While on assignment in Somalia a few years back, I found myself sitting in the waiting room of the Mogadishu mayor’s office alongside a dozen Somali men—some in white robes, some in baggy suits. One of them—an old man with a cane who was clearly blind—started talking in Somali to my translator. The man had heard me speaking and wanted to know what the “beautiful woman” was doing there.
I laughed and said he couldn’t know if I was beautiful or not. The old man said he didn’t need to see a person to know that. He said he fell in love with his wife through her voice. He said he wrote a love song for her, then began singing the song out to the entire room.
Then the man announced that he never knows when he meets a woman if she is tiny or if she is gigantic, but all that matters is what happens in the bedroom anyway. My translator told me this, and I started to tense up, ready to be offended. Then the old man just smiled and said: “A man is conquered for life in the bedroom.”
I laughed, and we all laughed. I laughed together with a dozen Somali men in white robes and baggy suits in a country where men and women avoid eye contact. Then the old man started singing the song again.
There was no news in that tiny moment of human connection across cultures, and yet it was so important. It reminded me that I do this job to find that connection, that moment when culture falls away and two humans recognize each other. It also reminded me of a universal truth: old blind men can get away with quite a lot.
After 10 years of working as a foreign correspondent in Africa and Central Asia, I chose this year—the year that became the year of Trump—to come back to America. It has been a strange ride, reacquainting myself with my homeland at a time when American politics and American media are going through their own identity crisis.
And I’ve been having trouble figuring out where I belong. I’ve spent so much of my career forging connections with people from far-off cultures—sharing a joke, or a bureaucratic frustration, or a moment of terrible tragedy—and trying to translate that feeling to American readers who weren’t there, who can’t even imagine being there.
Now I find myself trying to explain what’s going on in America to foreign friends. And as a native Kentuckian, I find myself trying to explain “middle America” to people in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I’ve been on a fellowship. Neither of these roles feels as comfortable as the one of foreign correspondent. There are more landmines. Ideas of race and identity in the U.S. have changed in the time I’ve been away.
Sure, I came back to the States a couple times a year for holidays or weddings, and I read the news. But lived experience is different. I see it in the charged way people talk, or don’t talk, about race—the scars of Ferguson, the arguments over which lives matter. I see it in the casual way people mention the opioid epidemic and the intensity of debate about safe spaces. I see it in the polarized way people talk about my profession.
I’ve allowed myself to be a distant observer of the United States for years, protected from the impact of policy or social strife because I was off somewhere exotic doing something “important.” Now I have to learn to be a participant.
And I’m not sure exactly what that is going to look like. But I know it still has to involve translation.
It’s easier, of course, to translate a distant culture than a close one. Here, I have to contend with my own prejudices in a way I didn’t have to when I was abroad. In my own country, I’m more likely to jump to conclusions about people, because I feel like I know this place. But even among those I know best translation gets difficult: Americans are both my Clinton-voting, anti-death-penalty mother and my Trump-voting, pro-tax-cut uncle.
How am I going to explain them to each other when they stopped talking politics with each other years ago?
So far, the one thing I’ve found I can do is explain my role, as the media, to them both. I find myself explaining to both of them that most reporters don’t have agendas, that we’re just trying to get things right. Most journalists I know have a healthy disdain for politics—that’s why we’re journalists instead of politicians.
I’ve realized in these conversations that we, as journalists, haven’t really gotten our culture across to our audience. I, like many others, went into journalism partly because I prefer being the narrator. I like traveling between other people’s bubbles, being the person who helps the silo-ed see outside of their daily lives. I’m not as comfortable talking about my own values.
But it’s important for people to know the values of journalism and the culture we embrace. It’s important for them to know how seriously we take errors, how many times we go back to people to make sure we’re getting the most truthful truth out there. It’s important to explain that objectivity can still be a worthwhile value, even if we don’t always achieve it.
For me this involves trying to find a way to get more personal without getting less objective. I find that I share more of myself in interviews than I did when I was a younger journalist. I guess I’m trying to remind the person I’m talking to that we’re just two people trying to figure out some aspect of the world. I find myself wanting to write more essays like this one—where my own history is part of what I bring to the story.
There’s a real risk there of getting lost in ego or my own perspective. But maybe those silos have gotten so isolated that the only way to break through is to get a bit more personal. To share a joke, or a bureaucratic frustration, or a tragedy. Anything to try to remind us that we’re all sitting here together.