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America 7: 1000 Words for Tracy

This is the last article in my ‘America’ series. I haven’t written in over a month. I was trying to find words to describe a very special person that I met in the US. Of course there are a million words, but I’ve selected only a thousand of them.

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Sometimes, we meet some great people in life. And then sometimes, we meet some exceptional people. And then some times – very few times – we meet angels.

She was standing behind a glass wall a few floors above me. I looked back, and up, as I went past the security check point. She was looking down at me, waving ever slowly. I waved back, turned away and tried to hold back my emotions. Many memories flashed through my mind…

It wasn’t just the recent one, where she effectively held up the whole airport hierarchy just to try to let them allow me a free bag on the plane. It wasn’t just the one where I stayed at her home after graduation and it felt like my home. It wasn’t just her presence at my graduation. It all went way, way back…

When I left Zimbabwe for the US, a wise man gave me a few words. He told me, “Don’t worry too much. You know, over there in the US, you will find another family like this one – a mother, a father, brothers, sisters, and cousins. You’ll find even a grandfather like me!” I tried to visualize what my grandfather said, but I couldn’t fathom what he meant. And when I began living his words, I was oblivious of the whole plot playing out right before my eyes…

The blond-haired, middle-aged lady stepped out of a station wagon and skipped up to me. I was on school break and had no place to go because all the dorms were closed. Some friends from church had told her about my situation and she had offered to help. She wasted no time in getting me into her car and we were on our way to her home. I was nervous. She talked mostly about Little Kitty, her cat.

Feeding Little Kitty turned out to be easy – even when the lady, Tracy, left with her husband, Dan, to go on vacation for ten days. I could not believe she would entrust me with her house just three days after meeting me for the first time. Of course I did not mind – I had a full fridge, Martinelli’s Sparkling Apple Cider and time to recover from Stanford. I lived like a king in this…..house.

I returned to school for my second quarter. Tracy and Dan left the state in the third. I was gutted. Their welcome had been incredible, and they’d told me their home was always open for me. Now that home would be more than a thousand miles away. I suddenly felt the vacuum. Withdrawal symptoms all over again. Nostalgia again. Stanford revulsion again…

But then, as I said, “…sometimes – very few times – we meet angels…”

Some months later, I was celebrating Christmas with Tracy and Dan in Texas. I was un-wrapping my own Christmas gifts too. In a few days, I was driving to Tennessee with Tracy, where I met her parents – great people they turned out to be. Tracy’s dad nearly convinced me to sign up for “The Price is Right.” And her mom loved goodwill stores as much as I did. Or, perhaps, they were trying by all means to make me feel… at home. Either way, I had a great time, and grew very fond of them.

I traveled to Texas, to Florida, and to Massachusetts thanks to Tracy, and Dan. I explored the US beyond Stanford through them. And I can try to recount everything else that I got… clothes, phone plans, a special watch, prescription eyeglasses, school stationery, Christmas gifts, debt clearances, plane tickets, useful gadgets, restaurant meals, car rides, travel bags, watching the Boston Red Sox – I can try to recall all, but that would reduce everything to mere things. That would miss some special moments…

When I was feeling down and lonely at school, sitting behind my desk in my dorm room and staring into space. Picking up the phone and calling Tracy, and feeling rejuvenated to the point of finding the strength to go on again…Or when I tried on my new suit in preparation for a job interview, with Tracy and Dan cheering me on like I could land any job in the world. Or when they both pranked me by pretending to take me to a dentist on our way to a special dinner…

Or when they came for my graduation. And, while I received a lot of pity because my parents could not attend, I felt a lot of joy because they came. They weren’t rich by any means, but they made every effort to fly down and watch me graduate. An emotional experience it was for me – getting my degree thousands of miles from home, and seeing Tracy and Dan again in California. Memories, nostalgia, tears…

We celebrated in California, then at home in Texas, then on vacation in Massachusetts… And then I was back home in Texas. I was home. Applying for jobs, learning to drive, watching sports every weekend, making friends, helping out in the yard, going to the grocery, enjoying home-cooked meals with family…

And then suddenly I was walking through security to catch my flight back to Zimbabwe. I refused to cry as I waved back at Tracy, standing there behind the glass wall. Deep in my heart I felt that this couldn’t be the last time I would see her. It couldn’t be. It just couldn’t be. It can’t be…

My mom couldn’t believe everything Tracy did. Every time that she tried to grasp it all, she failed. Every time she tried to talk about it, she ran out of words after a sentence. I guess it’s the kind of thing only a mother feels in her heart.

