Sunday, January 31, 2010

Lost in America

"Are you okay?" The usually tranquil eyes are chaotic.

"Are you okay?"

No Good Morning, nothing.

Her voice is earnest, startling. Her eyes urgent, fixed on mine. My eyes waver, and land on her glossy lips, they compliment her red sweater. Heavy women usually wear dark colors to the office. She never does. She flaunts her colorful busty body on a daily basis.

The entirety of her attention is focused on determining my state of mind.

"Is your family okay, honey? Are you okay?"

She's Mama Bear and I'm the cub.

Three thoughts float through my mind:

  1. Sometimes we have uncomfortable feelings and we project them onto others.
  2. I’ve been told many times, that I wear my heart on my sleeve, so I am used to occasional inquiry from coworkers whose misery finds company.
  3. My heart aches for the people of Haiti; have I internalized and projected my anguish to this extent, to elicit such compassion?

Mama Bear senses some confusion. "You are from Haiti, aren't you?"

Callous as it may seem, I am offended.

When she first joined the law firm, I corrected her assumption. She thought I was from Jamaica. She blamed my accent. I explained then that Kenya and Jamaica used to be British colonies hence immigrants from these two republics might have similar accents. I clarified then, that I was born and raised in Kenya and Tanzania, both countries located in East Africa.

Mama Bear is an American-educated African-American woman in her late fifties.

More thoughts float through my mind:
  1. She and I and others have engaged in small-talk in the office. On several occasions, my international, intercultural background has been the subject of discussion.
  2. Is a mass of black people who are suffering (as seen on TV) always in Africa? The impact of the images and enormity of the suffering of black people has historically been linked to countries like Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan - all in Africa.
  3. Has Mama Bear concluded that Haiti is a borough in Africa?

"No, I am from Kenya, a country in Africa."

I should excuse her misapprehension, and blame her aging memory, because Mama Bear means well. We proceed together to the break room; we each prepare a cup of coffee and talk about what we can do to help. I mention our coworker, a young man from Haiti.

"I had no clue he was Haitian," Mama Bear admits.

***
It is mid-morning. I am in the copy room.

“Hey, honey, are you okay? I was about to come see you, to check on you and your family!"

This! From my sometime lunch buddy, my sometime exercise buddy. One of a handful of coworkers I have invited to my home. She's attended a baby shower I hosted for a close friend (from Gambia, but I won't test her). She has seen all of the art plastered on the walls of my home. I've shared with her on numerous occasions about my childhood in Kenya. And during Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, I described as precisely as I could, his father’s home district in Kenya.

More shocked, floating thoughts:

  1. My savvy chica lived in New York City for several years.
  2. Where’s the residual education gleaned from the world renowned melting pot, the United Nations headquarters?
  3. Has my chica concluded that Haiti is in Africa?
***

I am at my desk, same day, the phone rings.

A pleasant surprise.  It’s a former coworker.

"Hey sweetie? How are you doing honey? Listen, I was watching TV this morning and I thought I would call and check on you and your family. Are you okay?"

Unforgivable:
  1. She has forgotten that I traveled home to Kenya during the year she started.
  2. She has forgotten the office grapevine and its spin on my 'long story' about missing my flight and needing an additional weeks' vacation.
  3. She has forgotten the gifts I brought back: a calendar with half-naked Masai men for her coffee table, and the colorful waist beads for her diva self.

***
Help me out. I am lost in America.

Mama Shujaa.

Copyright © Mama Shujaa 2010. All Rights Reserved.

14 comments:

  1. Mama remember you are freed from colonialism; she is still a slave. no I really mean that. africans born in america have never connected themselves to an identity other than their oppressor, so they can't connect to anyone elses. sad as it may sound. many will dispute it, but you can look around you and see it everyday. this woman is a prime example of it. Thank God for Roots, no I mean Real Family Roots. (wink*wink)

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  2. Oh boy. My Kipenzi and I were having a conversation about this kind of thing the other day. About generalization and categorization around race/ethnicity/nationality. I'm sorry that the folks you spend your day to day with have not taken the time to actually "hear" your story. They may have been listening when you've shared yourself with them, but they ovbiously didn't hear a word you said, AND are not able to see clearly either, lol.

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  3. Sometimes people hear only what it is they want to hear- I think it is disrespectful, for colleagues and friends, to behave in this manner. This mass lumping of countries and 'Africa' as one etc, makes one wonder if people do make an effort to get to know the individual, or draw shadows from a distance.

