Five years gone by, it seems like yesterday. It was a hot July with the sun’s dancing beams reflecting fiercely off plane fuselages, that I landed at Washington DC’s Dulles Airport. I reminisce about that day. I also reminisce about the firsts, the onlys, the forevers and the lasts. It was my first time in Washington DC; it was the first time I was scared to leave my own apartment on Michigan Avenue right in the middle of Washington DC for fear of getting lost; it was the only time when I made up my mind to experience what it means to actually get lost; it was a gamble I never regret. Truly, I got lost!
I missed my stop and ended up in Baltimore. It is at Baltimore Union Square that I met an officer who gave me the right directions. This person, also told me he had served as a Marine, part of a Corps that served in Uganda! imagine my reaction to this revelation. My take back home is that there is always “The Quiet America.” You guessed right, I am fixated to Graham Greene novels. This fixation will be the subject of another blog. But, suffice it to say that an Irish-Ugandan educator (whom we grew up calling our white daddy, because he was initiated by my father into our clan) taught me how to read these kinds of books.
Where was I? Ah! Yes, I managed to get my way back to my apartment and as if a veil had lifted I immediately started figuring out streets, addresses and which means to take. I have since traveled to different American cities (Chicago, Minneapolis, Boston, Los Angeles, Berkeley, Oakland…) and I am comfortable in all of them. Last week I got a friend who was visiting from Los Angeles on a train and we traveled to three cities in the Bay Area in Northern California i.e., Dublin, Richmond and Pleasanton. As we were travelling we shared our experiences of what it meant to be New Americans from Africa. We touched on many things Africa has given to the world yet they are unsung. We decried the seeming tendency for African leaders to miss in the action. But, we also cautioned ourselves from taking the long view when we were actually comfortable in the arms of America and did not really know what was on the ground in Africa. It was this latter remark that made me reflect about my own life as events raced like a film running in fast-forward review.
Three long haired young girls were speaking animatedly with three other boys. All were in their late teens or late tweens. I caught parts of their conversations and heard “………Kamusta……….Salamat…………nognog.” This last one must have peeked my ears. When I next heard it, I immediately looked at the three boys for reaction. None showed any outward sign of reprehension or bitterness. In fact they also said it fluently in Tagalog ( a major language in the Philippines) too. I later knew that they were children of US Army officers stationed in the Philippines and were in the U.S. on vacation.
Behind our seat were four pairs of couples with luggage and perhaps so tired after a long flight. They were coming from the San Francisco Airport and I imagined they were looking forward to one, two, three days of sleep. May be. I caught parts of what they were saying: “…………I’m going to say this right off the bat………………….I will bite the bullet and be your first……………………..home stretch….…” This reminded me of the subtleties that textbooks on America don’t say about American people. Hollywood only paints a picture of villains vanquished by the good.
In Hollywood films about America, the homes are big, food is aplenty, workers come back home after a hard day’s work and watch TV. The streets are well swept, the grass islands are well manicured, shopping malls fill up with shoppers and the address signs are all in place. But…….the tossed salad version is different. The street level America calls for reaching out and negotiate how to share space with others. One has to have appropriate intercultural competences or learn them very fast. The expectations of one’s task role or relational role behaviors must be spot on. Text books nor Hollywood can teach these unless one gets to interface with Americans blunders, sorry's and thank you's to boot.