I guess this is the part where I reflect on the last four months.
This is gonna get weird, friends. This is the “excited to go, but sad to leave” part. The part where I pull out my uncomfortable cop-out response to “Are you ever coming back?”, and you prepare to dodge my inevitable “Are you ever going to come visit me in Canada?”
On “goodbye” weekend, I am queen of the awkward laugh.
I can’t seem to get it quite right. Yesterday, I parted ways with a dear coworker by saying: “Have a good one! And by ‘one,’ I mean, like, life!”
…that sounded exactly as awkward out loud as it did in your head.
He responded with a lovely speech about how great it’s been, how I’ll be missed, how his door is always open. I looked at the ground and said something stupid like “Teehee, gee, thanks. Don’t know why I would ever be down there, but hey, you never know.”
I could’ve just said “Ditto!” and smiled. I could’ve mentioned “I’ll miss you, too, dude.” Or found some way to explain how epic my time with these co-workers had been, how much I care about them, how these four months have genuinely changed my life.
But I did none of that. I probably won’t even stay in touch (empty promises 1; Shauna 0). I want to, but I don’t really know what “stay in touch” even means.
Another friend, who evidently sucks less than I do, tried to strike up a meaningful closing conversation over dinner:
“So, where do you think you’ll be in five years?”
“Pregnant and sad.”
What kind of response is that? [I wondered. As I said it. Out loud. I didn’t even miss a beat, you guys.]
So begins a long string of goodbyes. I’m waiting for a few of them, though I don’t doubt for a moment they will be just as strange. And since I finally, finally got my camera working, the strangeness is being recorded.
A-and, like clockwork, Expedia just emailed me a reminder of my flight. At the same time, my friend Niki messaged me to make plans for Tuesday–Tuesday! Tonight,I’m going to clumsily follow a “Lincoln Assassination” walking tour, the second of two attempts to get my tourist on via DC by Foot before I leave the city on Monday.
There was a monkey in the picture, you guys. A monkey.
No one was quite sure what to expect. I’m not used to that. My fellow interns are uber-cultured musicians and ethnomusicology students (dammit, spell check, ethnomusicology is a word) who seem to know every nuance of every genre.
…though really, all I can confirm is that they know a whole lot more than me. Which means I’m always learning.
Much like my own field (history), with music there is always-always-always more to discover. And the more you listen, the more you realize how much you have yet to listen to.
Like this band from Denmark with a monkey, for example.
And so we went. We took the metro. We filed into the packed Grand Foyer. We stood at the back, since all the seats were taken–clearly, word had gotten around that the Danish monkey-band was coming to town. Inside our programs was this short description of what we were about to see:
Oh, “of course.”
AFRObeat? C’est quoi ca? Can someone point me in the direction of their favourite soul/jazz inspired acid-power-beat song, please? And “almost-punk” just sounds like how I feel when I jaywalk or accidentally sleep through church. [Insert rebel yell here.]
In true millennial fashion, I googled the band before going. Specifically, I watched this mezmerizingly weird music video of a song entitled “Blue Balls.” The album is called “Absinthe.” And the music is rad.
(At least, it’s rad enough for me to try to bring back the term “rad.”)
Yeah. That. Don’t do drugs?
The show was fantastic.It isn’t that I didn’t expect it to be fantastic….just that I didn’t know what to expect at all. The music (whatever it was, exactly) was an awesome, awesome discovery.
I make lots of awesome discoveries these days.
Finnish tango. Hardcore conjunto. Underground folk revival. Central Asian pipa. Autoharp country. Banjo masters. Those French Canadian songs that people assume I know (and I never do).
It’s almost overwhelming. Reading through the “Events in Washington DC,” trying to figure out what I can make it to…or what I should make it to…or what I can connect to, even just a little bit. Finding that balance between learning new things and maintaining/expanding on what I’ve already got. Searching through the Folkways catalogue, working out what to listen to next.
You would think that the daunting excitement of “where do I start?!” would be second nature to me by now. History student stuff. Curator problems. And yes, I have spent long days awkwardly navigating books, journals, and microfilm. Having all this new music at my fingertips is no different, really. But for the first time, culture is my every day–my work, my play, my social life, my background, my foreground.
And I still don’t feel a sense of “competence.” Not in even a sliver of it.
