I didn’t travel much over the winter holidays. I tried to visit a friend an hour away in Bouaké, with the intention of going all the way up north. But between the dusty weather and a general sense of not feeling well, I came to the conclusion that I needed a break.
While most of my friends and colleagues were packing their bags, getting their PCR tests, and posting stories on their Instagrams, I headed to Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire’s economic capital), booked a fancy hotel by the lagoon, and shut myself in my room. What did it matter if I spent my holiday alone?
Truth be told— I was exhausted, and not just physically. After living for almost four months in Yamoussoukro, I couldn’t deal with my frustrations anymore.
I was tired of people disrespecting my personal space. I was tired of always being on guard— always guessing if someone was being friendly with me just to get my money or to show me off to their friends, rather than really wanting to get to know who I was.
I was frustrated with co-workers showing up late to work without warning, not communicating to me when class had been cancelled, not giving me adequate time to prepare for lessons. I was frustrated with bureaucracy and hierarchies, of being talked about rather than being talked to directly. I was tired of feeling under-appreciated in a workplace where I didn’t feel like all of my passions, interests, talents, and experiences were taken into account.
I was tired of constantly being jeered at and called “ching chong” and “Chinese” every other day on the streets. I’ve yearned to explain to these West Africans that Asian features do not belong to one nationality, to tell them that it’s not okay to mislabel me or call me out for being different. Just like in Africa, Asia boasts an immense diversity of cultures, languages, and identities. And just like in Africa, not everybody on the Asian continent gets along with each other.
I’ve tried to get along with as many people as possible here. I’ve tried to withhold myself from passing judgment or from making broad generalizations about this community. But I can’t stop myself from putting my guard up when I feel that wherever I go, people will always give me discriminatory attention simply because of what I look like.
And I know I’m not the only foreigner who receives unwanted attention here. My seven female colleagues who are on the same exchange program often deal with much worse things than I do. I have never been hit on repeatedly by colleagues or treated with less respect than male counterparts in the workplace. I’ve never been catcalled on the streets, followed by male strangers back to my apartment, made to sit through an English class on domestic violence where the main message to girls is that they “should not refuse sex from their husbands” if they want to get out alive. I’ve never had to wear a ring on my finger just to show others that I’m “not available”.
When I’ve tried to bring up some of these issues with my local friends and acquaintances, I often get something between resigned fatalism or pseudo-optimism. “Just don’t think about it— you’ll get used to it,” they say, without any acknowledgement or empathy towards our experiences as expats. Or even worse: “It’s just part of the culture,” and so I just have to accept it. But just because something is “part of the culture” doesn’t mean that certain behaviors aren’t unwelcome or even hurtful.
I have tried to explain to people where I come from, and why some of their behaviors make me feel uncomfortable here. It doesn’t work. People don’t change. The best thing you can do is to shut up, ignore them, and simply accept that people won’t understand every part of who you are, even if you’ve been craving the feeling of being understood for your entire life.
And this makes me feel incredibly lonely.
On the Motivation of Travel
The week after Christmas, a friend invited me to go with her to mass at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Abidjan. One thing I always admired about Christianity was the idea of the eternal God becoming a finite human. Christ himself, the omniscient being, seeking to know the full human experience by living it.
While it’s been difficult for me to participate in church since I graduated college, going to mass reminded me of somebody I used to be. I used to give money and food to the homeless and unemployed who approached me on the street. I would often cry for them and pray for them. And here I am now, turning my blind eye to every single person on the road, in a country where I am much richer than most everyone here— simply because I was born and raised in a certain country, and received a certain grant award.
What ever happened to the Michael who lived boldly and shared generously of himself? Who loved getting to know the “local culture”? Who dreamed without restraint and chased after adventure?
After the service, we shared lunch at an Allocodrome and talked about our experiences living, traveling, and working abroad. After telling her about my solo travel gap year in 2017, she asked me what I learned from my fifteen months abroad.
I paused to think for a moment. The only experiences that came to mind involved getting mugged in South America and traveling without any money in Europe and Morocco. As much as I hate to say it, I told her, traveling has closed me off to others as much as it has opened my perspective. If it’s difficult to trust people in our native lands, how much more difficult could it be when living abroad?
“But,” she replied, “if you close your heart to everyone, it defeats the point of travel.”
I instantly recognized the veracity of her words. My decision not to travel this holiday wasn’t just burnout; it was also based in fear. I wanted to seek new experiences, but I had become too afraid of taking risks. I wanted to understand local culture, but I was afraid of losing myself in the process.
I thought back to the first moment when I opened my heart here in this country. A former professor of mine connected me to a local family he had befriended in Yamoussoukro. The first time I came into their home last October, they introduced me to their patriarch— an old man with a white beard. As he entered the room, I was expecting him to give me a grimace or comment— as if to recognize that I didn’t belong in this space.
But he didn’t. Instead, he told me: “It doesn’t matter whether you are white or black or where you come from. To us, you are family.”
Becoming (More) Human this Year in 2022
I’ve thought several times during this past year about whether or not it was the right decision to come back to West Africa. Unlike many of my colleagues, I don’t have any familial ties to this place. I can change careers and build a lifestyle in Europe or the US where I think I’ll feel more comfortable and even appreciated. The main reason I wanted to return to the region was to sort out my feelings from my summer in Guinea five years ago, but it just seems like everything has gotten muddier.
I knew that coming back to West Africa would be challenging. But even though I knew this intellectually, my heart hadn’t fully adjusted yet to the immense pressure of living in a completely different culture. I realized this in December because when I spoke about my experiences to my program’s cultural support team, I suddenly broke down and cried in front of the computer. My audience was very understanding and apologized on behalf of their fellow West Africans, but they reaffirmed the idea that the only thing I could do was to give myself time and learn to live with my new reality.
As I finish writing this post three months later, I feel a bit closer to accepting these everyday cultural differences. The more I live here, the more I realize that people probably think my own behaviors are bizarre. I spend hours alone in my room working from my computer, and people wonder if I’m sick or if I hate everybody in the neighborhood. I’ve learned that no matter what I do, people will continue to stare at me and laugh at me. They will continue to entertain their conceptions of who I am, and that’s fine. I know who I am at my core.
There are things I’ve experienced here that have given me more empathy for others. I think about how separated I feel from my own Western comforts, and reflect upon how much more separated people feel when they are forced to adapt to other languages and cultures after fleeing their home countries as a result of poverty and violence. And though not completely the same, being called out in the street for being a foreigner has helped me to empathize just a little more with my female colleagues who experience unwanted attention on a daily basis. I’ve become much more aware of the privileges I enjoy as a result of my gender, class, and nationality.
When New Year’s Eve came, I looked out from my hotel room window. I saw a family laughing and taking photos of the fireworks. They’re just people, I thought to myself, people who are humans like me. I looked down at them, and then looked up at the explosions in the sky. It seems like wherever I am, I’m always looking down at something, on someone. But what would it be like trying to come down to the ground? What would it be like to try looking up from their perspective instead? It’s not easy, but I’ve always had faith that the journey is worth it.
As much as I want to solve my culture shock through logic, the process of cultural adaptation is both an intellectual and emotional one. It’s not something I can just write, discuss, and resolve. It takes patience, perseverance, and a lot of self-love. We hear a lot about how having an open mind can help us adjust to a new culture, but unless we open our hearts as well, we cannot fully embody these new experiences.
So to a quiet 2021 and a beautiful 2022, I wish you all a Happy New Year— of traveling and living with an open mind and heart.