As Peace Corps volunteers we all spent some time in places we once called “3rd” or “2nd world” soon renamed “developing nations”.   I was sent to a place that “developed” so quickly the Peace Corps left after only 7 years, with congratulations from their President on a mission accomplished.  It changed and it changed fast, and I got to see that happening.  I remember getting a little thrill each time a new item would appear on the grocery store shelves:  Broccoli and peppers in winter, oh my!  Low-fat yogurt, yes! I saw with my own eyes as the toilet paper options at the neighborhood market expanded from 2 to 10.     While I was thrilled for myself in the moment, because the toilet paper really had been sub-par, I did feel a creeping unease for the time, and the place.

I’d fallen in love with Prague in 1990, now I was back as a volunteer in ‘94, and already there was a cheapness about the city that had not existed when it was at its most poor, the capital of a struggling and newly emerging Republic .  It sounds harsh to call what happened there a capitalist infiltration, but when we think of “developing” a place, that’s usually what we’re thinking of–improve the infrastructure so you can increase the revenues and foreign investment, so it is a more friendly place for the world and its “best” products.  We saw the milk bars replaced with McDonalds.  Because of course, that’s what they wanted.  That’s what everyone wants.  Prague, which for almost a decade was my favorite place to go, is now a place it hurts to visit.

At the time I bought into it, every word : the cross-cultural training, the great need they had for us, the valuable exchange of ideas.  My PC service gave me so much confidence in my ability to adapt, I went back to Prague later again to teach, and it was my service that gave me the connections to be able to make that happen.  From there I moved to Thailand, thinking then I’d really understand what it meant to live in a “developing nation”.  Now I live in the rural American south, and I wonder, what then do we call what’s going on here?  What is the opposite of “developing”?  Declining?  So why exactly are we so gung-ho for the development of every other country, but perfectly content with the decline of our own?  In this question it’s easiest to see our priority is not about people, or even country, it really is all about revenue.

Culture shock didn’t happen during my PC years or my foreign exchange trips while a student, or the various other overseas moves, it happened living in rural Arkansas, my first dry county experience in America.  Because the worst culture shock happens when you least expect it, just a day’s drive south of your home city, where the folks are still Americans and the language is still English, and the customs are, well, for the most part, pretty similar.   But the culture shock was real.  For one thing, it was the first time in my life that guns, God, and gardens all fit perfectly into a typical conversation.

Compared to some rural areas we are not as far out here as it often feels:  only about 2.5 hours outside two huge cities with major international airports.

Of course we must put things in the proper perspective.  The countryside of the traditionally conceived “developing” world is not actually on par with ours.  We went through over 10,000 gallons of water this last month; shameful yes, but still, we are lucky to have that option.  It can certainly be called a great public service, along with electricity–they are no doubt cornerstones of our concept of “developed”.

But when we talk about lifestyle entitlements we are wont to compare ourselves with our fellow countrymen, not those living oceans away and speaking other tongues and worshiping different gods.  There is no doubt, in city/country comparisons, America is as stark a contrast as any other country I can imagine in the world.  Let me give some concrete examples:

  • Yesterday, and about once every 2 months, I lose Internet service for a day.  I wonder with such sketchy service how one might attempt to run a legitimate business.  Our AT&T cell phone service goes out daily, and I have lost it on several occasions for the entire weekend.  The connection speed of the only ISP available out here, HughesNet satellite, which most would consider hardly faster than dial-up, costs $70/month.   In total, we spend about $300/month to stay connected to the world, that’s without cable or satellite TV, and for communications services that are totally unreliable.  I am quite certain there are developing nations out there now who will have free nation-wide internet access long before we will have a decent speed for a reasonable price.
  • Getting home mail delivery service on a new address was the closest thing to a comedy skit that I’ve ever experienced in real life.  It took three months and weekly trips to the local post office to acquire a service that’s been taken for granted by everyone in this country since 1896.
  • What about food choices?  We have the worst of both worlds:  no bountiful fresh produce from nearby farmers’ markets, even though we are surrounded by farm and ranch country.  In fact, you have a better chance of garden fresh produce from the Food Bank, where my neighbor’s take their surplus crop.  The grocery stores, of which Wal-Mart rules, have produce one would consider lamentable at best, and they still consider soy and Asian products to be exotic.

So why do I complain? I must truly be the most unsatisfiable woman on the planet.   I want all the best products and services, and I want them here too.  But I want them without spoiling my view.  Or really without spoiling anything at all.   Because as it stands now, even when the price is low, the cost is far too high.

What can I do but continue to bitch, while simultaneously praying the capitalist infiltrations always happen elsewhere?