Monthly Archives: May 2014

The Ultimate Challenge – Explaining Myself To People

是,我是加纳 人可是我也是美国人。“I am Ghanaian, but I am also American.” ghana-us-flags

When I was in Taiwan, I found that this was the most complicated thing to explain to people. In the beginning, I would always say that I am American because I did not know how to say “Ghanaian.” Also, I didn’t think it was too pressing to learn how to say it. I figured, “I’ll just say I’m American, no big deal.”

Ha! That became a joke real quick.

I remember the very first time that I told a taxi cab driver that I was American. He asked me where I was from. The absolute look of confusion that he gave me in the rearview mirror was something! Heck, even more ‘something’ was the confused look that I gave him right back… In that moment, I had completely forgotten that there are perceptions of what it means to be American that are very different than what I was used to. On another occasion, I was with some of my American and Taiwanese friends. The taxi cab driver asked my Taiwanese friend if I was from Africa. By this time, I was long used to being perceived as African.

I remember asking Wei Shen, my Chinese language tutor, how to say that I am Ghanaian so that I could start explaining myself better to people. From the taxi driver to the unexpected conversations that I would have on the street on several of my “get lost in Taiwan” moments…the question would always come up about where I came from. When I told most people that I was American, I received many confused looks. Practically EVERYONE thought I was from Africa and that I had nothing to do with America. Period!

I remember, at the mango stand in Taiwan, (because that was practically my home – haha! 我爱芒果!”I love mango!” Ah…don’t get me started on that, this blog will never end)… a woman there who I got to know… For about a month, she very quiet but very kind towards me. I would say 早!你好!(“Good Morning! How are you!”) She would nod or reply back with a “hello!” After about a month of seeing me at the mango stand every single evening to stock up on several packages of sliced mango, she finally asked me if there is no mango where I am from. I remember that made me laugh because I was soon becoming known as the mango addict among my classmates at the university. I said to her “我是美國人. 美國的芒果太貴了! 還台灣的芒果比美國的芒果很好吃! 台灣的芒果比中國的芒果很便宜。在美國我不喜歡吃芒果可是在台灣我常常愛吃芒果.” (“I’m from America. Mango in America is extremely expensive! Taiwan’s mango compared to American mango is extremely delicious. Mango in Taiwan compared to mango in America is very cheap! In America, I do not like to eat mango but in Taiwan, I love to eat it often.”)

As you can see…there is a lot to ‘remember’…and these situations are really just a few of the many instances that I found myself in. There is a perception that Americans are only white and not everyone is truly aware of how much of a melting pot America really is. I found that the best conversations with locals came from that question of where I am from and what I am in Taiwan to do. Many of the people were really just extremely curious and were interested in hearing about America and the types of people there.

I got better at explaining. In the beginning, I struggled… not because I didn’t know what to say it, but because I struggled with HOW to say it and learning to listen to people speak at a certain speed. Just because I understand how something works doesn’t mean I can articulate that to someone else…and in a different language at that!

“我妈妈,爸爸都是 加纳人。我弟弟,妹妹,和我都是美国人。。。可是因为我的妈妈爸爸都是 加纳人,他们听说我们也是加纳 和美国人.” (My mother and father are both from Ghana. My little brother, sister, and myself are both American…but because my parents are both Ghanaian, they told us we are also Ghanaian and American.”

I found that that explanation worked the best. The “ohhhhh!!!” look crossed some faces. I was so proud of myself, haha! Anything is better than the look of confusion.

Anyway, it’s going to be fun to be in this position again. A good amount of people spoke English in Taiwan but China will be significantly different. I will have to be 100% reliant on speaking the language so it should be an experience to remember, that’s for sure.

There are other people who face my same situation… Indian American, Korean American etc etc. The good thing about going to study Chinese language is that I can get better and better at throwing out more details about the complexities of identifying as both Ghanaian and American. Whew! Can’t wait to figure out how to say “first- generation American.”

It’s a great situation to be in. Although I am there to develop long-term linguistic and cultural competencies, people are also going to learn from me JUST by talking to me. When I really think about that fact, it’s fascinating!