Oh, I don’t always do “new things.” I still can’t seem to stay away from Ottawa. I even showed up to a Canada-US Relations event last week…and ended up being live-broadcasted on CPAC, asking a question about the Keystone Pipeline. Yeah.
“New things” can find you, though. They can creep up. It’s called “opportunity,” and it’s always hanging around–especially in a place like DC, especially if you make the first move. One “new thing” can breed familiarity with another. And another. And another.
Case in point: A friend and I showed up to the Kennedy Center to check out Finnish tango music (because, why not?) and some dude gave us his extra tickets to this:
We didn’t ask questions
Though to answer yours: It was one of the best plays I’ve ever seen. Seriously. “Bird in Magic Rain with Tears.” Who would’a thought?
Today, I spent some time on the phone with an expert on Canadian safety and protocol while traveling abroad. He was…quirky. The phone call was informative, for sure, but it was also hilarious. Here are some highlights:
“Make sure you give copies of all your papers to someone who loves you. I define ‘someone who loves you’ as ‘someone who put up with you for your teenage years and still talks to you.'”
“You have to Register with DFAIT if you’re a Canadian going anywhere abroad for more than 2 weeks. Otherwise, you’re just being stupid.”
“If you find yourself in North Korea, you go to the Swedish Embassy. If you find yourself elsewhere and there’s no Canadian Embassy around, go to the Australian Embassy. Don’t try the American Embassy…if you think they’re going to help you, you’re dead wrong.”
“You have to be careful. Washington DC is kinda like Vanier.”
“And now comes the part where I talk to you about Love. Ready? Okay. When you are in love, your brain chemistry changes. I get it. You’re 20. If you call me and you’re in trouble but you say ‘Oh, but I’m in love!’ I will not judge you. You have no control over that. It’s just your brain.”
“Canada is the only country in the world where we elect people, they pass laws, then people don’t follow the laws, and no one cares. Other countries aren’t like that. You should probably follow laws outside of Canada.”
“You’re a student of history, so I love you already. Everyone should be a student of history.”
“I might seem like a nice guy right now, but I can be an asshole when I negotiate. I will bust in on a gang and get you out of there.”
“I believe in the Trudeau years when everyone could do whatever they wanted and just had to be accountable to the consequences. Like, you can be involved with drugs while you’re living abroad if you want, but if you do I won’t care about you. ”
My first day in a new place is always ridiculously stereotypical. We’re talking caricature-worthy. Maybe this is normal, you know, some twisted form of beginners luck. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s a curse I’ve been given…by a God whose sense of humour is borderline racist, apparently.
It never fails. My first day in France was so full of cheese and snobbery and nudity, I almost fondue’d myself (for lack of a better term). After only a few hours in Cuba, all I could think was “Well, you guys seem awfully desperate for tips and full of cigars…”. And during my first day living in Ottawa, EVERYONE seemed to be talking politics–I even overheard the penniless men outside of the homeless shelter discussing the Harper agenda.
It’s not that these stereotypes aren’t real. They definitely exist outside of day 1. France has cheese. Cuba has cigars. Ottawa has politics. Never, though, is anything actually at the level it seems on the first day. Upon arrival anywhere, I am immediately thrust into what feels like a South Park episode. I go on to realize my first day was just a bad “So a guy walks into a bar…” joke.
Naturally, this can give me a nasty case of “get me out of here!”. After that cursed first day, I can’t help but think ‘Canadian stereotypes? I can handle those. Let’s do that instead.’ I can rock a poutine coma, an over-apologetic neighbor, or a morning spent shoveling the driveway (eh?). Let’s face it, Canadians: our stereotypes are pretty much adorable.
This brings me to my current situation: ‘Merica.
American stereotypes are not quite so playful. There are some pretty scary -isms lying around: American exceptionalism, racism, and lets-all-get-guns-ism to name a few. I’m not trying to attack the United States, which has been so very welcoming to me so far. I’m not trying to oversimplify or judge, either. But whenever I get talked at by Glen Beck, or I read an American history book which refuses to admit to losing any war ever, I pack away a few pre-concieved notions. And, yes, I have read my share of scary articles on health care, teen pregnancy, religion, literacy, obesity, bad nose jobs, and worse attitudes.
