I remember walking into Mrs. Dahl’s first grade class with my hightop Velcro shoes, and looking around to find everyone else in class wearing Nike tie shoes. Oops, it appeared I had missed the memo somewhere. I had practiced all summer but I still couldn’t seem to figure out the art of shoe tying. I felt like such a dofus in my big Velcro shoes, but what could I do? I remember on the playground that day I was determined to learn how to tie a bow. My closest friends were all around me trying to teach me. It ended up being my friend’s little brother (who was in kindergarten) who got through, with a song involving two bunny ears. I suddenly had it! I could tie my own shoes! I got my own tie-shoes by the end of the month and fit right in with everyone else.
Growing up, people tell you to embrace your uniqueness. Which is something we all do as we age (I think) but humans, when it comes down to it, no matter age, really just want to belong. Integration is one of the key aspects of my job as a PCV, and it reminds me so much of that time in the first grade. Walking into someplace new and thinking, I just want to be like everyone else!
After a year in Tanzania, I can say, without a doubt, that I will never truly fit in here. No matter how much Kiswahili I know, how many friends I have, or how much of the culture I understand. Even if I married a Tanzanian and spent the rest of my life here, I would never fully belong.
The cultural differences are just too drastic. The longer I stay here the more I realize how much culture affects us. Culture impacts what we like, how we think, our decisions, our actions, even our emotions. It is huge. I am not a huge psych person, but this experience is pushing me very far towards nurture on the nature vs. nurture debate.
The realization that I would never fully belong here has been one of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with. I just want to fit in! After realizing that it would really never happen, I went through my five stages of grief:
- Denial: I am totally Tanzanian—I speak the talk, walk the walk. Today I even made ugali for myself for dinner and ate it all—without any sides! Bongo flava 4 life!
- Anger: Why didn’t my mom ever teach me the proper way to wash clothes by hand, carry water on my head, and make ugali!?! Why is there no stupid electricity in Tanzania!? Why does every Tanzanian greet me in a super high voice? Is that really necessary? I know I cannot speak Swahili, but you make it seem like I talk like Fran Drescher. Literally, if one more person calls me mzungu I’m going to burst into tears…then I may kick them where it counts.
- Bargaining: If I could speak perfect Swahili I will eat ugali everyday for the rest of my time in TZ, and listen to bongo flava at least once a day for the rest of my life. Please.
- Depression: This sucks. I wanna go home.
And, finally, the stage I have recently arrived at:
5. Acceptance: It’s ok if I never fully fit in here. When it comes down to it, I am American and I am proud to be. It will be ok if I stop playing bongo flava all the time in hopes it’ll grow on me. It’s not bad to ask for that spoon so I don’t have to eat with my hands. It’s cool to be different, to always sort of be an outsider looking in. Sometimes I feel like I am watching a TV show. This life seems so surreal. I will learn as much as I can in these two years, teach as much as I can, I am going to soak in as much Tanzanian culture as I possibly can—bask in its awesomeness. Then I am going to be mighty happy to return home. Walk in the park with my dog on a leash, blasting Girl Talk on my Ipod, without receiving a second look from a single person. Without being required to stop and chat—I will be home, I will be just like everyone else, and it will feel glorious.