At the end of the day, I feel that I should always keep in mind … I will likely never become perfect at explaining myself to people. It’s always going to be complex and challenging to try and bridge that gap between two different cultures to understand one another. The reality that I find, though, is that even though many people are different, we connect because we have similarities. This perspective helps me to think about the challenge of explaining myself to people in a more open way rather than to focus on how different I would be to other people and likewise.

加油-ing Through It: Nervousness Turned Into A New Perspective

Ah! Goodness…I am leaving next week! Next Wednesday! Goodness! A part of me can’t believe it and another part wonders if I am going to end up crying on my mother’s shoulder in the airport.

For the past week, I have been extremely nervous — EXTREMELY nervous…about this new adventure that I am about to begin.Forced-Perspective-Photography-4

I would say that most would think of me as a person who is very focused and who understands the importance of being able to overcome challenges in order to maximize one’s potential. I remember when I was planning to go abroad and thinking, “I am READY!”  and “I got this!” Of course, at the time, I was drowning under 19 credits of college work and wishing I was anywhere but on campus.

It didn’t factor in at ALL that I would be nervous. Shirley? Nervous? Please! Shirley overcomes nervousness in three seconds! Yet…this time, it was beginning to sink in that I was actually nervous and that just…”加油”ing… through it wasn’t going to cut it this time.

I wouldn’t be seeing my mother and brother for thirteen entire months. I’d be in a place where there are barely any people who look like me. The whole hyperawareness that I would have to learn to deal with again…to a MUCH higher degree this time? That was definitely a shock in Taiwan last summer.  Thankfully, I was informed about this before I went. Even so, nothing prepares you for the actual feel of it! And, AND, AND… I was SO nervous about my goal to attain fluency in Chinese! I though things like, “What if I can’t learn it???” and “What if I make NO progress!?” “What if ” this, that, and everything else!

I understand that it is an invaluable skill to be able to prove that you can live in different environments for an extended period of time. It is even better, as my professor told me, to show that you can live in areas that reflect the regional diversity of China. I know that the ability to do so will serve me extremely well in the future.  I KNOW that I have to be fluent in Chinese. I KNOW this whole thing is essential to my future. I KNOW I have to stick it out and I DO NOT see myself AT ALL running back home PERIOD…but none of that means this is going to be easy.

I realized that I was actually going to have to sort through I am feeling about this. It was extremely helpful to speak to people who understand my nervousness. I received an excellent perspective…everything should be thought of in terms of curiosity. That is true!  People are going to want to take photos with me because they will be excited to see a foreigner. Being black in China is going to be even more significant a sight than seeing any other foreigner. For me, I will have millions of opportunities to practice Chinese because of that fact. See! There are a lot of plus sides to this! 🙂

angelou_freeI lost focus, I became so consumed by my nervousness that I forgot… it is going to serve me well that I am such an outgoing and humorous person. Laughter is going to get me through a lot.  I am prepared to face the coming challenges! As I always say…”I got this!” These feelings of nervousness taught me that I need to sort through them when the feeling comes…not everything is about charging through. I think it was good that I was honest with myself. I am sure that I am going to have culture shock and it will be a process transitioning to the culture. Even so, I seek to make China my home! Maya Angelou’s quote is appropriate here… in my nervousness, I focused too much on whether or not I would “belong” in China, but I belong there just as I would belong anyplace that I set my sights on. It’s going to be great to get to know people, travel, and see how I grow from such an experience.

A quote comes to mind from Ruchir Sharma’s “Breakout Nations,” a book that I read in my Developing Countries class in college: “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” I am sure that firsthand experience will teach me a lot about the reality of China, making my initial concerns amusing. 🙂

This is MY time! It will be amazing to see how far I can take this! 😀

加油!!!

 

A LOT Has Happened…

Well!!! The semester is over and I could not be more excited for the future…

I have decided to focus on moving toward fluency in Chinese as this move better serves my short and long-term goals. Developing proficiency and establishing an ability to live in an immersive environment that is not my own is essential to my personal, academic, and career goals. As things stand, I will be in China for a full year and a three months before I will apply to other programs that will add another year onto my intensive Chinese language study. Living in Suzhou and Harbin, China are going to be great experiences.

I think…above it all…I am most excited about self discovery through other cultures. It’s going to be a great ride! I am excited to see how I will develop from this experience.