I’ve been longing to share this experience for as long as I can remember but it was a French film that I watched recently that gave me that final push. The film tells a true story about a doctor from the former Zaire, who studied medicine in France in the 70’s and fought for an opportunity to practice medicine in a small French village, where doctors were scarce. Settlement means family and so he brought his family from Zaire to join him. The scene of the family on their first day of arrival, suitcases in their hands, in the middle of nowhere, surely unprepared for a typical rainy and cold day – just jolted so many memories from my past.
A 17 year old accustomed only to the blazing heat of Dar-es-Salaam and the breeze from the Indian Ocean, I landed into Dublin airport on the worst day ever! I was welcomed by a strong blizzard and temperatures below zero. Like a baby discovering a new object, for a few minutes I was engulfed in the shock of coming to terms with my numb fingers. In examining them, they had turned blue, ignoring all commands from my brain and even the simple matter of signing the immigration papers was amiss. From one shocking thing to the next, our host who came to fetch myself and my brother from the airport declared that the following day we were required to report to the «aliens office». I looked at my brother to see if he also had the same question mark as me “but aren’t aliens the guys from out of space with triangular shaped heads and big cat-eyes? We are only from Africa, not from out of space” but my brother seemed to be taking it better than me, or he faked it very well. I wanted to go back home instantly, where the sky is blue, the temperature is warm and people are smiley.
Culture shock is an understatement
After the initial arrival shock, I tried my best to get on with it. After all, I was the one who wanted to go abroad to get the best education. Fitting in was not so easy though. Weather aside, there is a huge culture difference from the two continents.
Myself and my brother stayed with two different Irish Catholic families. Sadly for me, I was separated from my brother, who again din’t seem to mind. My brother is a year older than me, and I always followed his lead to a tee. Here is a picture of my cute nephew and niece who remind me so much of our own era. Little Li would do everything that little J would attempt, including taking a stroll into the big Indian Ocean, why not? Everything is possible..
Freedom of expression
In school I noticed straight away that kids unreservedly voiced their opinions. I was in utter shock to say the least. Back home, the elders had the final say. You did not question them, full stop. If you failed to obey rules in school, punishment would follow, and I mean harsh physical punishment. I was taken aback by the fact that the girls in my class could chat away as if the teachers were not there and they would equally argue their point as a prosecutor in court. Besides school, the behaviour of answering back and expressing opinions prevailed all over. I must admit that back home we are raised differently in that respect. You may even call it a ‘submissive behaviour’ but the truth is that the young are not allowed to shout at their elders. To date, I remain the obedient African girl and I find it so difficult not to obey my elders.
I think I speak for many far east inhabitants in that “we cherish our spices”. Food was always a bit err, flat to my taste buds. Boiled potatoes and broccoli did not quite cut it for me although this was also the time when I begun to notice my waistline. I longed for my spicy curries which back in the 90’s were not such a norm in Dublin. I remember a time when a friend from Tanzania brought over some of our delicacies, including red chillies (as in Mexican hot chilli). My Irish mother assumed that it was just a minuscule version of the red/green peppers and so she stuffed one raw chilli in her mouth. It happened so quickly that I had no time to warn her. I think the whole street must have heard her cries! No amount of water consoled her. Sadly she would never live to taste anything from my land. Her doors were shut there and then.
This was also different. The pace of life seemed faster than back home. Of course we enjoyed the luxury of having huge shopping malls nearby, a thing we lacked back home at the time. We relished the treats we could have. You didn’t have to dream about chocolates, you only had to go down the shops and buy some. Mind you, it was also the first time that one had to learn to economise. A fast calculation told me that in Ireland, the same amount of money that would buy you one bottle of Fanta would also reward you with at least four bottles of it back home. I felt the need to transmit this viable information to my mother when I spoke to her on the phone and her response was, “oh Maria, you are finally growing up, yes life is tough”.
Crossing the line?
You couldn’t avoid the fact that you looked different. In the streets, people stared a lot as we were only a handful of black people then. An innocent little girl once asked my brother if he hadn’t taken a shower because his skin was not as pale as hers. It was nothing malicious but pure innocence from having to make friends with people from the other corner of the world. This is when my plan of escaping to the next cosmopolitan country crossed my mind. When my tutor called me into her office to talk about choosing Universities, I voiced it quite clearly that I wanted to go to UK.
It must have been from that moment that I felt the need not to be so different. Like in the film I watched, I tried to blend in, whatever that means. At University near Birmingham in UK, I met other foreigners, which is something that really soothed me. I noticed that I formed friendships quicker with people who were also foreigners. Luckily in science subjects there is no shortage of Greeks, who became my best buddies. I continued with my wish to fit in. If the English were going to pubs, I also had to go. If the black girls were wearing their hair straight, you guessed it. Sometimes a part in me felt that I was exhausted from trying to please people and fit in but I told myself that it was part of the deal when living abroad. In the summer, I worked in London where I also met people from different nationalities. We were all students looking to make some money. I was in great company with Italians, Czechs and so forth, it was a brilliant time. I had no inhibitions among them as they were also foreigners like me. After University, I was hired to work in a hospital where I also had the opportunity to mix with different cultures, notably from Pakistan, India and Poland. By then I was such an expert in integrating and careful about what to say or do around which group of people.
Identity crisis or not?
After my move to France, I found it confusing to express my origins. I always have to ask, do you mean where I lived before, my nationality or simply where I was born? The beautiful fact is that I was born in Tanzania, I am British and I live in France today. All factors aside, I will always be a Tanzanian girl and home to me is where my loving husband is.
In terms of my internal fight about acceptance, I really feel that I have settled that fight. I accept that people are different and will always be. I do not have to change anything (in my culture) in order to gain somebody’s acceptance. My German family love me for who I am. They are proud that I am the only black girl jogging around the woods in the whole village. Actually I’ll take that back, I found some competition last Christmas.
I am so happy today that I have experienced a lot from living abroad. I have met people from all walks of life, who perhaps I wouldn’t have met if I had stayed home with my family. I’m certain that the people I’ve met to date are the ones who have shaped me for who I am today, well including my loving parents. I don’t think less of a person because they eat noodles for breakfast or speak louder than the rest of the bunch. To me, these are pretty differences which make this life much more interesting.
Finally, have you clicked on the link of the said film above? Even if you do not speak French, the actions are self explanatory, I dare you to try. And my question to you is, have you lived abroad too? What did you find so difficult and vice versa?
About the cover picture: I simply adore this moment. I snapped this Masai man from a distance as I woke up to admire the sunrise. He works as a guard in Dar-es-Salaam, miles away from his home. We talked for ages about his family and how he misses them and the fact that he only stays away in order to provide for them. I felt a twinge of tears when he told me that he hadn’t even met his new born baby girl yet. It reminded me of my own sacrifices about living far from my family. He also taught me a few Masai words which I’ve disgracefully forgotten.