by Adrienne Johnson, 17, Mill Valley, California
In fourth grade I was friends with a girl named Lee. All I can remember about her now is that she lived in the Baptist seminary, played violin, and liked school. She was one of the seminary kids who lived in a group of apartments on the outskirts of town while their fathers studied to become ministers. The apartments weren't too fancy, but they were comfortable enough, making up for the lack of space by having a pool and a big common grassy field that the kids ran around on. One day, Lee and her little brother, whose name I can't remember, came over to my house after school. I lived next door to my elementary school, and sometimes would invite my friends over while they waited for the school bus or for their parents.
On that sunny, cheerful California day I opened up the gate nonchalantly for Lee and her little brother, bringing into view my yard and two-story house (four bedrooms, one and a half baths, a downstairs apartment). I didn't notice anything special. I was simply opening the gate to the house, good ol' 313 Bell Lane, where I had lived my entire life. Lee noticed something though, and stood back. I turned to look at what had caught her attention—was it the sun filtering through the huge redwood tree onto my hammock and lawn chairs? Or was it my golden retriever lounging in the open grass? Or my mom's expectant "Hello, honey!" coming from upstairs? I turned to look at Lee's expression. I saw that she had never lived in a house like mine and was surprised that I did. I took it so easily for granted.
I was eleven years-old and it was the first time I noticed where I lived. Lee's expression as she registered all this led me for the first time to question my surroundings. It was like how I never really noticed what I looked like until I was thirteen. In middle school I noticed the girls my age start to wear makeup and color-coordinate their outfits; then I saw myself for the first time. In the same way I had never really seen my house until Lee saw it for me.
Lee's bewilderment puzzled me. For years, I would catch myself remembering her whenever I walked into my yard on another sunny California day, but I didn't understand what she felt until a month or two ago. I had come back after spending six months in Ghana as an exchange student. It was the longest time I've ever been away from home and the strangest, most unbelievable experience of my life. The six months passed by like a dream, and I only woke up after coming back. After my family picked me up from the airport and the initial excitement wore off, all I could register was shock. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I didn't remember all the things I had left behind until I saw them once again. The lit, paved roads. My father's smooth car. The stoplights, the stores, the freeways were all strangely familiar to me. Pitted dark roads and dilapidated taxis had become my norm in Ghana.
Stranger still than the ride home from the airport was walking into my house. I had been eagerly looking forward to seeing my beloved dog, Candy, but as she barreled down the stairs at me all I saw was a fat, yellow dog. This was the dog whose toenails I painted, whose furry shoulder I could always cry on, my only companion during the days of latch-key loneliness, but I felt no connection to the beast that was barking at me so excitedly.
I brushed aside the excited animal and stepped into the living room. All I could think of was: this is a rich person's house! My mom had put in a leather recliner that color-coordinated with our overstuffed\line beige couch and ottoman. The polished wood floors gleamed and my mom's curio cabinets showed off her collection of silverware. The lights were all on, another thing I was not used to because electricity was scarce in Ghana, and the whole room positively glowed with money.
The kitchen was too bright for me. I couldn't even begin to comprehend all the food in the refrigerator and cabinets. The packaged, colored foods. The Campbell's soup and Top Ramen, the milk, the ice cream and the sunflower seeds that I had asked my parents to buy for my homecoming. I felt like a stranger, a poor girl forced into a rich person's house.
My room was six months stale and it was strange to see all the clothes that I had outgrown and the posters of The Clash and Pink Floyd that I hadn't listened to for half a year. It dawned on me how different I was when I last walked through that door, and how little I felt for the room I had grown up in.
That night, as I lay on my much-too-comfortable feather bed trying to go to sleep, the whole experience was ticking something in the back of my mind. I didn't know what it was until I walked into my yard the next day after trying to exercise a few pounds off my dog: Lee's expression.
It was her expression that was bothering me. I finally understood. It was awe, and puzzlement, but there was also an undercurrent of unjustness. It wasn't fair. It wasn't fair that some people have more than others and don't realize it. It wasn't fair that I could simply walk into a house that I was born into and claim ownership of all the food, the clothes, and the privileges that came along with it. Before I left I didn't even know anything else besides having leather recliners and all the electricity you could dream of. Lee lived in an apartment complex and I had gone to Ghana for six months, but the feeling was the same. I walked into that house like a stranger walking into a new life.
Even though I've been back for almost two months, I still have problems at the grocery store. The aisles of candy overwhelm me, the gallons of milk repulse me. Sometimes, when walking down an aisle or reaching for ice cream, I remember that villages I visited in Northern Ghana. I remember the little children with malnourished, protruding bellies, the dirty shirts that hung like dresses but barely stretched over their extended stomachs. They looked pregnant at the age of five. It hits me whenever I go into Safeway.
My parents sent me care packages of candy and other treats regularly while I was in Ghana—Snickers, Twix, sunflower seeds. I hoarded those candy bars and when I gave them to my brothers and sisters in Ghana they treated them like special presents. Whenever I see these horrible "3 for 99 cents" deals on all the candy bars in the supermarket I don't know what to do. I know I don't want them, there's too many and they repulse me. But yesterday I bought twelve: four Reese's, four Twix, four peanut M&M's. I'll send them to Ghana tomorrow.
Gradually, the shock has worn off. It's just a few things that trigger it now—the grocery store, or the library. Or the 931 channels on my new cable TV. Or it's the classrooms filled with computers and the vending machines in the cafeteria.
The hardest, though, has been my yard. I have tried to enjoy it, to relax on the hammock and bask in the sun. I try, but I can't. I realize I don't belong in that hammock over that sunny expanse of healthy grass.
Now, every time I go through my gate, I look at it with double vision: I see it with both Lee's eyes and my own. Lee showed me what it meant to be an outsider, but I couldn't feel it until I came back from Ghana. I didn't understand what it meant to live my life until I stepped outside of it. Both Lee and Ghana helped me do that. It' s hard to live life in double vision, but I don't think about poverty in the grocery store or AIDS in math class as much as I used to. Slowly, I feel myself waking up and returning to my old life. I've started school and found my friends again. I've started to channel surf and eat in restaurants, but even though I'm now comfortable enough to sit on the leather recliner, I'm not yet comfortable enough to call it mine.