Wednesday, July 13, 2011

On Vehicle Ownership and Normalcy

When it's not a source of frustration for me, I actually find it rather interesting that owning a car in this culture is sometihng of a rite of passage. You don't realize it when you drive one, but sometimes not being behind the wheel provides a new perspective. Owning a car can send the social message that you are a responsible, trustworthy, normal and good person. Admittedly, I am writing this while the sting of a recent experience in which my possession of some of the above attributes was scrutinized based on the fact that I do not own a working vehicle. But outside of inducing frustration, the encounter also made me feel the need to vent and reflect on my own own experience of not owning a working vehicle and the various internal and social dynamics that I have encountered.

So like I said, this is not as a rule but it's been my observation that a vehicle can come to symbolize that a person is responsible, trustworthy, normal and good. Now if you own a car and choose not to drive it, then you are a responsible, trustworthy normal and good person who is also enviromentally conscious or of superior fitness. I think it's interesting that most non-driving commuters in my part of the city also happen to be wearing some kind of tight work out clothes or running while pushing an intense gigantic stroller. So if you are non-student commuter on foot in regular clothes who does not appear to be an olympian behind an intense stroller, then are you? A hobo? And if you're a mom whose got a kid with you, then you might be on your your way to pick up the goverment cheque.

I'm not a student, I'm not an uptowner or downtowner. I live in the suburbs and in recent months we pulled our van off the road as primarily financial choice (and I would like to think a political choice) while things were tight. On the most part I have enjoyed busing, and taking Izaka's stroller on the bus.

I have never really owned a car until I got married and my husband happened to have one. I must have never really been meant to drive because less than a year into our marriage I accidentlally crushed it. We then got a deal on a van just before I got pregnant with my son, and had it for about 2 years, before moving from a small town to the city and pulling it off the road.

I also spend my childhood in a city where it was more rare to own a car than not to. In the 1990's in Nairobi most people took the bus or walked. I think things have changed now. So I guess it's been a bit of an adjustment not driving for the last several months (with some significant inconviniences) but I found that also on many levels it felt familiar and good, and certainly preferable in the winter.

Having said that I have also found myself to be more of anamalie than I enjoyed. During the process of prioritizing our expenses and recognizing that we could not afford to keep our van on the road, one encouraging fact was that we had access to affordable/comfortable public transportation, and also felt that we lived in a city where alternative ways of commuting were celebrated and encouraged; you know, to lessen the carbon footprint and all that. So we made the transition with some naïveté on my part and expectation of a best case scenerio of approving nods or at the very least no stigma or shame.

Quite frankly on the most part not using the van in our day to day lives has really been a non issue. There have been some inconviniences like doctor appointments outside of a bus route and not being able to leave town as frequently as we would have to see loved ones.

But for me the challenge on the most part has been feeling like a bit of an outsider, I guess culturally/socially speaking. I have been very surprised by this. Maybe I should have anticipated the tension should going into the transition, but I felt quite unprepared for the sometimes general experience of feeling like I had something to justify or the isolated incidences of being related to with a hint of condescension, or being given the "charity case" treatment.

I have mostly expereinced patience and kindness of friends and neighbours, but there have been times the, well, I guess painful times, when an acquintance has offered to "rescue" with an obvious intent of shaming or othering. The excessive requirement for explanations and "when are you guys going to put the van back on the road?" probing that can be pressuring and also shaming. Or the blunt challenging and expression of dissapproval that makes one feel judged. I don't write about this to sound like a martyr especially when people around the world are facing real problems like not having anything to eat. I write this as part of my own experience processing but also because I think it's important to have dialogue about some of the cultural resistance that may continue to over-emphasize the nececcity of a car.

There many things (material or otherwise) that some people have that I don't have and perhaps vice vera I would imagine. So why is this one item such a game changer. And I realize now that it is a cultural symbol of normative living.

Suddenly if I was having a bad day or struggle and began to talk about it the first suggestion provided was it was understandable considering we didn't have the van. It was an adjustment for friends and loved ones, and some are yet to adjust. I have found something out about myself in the past few months. I would sometimes rather be alone than be an anamolie in spaces that used to be comfortable for me becaue community and a sense of being understood is important to me.