But one man did find the words. He had said it before.

“You told me the truth, Khulu! You won’t believe it! I found family in the US!”

And family found me. It skipped into my life through an angel called Tracy.

fried chicken

America 6: “I Would Like Some Fried Chicken.”

This is the 6th article in my America series. The series would probably be incomplete if I didn’t write about race. I should state that I am in no way an expert on race – I didn’t even study anything race-related at school. My only qualification is that I am a human being, albeit one with quite a bit of melanin on his skin.

In Zimbabwe, I had grown up with black people only. Racism was virtually non-existent to me. I only knew it from high school history classes, apartheid being the epitome. The only thing I noticed about white people when I did meet them, is that we gave them the utmost respect – revering them, really. They were the gold standard. When I set out for the US, that is what I expected – more of the inferiority complex. I didn’t expect any outright racism, to be honest. Of course, what I experienced was nothing like I anticipated.

Foremost, the inferiority complex wasn’t present. Everyone was at Stanford partly because they’d all excelled during their high school years. If they could do it, I thought, and I could do it too, then there was no difference between me and them – just the melanin content. Many people felt like that. They seemed oblivious of our respective races. We were all just students studying together. Just students. It was that environment that helped me effortlessly become color blind. It was all thanks to the Stanford Bubble, as we called this Utopian island of young adult students.

It was in the Bubble where I asked a friend from a Christian fellowship to teach me a bit of the ‘Southern’ accent. She was from Dallas, Texas – she had the Texas flag, cowboy boots and a big truck. She was very excited to get to teach me the accent, and she immediately picked the one sentence I would learn: “Ah-woold-lahk-som’-frah-I-d-chick’n.” At the time, I did not even pick up any hint of a stereotype. All I knew was that Diana* was teaching me a bit of the Southern accent. I was glad when she told me my accent was good, and I’d gladly oblige whenever she asked me to repeat the phrase to everyone else. “I would like some fried chicken,” I would say, with a wide smile. They’d erupt in laughter.

And it was all good in the Bubble.

But then the United States of America came in and re-framed things. Once I found out that black-people-love-fried-chicken was a common stereotype, I was taken aback. It was a fact that I love(d) fried chicken. But then here it was a stereotype. But what’s a stereotype anyway? Still, why did Diana choose that particular phrase for me to recite in a Southern accent? At this point, all the laughter I’d drawn by proclaiming my love for fried chicken took a whole new meaning. The Bubble had burst right into my eyes.

Little by little, I began to pick up on more of these racially non-neutral statements. While I was doing an internship in California, outside the Bubble, a mentor said this to me: “you should apply for that scholarship from the Corrosion Institute. Do put your picture – it will give you an edge. Put your picture – it will give you an edge,” he repeated for emphasis. He actually thought I didn’t get it, but I did. My melanin-rich face would do the trick. On another time, I walked into a fast food place with three of my (black) friends. A white gentleman greeted us, before asking, rather loudly, “What sports do you play at Stanford?” He had seen our Stanford T-shirts, but the melanin gave us away. It gave me away. It passed me off as a 5 foot 7, 135 pound football player on a sports scholarship at Stanford University.

For a neutral reader, some of the things I have taken exception to may seem childish. If we love fried chicken, so what? If many black students get great sports scholarships from universities, so what? The reality is that America adds a whole dimension to it. Everything has a meaning, albeit a different one for each person. That is why fried chicken stereotypes may be simple observation to some people; but those same stereotypes may have dark, racist connotations for some people. It is all in the context.

