like never before, moved into my first home, made lifelong friendships and I’m getting paid to write an article about my heart for the nations. I am so fulfilled, yet the past two weeks I’ve been wishing I were somewhere else. SCAD has shifted from a dream to my reality, but I wonder where I must arrive at before I take a step back, look up and admit “Wow, this is incredible. This, right here, right now, is my dream.”
It took leaving from and returning to America to realize how geometrically diverse my home really is. I used to only fix my attention on cultural experiences overseas, but my time in Southeast Asia increased my awareness to the global community within my own neighborhood. Our country provides a dwelling place to squares and diamonds and hexagons, yet 75 percent of international students will never be invited into an American Home (International Students Inc.). The people who make America so incredible are working at my favorite restaurants, creating awe-striking portfolios in my classes, sitting beside me at church and standing in front of me at the market.
Coming home showed me that I don’t need a plane ticket to see the world.