Amongst my travels, people seem to be the most impressed by my stint in Cameroon with the Peace Corps. People often asked, “What was it like adjusting to the culture?” Surely, something so different would have been massively difficult. Yet what most people don’t realize is that moving to a village in Cameroon where I didn’t speak the language was cake compare to moving to suburbia St. Louis as an awkward 12-year-old and not speaking the language.
Brutal. I was the only Asian kid for years. Kids taunted me with, “Say xyz in Chinese” all day long, as if I were some sort of circus monkey, but specializing in languages. I had no idea how to properly dress myself in a non-dorky way, because I had previously spent my entire school life in uniforms. American suburbia teenagers are just not a nice demographic for culture integration.
Despite my best efforts, I always felt like a slight misfit during my years in St. Louis (more specifically, St. Charles – it’s a thing in this town, asking people where they went to high school. The socioeconomic divide based on high school alone tells you a lot.) that I had become rather indifferent about the city. In my earlier years of travel, I hesitate a bit to tell people I’m from St. Louis. Growing up, I held some resentment and wondered how my life would be different if I had spent my formative years in a place that is more diverse and global minded.
I spent my college years wishing I had better guidance and ended up in a better university outside of this city. For years, I resented the fact I went to a high school where close to 50% of people do not complete a 4-year university degree. I went to the kind of school that told my sister she would “fail in life” when she followed my footstep and graduated high school early to take college courses. I didn’t understand how people could choose to stay so close, and “settling” for mediocrity. How could they not be curious about the fascinating world out there? For years, these were the thoughts that went through my mind each time that I visited my parents.
In October 2012, I made my move to China. That was the last time I was in this town for a visit. Nearly two years later, I return with a new perspective. I see St. Louis, and in particular, St. Charles, with new appreciation. My time in China has shown me how little people, even fellow Americans, know about the “fly-over states”. Conversations surrounding behavioral norms about Americans typically describe the east/west coasters, and not at all representative of us Midwesterners. I’ve brought new light to these conversations. And as such, I realize that despite the struggle to integrate within this community, the decade that I had spent in St. Louis has had a profound influence in my life.
For the past week, I submerged myself into the picture-perfect suburbia life that my parents had created in our St. Charles home (white picket fence and all). We swim in the family pool at sunset, and the air is filled with a mix of that summer barbecue and freshly cut lawn from the neighbors. I mow the lawn and helped with yard work, picked fresh veggies from the garden, and fruit from the fruit trees. I drove everywhere, and have to force myself to do laps in the pool or get on the treadmill, yet still fail to break even with the calorie intake.
Obesity is rampant in St. Charles, and when I went to the DMV to renew my driver’s license, I felt like I was in a scene from Sweet Home Alabama. I couldn’t help but smile and appreciate that I somehow had made it through this life, despite being so very different. Gone were the days when I simply didn’t understand these people living along side me who were so different. Instead, I appreciate the quirkiness with the same level of amusement as I did in Cameroon, and now in China.
Everything is easy in suburbia America. The things I see on TV and conversations all around me are the epitome of first world problems. As I observe the simple lives around me in this quiet suburbia town, I share the same envy as I once did with my villagers in Cameroon. A small part of me wish I could be so content living in this predefined world. Ignorance is bliss, as they say. Being a wanderlust, I carry the great fortune of curiosity for the world, but also the great burden of never being able to live happily in a predefined life.
I am glad to finally be able to see St. Louis in a different light, and after 15 years of having set foot in this city, I am finally able to appreciate it for what it is. And in the end, surviving my transition to St. Louis turned out to be the best preparation for my Peace Corps service.