You may wonder if I was offended by these things…

I’d say I always brushed them off – until they actually did hit home. It wasn’t the melanin that did the trick. It was Africa that did. Once I began to routinely hear “…the starving kids of Africa,” the “…misogynistic African men,” “…the failed African states” and the “…African tribal wars,” I knew the stereotype bug had hit too close to home. I’d seen the starving kids, I’d seen misogynistic men, I came from a failed state and I’d seen tribal tension – but that wasn’t what Africa was/is. Suddenly, I was defensive. Of course I was because I was offended!

The biggest surprise of it all was that some of these things came from African Americans/Black Americans. And then I really knew that it wasn’t just the skin color – at least for me. Being from Africa trumped being black. That realization rocked my boat. Because, while I walked as a human being on earth, I also walked as a black man in America, and also as an African in the world…it was a struggle, a confusing experience.

What did/do I make of it all?

I don’t know, but when I flew back into “Africa, the motherland” – I lost it all somehow. Somewhere in the middle of failed states, of tribal tension, of misogyny, and of inhumane suffering, I enjoyed a piece of fried chicken in peace.

*pseudonym

Crab

America 5: “We’ve Got Your Favorite!”

The one thing I never got used to in the US was the food. Tasteless chicken, tasteless beef, all-fat pork, syrupy pan-cakes, cheese, sweet maize (corn), lobster, raw spinach, rubbery hot-dogs, tofu and broccoli were some of the things I had to deal with. While at Stanford, I developed my own ‘default’ menu. If ever I walked into the dining hall and found that lasagna was the main dish, I’d head straight to the burger/hot-dog food station. At least I ate those quickly and immediately erased their memory with soft drinks.

But it wasn’t just dining hall food. I bought a $20 full chicken at a farmer’s market once. I’d heard of ‘full chicken’ before, but had never seen what it actually was. When I tried to slice this one, a reddish fluid seeped out. I lost all appetite threw the chicken out. And then I went to an all-Asian church and tried their rice-and-seedlings-swimming-deep-in-watery-soup. I never went back to the church. Seaweed turned out to be a bad idea too. Raw fish didn’t make the cut either, even when seasoned with wasabi. It was mostly bad, but I did have the occasional good meal – Italian meatballs and spaghetti, Chinese dumplings, and Mongolian beef and rice, to mention a lot. Still, undercooked but charred beef with cheese in a burger roll was the staple. With coke.

“Always try new food,” they said. That was my attitude when I one day visited Esther’s* grandparents during a Christmas break. She was a good friend and had invited me over for dinner. There, I had the horror of witnessing a crab boil to death in a large open pot while I got taught how to use crab-forks – small, double-toothed forks for exploring every fleshy part of a crab. When the monster was finally served, I failed to hide my dislike for it. “Add some mayonnaise,” they urged. I did, but it didn’t change anything. So they offered me cabbage. You see, even in Zimbabwe, I absolutely hate cabbage. But I ate it all night trying to avoid the crab. They were very impressed by my affinity for cabbage, but let-down a bit because I hadn’t eaten the crab. “You won’t like it,” they never said.

I vowed never to eat crab again, and turned down all subsequent offers. Moreover, I stopped trying any new food, instead opting for the tried and tested default menu – burgers, hot-dogs and soda. I was getting thin though (because I wasn’t eating much of the default food either). (I was so thin that, when I asked this girl if I could join her on her routine jogs, she stared at me from toe to head contemplatively before declaring, “No, I think you’re already fine.”) And so I ate more and more burgers, and hot-dogs, and pizza, and boiled eggs, and rice. I began to thoroughly detest dining hall food, and meals became unpleasant experience for me. How I missed Zimbabwean food! And how I craved non-dining hall food!

So, when Esther invited me to her grandparents’ home for a meal again, I leapt at the opportunity. They were great people, and I was genuinely excited to see them again. But one of the reasons I was excited was because I would get to eat something other than dining hall food. They seemed to know that because, when I got there, they were very excited to announce what they had on the menu. “We’ve got your favorite!” grandma exclaimed with a wide smile.

No, she wasn’t carrying a live crab. She was carrying the biggest head of cabbage I had ever seen.

