When I lived in South America, I learned that Bolivians and Argentines looooove the mall. The shopping centers that we take for granted in the States or perhaps even speak about disdainfully (“It’s just so bland. It has no culture!”) was seen in those countries as a triumphant display of their entry into “modernity.” My Bolivian friends were proud to show me their shopping center, replete with Subway, overpriced candy, and a movie theater showing the latest pictures (it was there were I saw Harry Potter 7m part 2, twice for that matter). Unsurprisingly perhaps, there are enormous shopping centers, and being able to afford shopping there is seen as a sign of status.
What was perhaps surprising was that this weekend, when I was down in Nairobi, I found myself equally in awe of the mall. Maybe it’s that I’ve spent four months in non-urban Kenya now, or that in the past month I’ve spent about two weeks in Northern Kenya, and then the rest of the time in Nanyuki, hardly the most cosmopolitan place in the world. In any case, I travelled down to Nairobi, and was set to meet up with a friend of mine there. I had maybe 15 minutes to kill before he arrived, so I just walked around the mall. This sounds silly, and something I would have found embarrassing two years ago, but I was just so impressed by it all. “Escalators? This is great.” “Wait, there’s frozen yogurt here?? No way!” “There’s Wi-Fi in the whole mall?!?!?! Time to use my as-of-yet-not-unlocked iPhone!” When my friend arrived, we had sub sandwiches and then went up to a restaurant/bar and had bloody marys. Sub sandwiches and bloody marys!
My experience with the mall, and my meta-observation of it led to something of a strange experience. It’s weird to think about how after 22 years of seeing malls as an ordinary thing, it took just four months for me to find them this crazy experience. I think it’s also a good representation of how I feel about a lot of American offerings. With few exceptions (most notably friends and family) I don’t spend much time thinking about the things I miss from America. However, in those instances when I’m exposed to them (movie theaters, shopping centers, fast internet) I’m again reminded of how pleasant those things are.