I am used to being a foreigner. It seems that almost everywhere I go, I somehow stand out in some way. Whether I’m in Tanzania, Madagascar, Costa Rica, or even the U.S., I feel like an outsider. People ask me where I’m from, where my parents are from, or sometimes a plain “What are you?” Inappropriate micro-aggressive questions aside, I think a lot about what it means to belong.
So, when I discovered that a few people mistook me for Tanzanian, I felt an immense curiosity. What about me could possibly lead people to mistake me for Tanzanian? I do not dress, do my hair, act, look, or speak like other Tanzanians at all. In fact, in that context I was hyper-aware of my Americanisms, which is funny because I used to feel the opposite, especially when I was growing up.
In 2009, when I returned from Madagascar and was plopped in 7th grade with all of my peers, I made myself a promise, that I would give myself three years to “catch up”. Upon reflection, I’m not sure what I meant by that, but it was the same amount of time that I was abroad, so it made sense to me. Despite not attending school for two years, I was able to keep up academically, but I found myself struggling to relate to my peers. Not only had I missed out on iPhones and other technology, but I did not understand any cultural references. So, I reasoned that if I watched the same popular movies, books, music, and TV shows that everyone else knew about, I would eventually be able to fit in. I made a long list of cultural artifacts that I had to experience; Twilight, YouTube, The Hunger Games, Pokemon, to name a few. However, no matter how much media I consumed, clothes I wore, and terminology I learned, I was never quite like my peers. I never did figure out what I was missing, which brings me back to my experience in Tanzania.
I spent a lot of time sitting in the back of the dala dala, squeezed against the window, just watching people. People going to market, talking to each other, living their daily lives; and I would wonder what it would take for me to “fit in”. In order to be culturally competent, what would I have to do? If I changed my clothes, hair, language, mannerisms, etc; could I ever truly fit in? I don’t know. I would like to say yes, but then I remember my own experiences in the U.S. and Madagascar, and I am not so sure.
However, I did learn one thing, that thinking of culture in those terms is limiting. There is not one way of “being” Tanzanian, “being” Malagasy, or “being” American. Culture is not so uniform and unchanging that one could ever hope to learn all of the cultural background and somehow belong. No; belonging is an action. Yes, there is a time and place for observing (for me it was in pharmacies), but sometimes the only way to learn these things is to interact. Go talk to people! Embarrass yourself! Don’t take yourself so seriously! Maybe you’ll learn something, or at least have some interesting stories!