Bon Appetit!

*pseudonym

smirk-profile

America 4: “I Design iPod Covers at Apple”

This is the 4th article in my “America” series. This one has got a pretty serious theme. I hope you make it through it :-)

We were told everyone at Stanford had had straight A’s in high school. That everyone had been a prominent leader at their school. That everyone had won some science or writing competition. That everyone had achieved stellar scores in standardized university entrance tests. That everyone would become an entrepreneur, a political leader, the next Bill Gates or something of that sort. What happens when you throw so many highly decorated (or so it is claimed) high school students into one university?

The competition is frightening, fueled by an unrelenting superiority complex that inevitably creates a superiority pyramid among students. Science and engineering students are better than arts/humanities students; engineering students are better than science students; electrical engineering students are better than civil engineering students; computer science students are better than engineering students; computer science students who are also entrepreneurs are better than all the other students. This is not an invisible superiority pyramid – it’s reinforced in everyday conversation.

So it was that, when I sat down with a diasporan graduate, I was reminded of my place in the pyramid. He asked me why I had chosen civil engineering. Why on earth did you choose civil engineering!!? is what he meant. It was evening and he was a little tipsy, but I judged that he would still understand me. I explained that it had been a difficult choice between civil and mechanical engineering, and that I’d finally settled on civil engineering. That seemed to puzzle him more. “Really!? Why?” he probed. He meant: “Are you insane? Why would you do that?” I told him that I loved working on physically larger projects, stressing the word physically.

With the most self-satisfied smirk I have ever seen, he declared, “Well, I’m a mechanical engineer and I design iPod covers for Apple.” Our table erupted with laughter – they’d been people sitting with us. They thought Mr. iPod Covers had put me in my place. What could be bigger than designing iPod covers for the most valuable company on this earth? Designing foot-bridges over water canals? Ha! I tried to explain that I’d meant physically larger projects; as in, a bridge is much larger than an iPod cover. But the laughter drowned out my voice. Nobody wanted anything to perturbe the popular elite school narrative – that some people are better than others because of what they do.

I will not poke fun at the irony of it all. That here was a young, overworked guy inflating himself because he (was part of a team that) designed iPod covers at Apple. How big!

I knew a girl called Morielle. One day I asked her what she wanted to do after graduation. “I want to teach Physics in high school,” she responded, without so much as a pause. She did not say it in a “I-know-what-you-are-thinking-Go-on-and-say-it” way. She just said it plainly like that. She just had a passion for it and she had the conviction to do it. She wasn’t apologetic about it, as were many Stanford students that I’d heard saying, “…but you’re the cool guy – you do engineering/computer science/physics.” She wanted to be a high school Physics teacher because she had a passion for it. And no aspiring engineer or iPod cover designer would take that away from her.

I learned from her. When a Harvard student laughed at me for wanting to do civil engineering, I wasn’t fazed much. “You’re going to work for BCC,” he had quipped. You see, I knew fully well what he meant by BCC (Bulawayo City Council) because BCC is associated with the ‘garbage people.’ Expectedly, he didn’t give me a chance to respond, but I felt ever more determined to become a civil engineer. He had no clue about my passion, but I did. I do.

And he is not going to take that away from me. And neither is the conceited guy who designs iPod covers for Apple.

referee

America 3: A Sir Among Dudes

Hello. This is the 3rd article in my ‘America’ series. I apologize it’s not a funny one, but I hope you like it as much as the last.

“Yes, I am going to the office to enquire.”

“To what?”

“To enquire.”

“No, Lesley. Ask. You say I went to ask. What’s with your English?”

And that is how I got introduced to the less formal English. It took some learning because I came from a high school where you could say, in casual conversation, “…his statement is subtly reinforcing our misconstrued attitudes towards immigrants in this country.” You just couldn’t say, “…what he said makes immigrants look bad to us.”

But that is how I had to say it at Stanford. I didn’t like it at all at first, but I got used to it. However, I promised myself that, no matter how informal I got, I would never use the word, “dude.”
You can imagine my excitement when I stepped onto the intramural soccer field as a referee and everyone referred to me as ‘Sir.’ They said ‘dude’ to their teammates – including ladies – but they said ‘Sir’ to me. Never “dude.” And I loved it.

