Sometimes when I catch my children walking through the world I think back to my first experiences in America. A mere walk through the mall has my kids enthralled. The taste of an ice cream is euphoric, and all the while time is of no value or consequence. Malls, parks, nature trails and pretty much any environment where a child can scour, stare, dig, chase, taste, and burn endless sources of energy are exhausting for most parents, but ironically, the joy of being a parent is in seeing how little a child needs to elicit such a heightened level of wonderment.
Being in America for the first time was my first child-like experience as an adult and it’ll probably be my last. I have visited many cities around the world and been awed by the beauty of most, but I’ve never been as wide-eyed as I was in America. I arrived in San Diego, California in the late 90s. It’s a breathtaking coastal city with a beautiful skyline and an East African climate; although most Americans would hardly believe it.
For a girl out of Africa, America was outrageous. The driver sat on the ‘wrong’ side of the vehicle. It was weeks, actually months, before I learned not to jump into the drivers seat every time I hitched a ride from a friend. I remember looking for zebras on the road every time the signposts read ‘Zebra Crossing.’ As it turns out, zebras are actually pedestrians.
Everything was large. The cars were monstrous. California highways can have anywhere from 6 to 8 lanes. I remember the day when I had to take my driver’s test I had a ghastly puke session triggered by nerves. It didn’t matter that I had learned to drive in a country where traffic laws are nonexistent and where I would actually be hailed a cowboy by any American driver, the fact was I had never had to parallel park, or navigate roads that wide, or Keep Right.
A few months after arriving in San Diego, I made friends with an out and proud lesbian college mate. In the midst of our budding friendship, she drove me to a popular gay and lesbian hangout spot where we browsed a niche bookshop, DVD store and explored other gems of a subculture that at the time was entirely alien to me. It later turned out she was ‘into me’ but at the time in my naiveté I genuinely thought I was gaining an education. I digress. On our way back to campus from so-called niche hotspot, we were driving in one of the middle lanes – perhaps third or fourth. All the cars ahead of us started to swerve right and left, and finally when we had full visual we realized we were about to eat an old couch that lay smack across the length of the highway. Problem is when driving at 100/mph there is not much reaction room when a piece of furniture suddenly appears right in front of the hood of your car. But Ally was able to wind quickly around the couch, and all the while other cars on multiple lanes were swerving around us. At that moment I realized those people who built the wide highways – hey, they are not so dim after all.
I was doubled over by the numbers of fast food joints. Every block I drove past had a different kind, and I couldn’t wait to try them all. Escondido Blvd: In-N-Out; Broadway: Jack in the Box; Eastlake Pkwy: Taco Bell; Magnolia Ave: Burger King; Olympic Pkwy: McDonalds; La Mesa Blvd: KFC; La Chula Vista Blvd: White Castle. It was endless. My first experience with an American plate serving was traumatic. The food served on campus was American, but I had been plating myself Kenyan-style, which in America is eating like a peasant. Upon seeing the size of my paltry tray and anorexic self, my roommates – a trio of American girls – took it upon themselves to induct me into the art of eating American. One Friday evening, I found myself, not at a fast food joint, but at another level of eatery, somewhat higher on the hierarchy. You can spot these on every block in the US by the numbers of Americans queued outside with buzzers while they wait for a table. And so it was, that at T.G.I Friday’s, I was attacked by a hamburger the size of a newborn baby. Stacked with blue cheese, and bacon, a side of potato wedges and a starter of onion rings, and a strawberry milk shake that was dinner itself. Outrageous.
After dinner we headed out to ‘How Stella Got Her Groove Back’. Before the movie, my friends ordered up a large tub of popcorn, M&M’s and Gummi Bears, and a large serving of Coke for everyone. If I was going to survive America, I knew I hard to change my eating habits, pronto!