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  4. The comforting part of all of this is that you KNOW that you're from Kenya and that Haiti is as disconnected from Africa as the United States itself is.

    Its typical of Americans to categorise in the way that you've described, but as you said, she meant well. One can't help wondering about an educational system that churns out individuals who have such a narrow view of the world they live in..

    In Africa, we were taught the difference between the United States and Canada or the difference between China and Korea. We learned that the world population is a myriad of humanity, not just "us and them"..

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  5. RE: Thanks for your comment, but you are a little harsh, I think. I would not go that far. The truth of the matter is that we all face oppression of one form or the other. Humanity is constantly engaged in the repeated story of the powerful wielding against the powerless, the powerless against the powerless. What I intended here was to touch on our sensibilities and how we relate to one another; how we can enhance our interactions and truly understand one another. I refrain from placing judgment until I've walked in someone's shoes. At the end of the day, each one of my coworkers meant well.

    Ms.Bar B: Thanks for the comment. Your Kipenzi is lucky to have you as a mommy. And yes, it did disappoint me to realize that what I valued most about myself, (as an immigrant you tend to hoist that flag in your heart all the time), was barely recognized.

    Novuyo: Thanks for the comment. I like the way you put it..."draw shadows from a distance."

    Anengiyefa: Thanks for the comment. Every day, I give thanks for the valuable education I received in Africa. It's true yes, I am comforted by that fact, the knowledge of my heritage. But, I wonder what W.E.B. DuBois would break it down for me...?

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  6. As a child I can remember rising from bed hearing different sounds of music each and every Sunday. Classical, Salsa, and Kompa (music from my Haitian Roots) rang through my childhood on different days. My parents, both from Port-au-prince, Haiti, opened my mind to appreciate everyone for who they are. SADLY everyone in the world isn’t as lucky. People go through their days waiting for that magic hour, occasionally chatting with whoever is around, just to make time go faster. People see what they want, judging without even knowing how to correctly pronounce a person’s name. I choose my conversations wisely, and converse with people who really HEAR what I have to say, and who I can learn from in return. Teaching diversity should be a number one priority in all American households.

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  7. Choupie: Hello! Thanks for your comment. What a wonderful point you introduce here: the universal language of music and its ability to cross boundaries and bond peoples! I too remember hearing a variety of music (on Saturday mornings), growing up back home in newly independent Kenya; I hazard to suggest a xenocentrist Kenya. But, Yes! Even today in our household we work to expose our children to a variety of music, open up their ears, and their imagination.

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  8. I have no words with which to describe your post. It's witty, humorous (painfully so) and to the point. Whoopie Goldberg once said that there were two kinds of ignorant people: the involuntary kind and the voluntary one. I guess your co-workers fall in the latter category. Many thanks for such a brilliant post.

    As for the pizzas with condoms instead of cheese, sadly, it is fact. I met someone who was hospitalised after eating one.

    Greetings from London.

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  9. ACIL: Thanks for your comment and for sharing Whoopie Goldberg's impeccable wit.

    That is really sad, the pizzas made out of plastic sheaths: it is no wonder "some people went without eating for a couple of days, having glasses of sugared water instead."

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  10. Mama Shujaa I feel you. I've never been out of Kenya but I've a pretty good idea where you're coming from.

    Pizza with what?

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  11. Hi Shiko, thanks. You must read A Cuban In London's Sunday post (Jan 31, 2010) to learn about the pizza's (see my blogroll/regular "A Cuban" or click from comment).

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  12. I am sorry you experienced that, but not at all surprised. Unfortunately, Americans ("African-" or not) are, on the whole, underinformed about, and not too interested in, "the rest of the world" whether they're educated or not.

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  13. You know, I remember feeling very slighted when an African-American asked me where in Africa Haiti was located. I couldn't believe it. I thought, "Not from you. . . maybe a white person, but you?" It occurred to me then how isolated some Americans can be, regardless of race. This ignorance is both a privelege and a disability that shocks (und comes under the criticism) of many nationalties that come into contact with Americans.

    It's sad because Americans often don't understand why they are so resented abroad.

    Situations like these just make me shake my head because how do you stay angry when they simply don't know any better?

    LG,
    R-A

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  14. MtnGrl and Anon: Thanks for your comments. I always remind my young son that the Baseball "World" Series occurs on one continent, the U.S. not the 'world' lol.

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