To this day, I don’t know where Americans learned to address a soccer referee with “Sir.” It didn’t matter what they were talking about. It could be: “Sir, how much time do we have left?” Or it could be: “But Sir, that’s our [expletive] ball! It’s [expletive] going this way, Sir. You’ve got to be [expletive] kidding me Sir.” Somebody could be cussing out like that, but they still felt obligated to say “Sir.” I still do not know why, but I still loved it.

One day, my title was put to the test. I was a referee in a co-ed match (with guys and girls – you know, dudes). This girl went hard into a tackle and fell. When she fell, she let out a very loud wail. She was about graduate-student age, but she wailed like a little child. I immediately stopped play, and rushed towards her.

The stage was set. All the Stanford feminists were watching me, to see if I would patronize her. Everyone else was watching to see whether I’d irk the feminists. I wanted to make sure she was okay, but at the same time taking care not to give her more attention than I would a male player. Still, I had to be gentlemanly about it. Oh being an intramural soccer referee at Stanford! (Or, is it being Lesley?)

“Are you okay?” I asked her, after she stopped crying. “Yeah I am,” she said impatiently, sounding surprisingly collected. She hadn’t gotten up yet and so I stood there waiting for her. At last, she did get up and, to my surprise, she did not show the slightest sign that she was/had been hurt. All that crying and it turned out to be nothing? That’s crazy. And funny! I thought.

“Sir, is she fine?” someone asked.

“Dude, she’s fine. I wonder what all that crying was about. Let’s play ball she’s cool,” is what I was thinking.

“Yes, she’s fine. Let’s resume playing,” is what I actually said.

I had to be a Sir about it.

aeroplane-HD

America 2: “Are You 21?”

This is the second article in my America series. It’s (hopefully) a funny one. Enjoy!

Having sung in Chewa at church, spoken Ndebele at home, studied French, learned in British English at school and in American English at university, I have realized how important culture is to understanding a language. For example, when I first learned about ‘vacations,’ all I thought about was ‘time away from work.’ Of course, in the American sense, it usually means more than just being away from work. It’s almost synonymous with “traveling while away from work.” Thus, I can say (in English), “I am going on vacation,” and mean two different things depending on whether I am in Zimbabwe or in the US.

I have said all this as an example – that the way you understand something depends on more than just its literal meaning; many factors, including your upbringing, culture, social attitudes and even your level of concentration do affect the way you understand it.

Okay, enough with the ramble.

So, was I 21? Well, let’s find out.

I’d already flown a few times before when I boarded a plane headed to Florida. I was in a three-seat row and I found two kids already seated. They must have been about 5 and 8. When they saw me take my seat right next to them, they looked unsettled and troubled. They looked like they wanted to say something, but they did not. I ignored it. These kids must be uncomfortable sitting next to a black guy, I thought. Perhaps this will be a lesson to them – that it’s ok to sit next to me. I felt good about myself as I began to peruse the safety booklet. (I only used it to check the kind of aircraft I was in).

A few minutes later, a lady approached my seat. She stopped right beside me and asked, “Are you 21?”

The brain works amazingly quickly. Between her question, and my answer, this is what I imagined: Oh, I get it now! Perhaps little kids are not allowed to fly alone. If they do, maybe they are supposed to sit next to someone who is at least 21 years old. That makes sense because the legal drinking age here is 21. Well, then, my answer is:

“No, not yet. But I am almost 21.”

Technically, that answer was still invalid. If the legal requirement, according to my made-up law, was that I had to be 21, then I still didn’t qualify. Nonetheless, I was hoping that she would be understanding and just let two months pass. I was two months away from my 21st birthday.

I cannot tell you what went through her head after I proudly gave her my answer. But her response wasn’t calculated, because it followed almost immediately.

“I mean your seat number,” she said.

I looked at my ticket, and it had embarassment written all over it. I quickly retreated to row 20.

I was 20 after all.

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