There is a feeling of wanting to be able to start a story saying "today when I was on the bus with Izaka" without it being taken like I'm asking for help or making a political statmement, and if I need a ride, I want to be able to ask for one like I would a cup of sugar. The latter has been as much of an internal as well as social struggle for me. During the last several months I discovered how I too (although never having purchased one really) had internalized the cultural symbolism of owning a vehicle in my stage of life. And this made me undergo all kinds of inner tensions when having to socially present myself (family) as a regular single income suburban family that just can't affort the use of a car. When I was little and growing up in a neighbourhood in Nairobi, I remember that often if we had run out of somehting that we needed I would be sent to the neighbours house with an empty bown or cup to ask for some sugar or rice or three eggs. If the woman who opened the door did not have any she simply apologized for not having some and then I would try another door. Often little children with empty bowls or cups also knocked at our door. But there was something culturally understood and accepted about seasons of not having and of course you depend on your neighbours. Mama Akinyi, the school teacher, mother and respectable community member that lives two doors down is still a school teacher, mother, and respectable community member when she during the weeks when she is in need of eggs from her neighbour for the children's lunch and the weeks when her salary is enough to buy her own eggs and have some to spare. And not to be preachy, but I think it is just a fact that in western society you are many times what you are able to have.

I appreciate people in my community (many of whom are friends) who are able to afford vehicles yet choose to rely on alternative ways of commuting mostly perhaps due to there desire for creating a better environment. [I equally appreciate those who do so for physical fitness as I imagine it takes a lot of discipline, so I cheer for them, even the ones in intense athletic gear].

I just also feel that in order for the environmental/humanitarian dreams associated with a decreased reliance on cars to be realized, it is necessary to promote alternative means of commuting as something that can belong to the masses. The work of creating a better environment both depends on changing specific personal and family practices but also may mean for some working in public spheres to grow new environmental and community friendly structures.
These kind of calling I have experienced can place you outside the economic security of existing structures, and may result in not simply choosing to not to drive, but in fact being less and less able to live out and afford the cultural symbols that represent values of speed, comfort, convinience, and the accumulation of resources. These values are not inherently bad and I might ask to knock on your door when I need a little speed, comfort or convinience. But I think many agree that there is a need to promote another set of values that are neccessary for survival and have been left of Western cultural progress and the mass production of the automobile.

I guess that if we want to promote a decreased dependency on cars then we have to normalize walking and busing, and yeah I guess biking or skiing (personally I am not likely to do either). I find myself wanting to walk with some out of shape suburban moms. I used to see fat women walk all the time when I was a child. You didn't have to be an olympian to walk to the grocery store. It would nice to see more work men and women in work clothes and ties walking, or parents picking up there kids after school, in uncomfortable shoes, complaining about the cold or the heat. Can walking/busing not belong to the masses anymore?

How do you normalize a life without affording a vehicle? I don't really know completely. Maybe car sharing is one option. I hear and don't really know but that in some European societies these changes are taking place and car's are not such a central cultural symbol. Maybe more out of town buses so we can still visit loved ones out of town or go to the beach two things I miss a lot. I think it has to be normal to talk about not owning a vehicle and still feel like you are a responsible, respectable, trustworthy, normal and good person.

Yesterday I cut the tail end of Izaka's nap short because a flatbed truck showed up in front of our drive way and I couldn't have him miss it. Izaka has many books on trucks and tractors and is learning them by name. He is intrigued by machines, ironically :) I loved watching him watch the parked van that had become part of the landscape in front of our place get lifted and rolled onto the flatbed. My dad knows a guy who might give us a deal, he's an immigrant so it's all good. I get very pre-excited about maybe going to the beach. But trying not to get ahead of myself as I have been reminded the it might be well into the Fall if we get it back at all and it's not scrap. But I'm also not ready to or willing to let go of the lifestyle we have now. I guess if this immigrant mechanic pans out, I will get to enjoy being one of those people who could totally drive but will make the alternative choice to walk or bus, so I'm still normal :)

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