To be clear, when I crossed the border and moved to the US capital, I didn’t expect to come face-to-face with all the scary -isms. I didn’t desire or even consider that Fox News incarnate might be everywhere, least of all in Democratic DC. I assumed it was going to be like Canada, just a bit warmer and with more sugary cereal options.And it is, or so I have come to realize after a few days. But after my first day? Hah.
Hah. Hah. Hah.
Let’s review how my first 24 hours in the States went, shall we?
First, I went outside for a walk and was given reason to post THIS within the first five minutes:
Later that day, I saw a well-dressed white woman bully a black server at McDonalds, then inform her supervisor of the altercation in an attempt to get said server fired. Yeah, McDonalds–the only place I could find to eat when I got lost (well, that and a half-dozen Starbucks, I suppose).
I discussed Obama, gay marriage, and women’s rights with a young Baptist woman from Mississippi. She is definitely one of the loveliest people I have met so far (we ate dinner together today, actually). Southern hospitality is the real deal–she makes a mean cheese/bacon dip, and I have huge respect for her love of College Football and Jesus. But when I asked “Are all the stereotypes about [insert -ism here] true?” she responded with a resounding YES. Her personal views, no surprise, often flew in the face of things my little Canadian self took for granted. There was a pretty clear distaste for the words “Liberal” and “Socialist.” My American stereotypes lived on.
On day one, there was no eye contact. No opening doors. Stars and stripes EVERYWHERE. The people in suits were all White, while the people working minimum wage gigs were almost exclusively Black & Hispanic. The cheese on my burger tasted even LESS like cheese than Kraft Singles do (yes, it’s possible) and the Mountain Dew can was way too big.
Around 10 pm on the evening of day one (Sunday), I went down to the dining hall for a tea. By that point, I was positive that all of my American-ism stereotypes were true. I struck up a conversation with another girl in the kitchen (“Really, you got lost today too? Where? Oh, I’m so glad it’s not just me!”). I learned that she was an American Studies major from Philadelphia, and was immediately intrigued. She had a lot to share.
I had a lot to ask.
We talked about education. About national identity, racism, systems, state power, patriotism, language, religion…everything. One hour, two cups of tea and a number of revelations later, she turned the conversation to me: “So, do you think you could ever live here yourself?”
At that moment, after that day, I really did not know. “I don’t think so,” I responded, “Unless I had a serious job opportunity.”
I understand how silly it was to declare this on day one. Every….single….time I visit a new country, I learn and re-learn just how misleading first impressions can be (especially with the first day curse). America has proved no different.
Let’s look at today. Today, I received more random “Hello!” greetings, eye contact, unnecessary apologies, and good-natured jokes than would in the average Ottawa week (sorry, O-town. You know I’m still your biggest fan.). Today, I saw people of every kind of race working every kind of job (yes, it was still disproportionate, but I could swear it was a full divide on Sunday). And while steering clear of fast food, I remembered the infamous Rideau Street McDonalds in Ottawa (see also: full-out brawl when a customer called a server the N-word). I really don’t have the right to call out any MickeyDs conflict after that.
Tonight, I think I could live here (this is obviously a good thing, seeing as I currently do live here). I’m not saying that I would absolutely want to live here permanently. I like my poutine comas. But the thought itself is not so terrifying, really–not with DC, at least.
And so, I officially declare that my first day full of -isms was invalid: at least in this part of the country, at least for now. I can handle you, DC. Sorry about that first impression. You’re actually kinda cute.
Your daughter who swore she would never drink coffee.
In middle school, my father embarked on a quest to get me to drink coffee–or give it a fair try, at least. This quest didn’t last long. I recall it ending mostly in frustration on his part (see also: all good-intentioned interactions with a pre-teen daughter ever). I was thirteen, dammit! I knew what I liked! And if I didn’t like something…then I didn’t like it. And I would never like it. Ever. Not even if you covered it in hazelnut syrup and cream and sugar.
[Please note: Hazelnut syrup/cream/sugar have A LOT more bargaining power in my post-pubescent life.]
Alright, so I’m a big kid now. I’m not who I was in middle school. That’s…a big relief. You should be relieved, too. Consider: I recently discovered a letter pre-teen Shauna wrote, heavily detailing her affection for Lou Bega’s “Mambo Number 5.” Also in the letter, 13-year-old Shauna cited the following hobbies: Singing to herself, making stupid videos with her friends, talking about boys, and “letting it all hang out.”
