During our Thanksgiving retreat, the YAVs felt a sense of belonging with one another. The people around us didn’t question our presence. We weren’t given special attention. We didn’t feel like our environments were monitoring us. I had a strange but affirming sense of peace during the retreat, knowing I could be myself and not have to constantly check to see if I was being culturally appropriate. But then I re-entered my community.
What I experienced when I went back to Chaisa was unadulterated, unprecedented culture shock. I had bouts of depression, staying in my room for hours on end. I read a lot of books (and I mean a lot) as a form of escapism. I had mood swings that came out of nowhere. I was especially short-tempered toward the culture, the people around me, and struggles that have become a part of my daily routine here in Zambia. These daily struggles include being harassed on the street, being followed by children when walking, and constantly being identified as a minority, as “other.”
Being white in a community that is entirely comprised of Africans (both Zambian and other nationalities) means that you are the token minority. I experience what any minority experiences, which is the strange and uncomfortable position of being held up as the example for your entire race. I know minorities in American who will identify very strongly with these experiences. People touch my hair without my permission and are amazed at what it feels like. Children, especially, grab my hands and arms in order to feel my skin. I have received the following questions (or variations of them) multiple times:
- Give us the white perspective on (blank).
- Tell us how whites feel about (blank).
- All you whites are (blank).
- You’re white. Why don’t you (blank)?
These statements and questions are not malicious or incriminating in any way. But what they succeed in doing is consistently reminding me that I am different compared to everyone else around me. When you’re experiencing culture shock, you feel alone, isolated. And, when you’re a minority, a person calling you out on your otherness only amplifies this sense of isolation.
Of course, being a minority and having these stereotypical experiences are only shocking and affecting me so deeply because back home I am not considered a minority. I am not a person of color and, therefore, can blend in easily and effortlessly. In America, I belong. But part of the culture shock of being in Zambia is experiencing, for the first time in my life, what it feels like to be a member of a minority and being held to the stereotypes/expectations associated with that minority.
All of this isn’t to say that I’m not enjoying my time in Zambia or that I don’t love and appreciate the people around me. But culture shock makes you look at the country you’re living in and your community differently. Culture shock makes you realize how fluidly other people can move through a community. It makes you feel like you belong and yet don’t. You reside in-between the lines, not entirely a Zambian but not entirely a foreigner. The best coping mechanism I’ve found is to simply throw myself into my community even more actively than before. I need to feel like I belong more than ever. I’m determined to communicate to everyone around me that I want to be here. I do this with the hope that one day they will no longer see me as the minority I am. I will just be seen as me.