When living and working abroad, we occupy a space that is an intersect of the new culture of the West and our own.
Within this intersect, we create our own cultural space by acquiring knowledge of the new system while retaining our knowledge as outsiders of the system. It does not matter how many years you live in the West. You always have unique mannerisms from your motherland. Your accent, language, beliefs, dressing, and dreams are always influenced by where you come from.
We go to our churches, eat our ugali and sukuma, listen and dance to our African music and dream of our distant homeland in the language of our mother tongue. As we continue to idolise our homelands, we fantasise about one day going back home, of retiring in the peaceful, warm embrace of our mothers, siblings, and community.
Most “diasporians” work hard in order to save some money so that they can fulfil that dream of going back home someday. The dream gives us a purpose of living in the diaspora. As we continue to live in our midland space, we acquire the knowledge of the new culture through new friends, schools, workplaces and different social networks.
Some people would want to leave the middle space and try hard to lose their culture, food, accents and beliefs. But however hard they try they can never completely become like the white man. On the other hand, there are those who idolise who we are, our hair texture, our food, our mother tongue and our beautiful black complexion.
It is not easy to get assimilated into the new culture. A lot of the Western people you meet on trains, buses, neighbourhoods or at work keep to themselves. They leave you alone but might occasionally acknowledge you with a “hi” or a smile.
The buses and trains are timed and some of the faces of the people who ride on your bus or train become familiar. Most bus drivers get to know you too and will greet you every time they see you. Most riders mind their own business and are either sleeping, staring into space or on their mobile phones. I like to just sit and watch people or think about coming back home. Some people are friendly and will try to talk to you and sometimes engage the driver with stories about their lives.
I am always amazed by the stories the Western people talk about in public. While my culture has trained me to keep home issues private, some people on the bus engage the driver with loud tales of their personal lives. If you are ready to listen, a stranger will tell the bus driver details of their marriage life, the number of times they are divorced, updates on their family, work and their future plans. This sharing of personal information with a stranger amazes me.
As I get on my bus after work one day, I notice that we have a new bus driver. I say 'hi' and scan to check which seat to take. Most people prefer the window seats so I sit on an aisle seat next to a lady. As I drift into my dream land, the bus intercom comes on and I hear the driver say, “Welcome aboard everyone. I am the Smooth Operator. Our last stop is Bothell and do enjoy the ride.”
I turn to the lady seated next to me and we both smile. We turn round and most people on the bus are smiling. This bus driver or the “Smooth Operator” is different. However, and unknowingly, this was the beginning of my friendship with the lady seated next to me on the bus and her family. Through them, I began to understand the culture of people outside of my own.
I visited Donna and her family for Thanksgiving Holiday. I arrived with a dish of ugali and sukuma. Donna and her family were all there when I arrived and were excited to meet me and try the African dish.
Donna and her husband do not have any children. Her husband was dressed up for the occasion and had on some beige lady’s high heeled shoes, a dress that my mother would love to wear to church, lipstick, and polished nails. Although it is considered rude to stare, I noticed that Donna’s husband had done a bad job of trying to hide his beard with make-up. This was no costume or a joke. This is how Donna’s husband likes to live and I was told he wears dresses to work and at home. While living in the diaspora, some things I have seen can never be unseen and the stories I have heard can never be unheard or forgotten.
Before we leave Donna’s house that day, all the visitors go the table or fridge and take whatever remains of the dishes or drinks that they had brought. I look at the remaining Ugali and just leave it with Donna and her family.