Pfft. Please. I now sing catchy 90s tunes to myself while I do my taxes. My latest boy talk was about my unrequited man-crush on Anderson Cooper. As for stupid videos: post-production, bro. Because I’m an adult now, and that’s what adults do.
Alright, we’ve established that my tastes have changed at least a bit in the last decade. And we’ve established that 13-year-old Shauna was…well, thirteen years old. But there was one very profound thing she said in her letter–yes, the one with the Lou Bega, and the hobbies, and (this just in) the words “everything I do is just awesome.”
Here’s the profound part: Thirteen year old Shauna had a rough outline for her future. She knew what she liked, and she really knew what she didn’t like. But, in an unprecedented moment of maturity, she gave it a big ol’ subject to change disclaimer. Sure, 20-something Shauna was strongly encouraged to keep writing (actually, the term used was “make magic with words,” because it simply had to be as dramatic as possible). But…that was it. There were specific dreams and ideas, but they were beautifully tentative. There was a lot of encouragement, a half disturbing and half adorable, “You’re awesome! Because I’m awesome, and you’re me!” but no specific expectations.
Basically, I was sucking up to my future self. I didn’t know that was even a thing someone could do.
I didn’t know that was even a thing someone could do. It’s incredible how often those words apply. And therein lies the (very brief) wisdom of my 13-year-old dreams: the best (or, at least, most successful) long-term goals have been so, so vague. Not vague as in “uninterested,” but vague as in “unlimited.” They have had to be. The world is changing constantly and life throws so many curveballs. Somehow, even uncaffeinated 13-year-old Shauna realized that if you marry goals that are too specific, you end up closing more doors than you open.
So few of the amazing opportunities I’ve had were even on my radar a few years ago. Things that didn’t even register to me as possibilities for my life have gone on to define my life. When I went on an Ottawa walking tour as a teenager and my mother pointed at the guide, saying “You could totally do something like this,” it didn’t register as an actual possibility. No one would hire me for that. My French isn’t good enough, right? I’m clumsy and silly and auditions freak me out. They don’t hire people like me to do things like that. I would want it too much to actually get it.
I’m now entering my second year as a tour guide for that same Ottawa walking tour company. Amazing.
I am, however, taking a temporary leave from guiding for four months. I’m taking a temporary leave because the Smithsonian’s record company has taken me on as a Marketing intern. Try telling high school Shauna, buried in research on blues music and the Harlem Renaissance, that she would EVER be on the Smithsonian’s radar–never mind be working for Folkways. Just try it. She wouldn’t even know how to go about something like that. And yet–it’s happening. It’s happening right now.
I’m not saying this as an “I’M LIVING THE DREAM, BRAH. SUP WIT’CHU!?!” I couldn’t even say that if I wanted to, because 1) my pronunciation of “wit’chu” is awful, and 2) until we’re presented with “THE DREAM,” we often can’t even know what in the world it looks like. All I know is that I applied to everything. I tried out a bunch of cool-seeming things with varying levels of success. I dabbled in new technology. I avoided the word “No.” But how could I have ever known what kinds of things I would end up saying “Yes” to?
I had no idea. No idea I would ever like coffee. No idea that my affection for Mambo Number 5 would (somewhat) fade. And certainly, no idea that such jobs or internships even EXISTED for me to pursue.
My brother Michael, now in the 10th grade, has figured this one out. He told me this summer that when he grows up he wants to be “Happy.” Just happy. I had some reservations about this “happiness as a goal” thing at first, so I told him not to focus too hard on being “happy.” I worried that he might miss the real moments of joy in pursuit of some non-existent fulfillment ideal. He shook his head at me; “Your big words have no place here, lady.”
He might be onto something. I still think that happiness can sometimes be what happens while we’re busy trying to be happy, but…I do love the vagueness and optimism of Michael’s aspirations. Happy doing what? He doesn’t know yet. Something he loves. Growing up to be what? Whatever comes from being himself as successfully and actively as he can be.
I didn’t know that was even a thing someone could do. You really, really never know what could be out there. I certainly had no idea. But now I’m getting ready to face it, latte in hand.