Those Subtle Differences
By Nancy Kasvosve, University of Chicago 11'
"So how long have you been in America?"
"About a year."
"Oh how do you like it?"
I don't know how many times I have been through this conversation. This is the part when I go quiet for a while and contemplate.
"I don't know, it's just different, I guess."
Different is how I would sum up all the experiences I have had since I came to America. Working in the Education Center, people would think I have already had years in America maybe because of the way I conducted myself. Upon finding out that I was only going to start my first year, I always had the ,"Oh, you are going to fit in so well." I had psyched myself for the experience or at least I thought I had, but those subtle differences still found me out and rearranged my little comfortable world, into something I was not too familiar with.
One morning I was late for class and almost walked into a red traffic light. As I stepped back onto the pavement, I was shocked as the car right in front of me started moving by itself, or so it seemed! It took me a while to register that the driver was sitting on the left side. But that was not before I was panic-stricken and rooted to the pavement for a good while. I laughed it off nervously as I hopped on the bus to campus. I will get used to it, I thought to myself.
The curiosity of my colleagues just never ended as I had another dumb-struck moment sitting at the dining table. I was asked if I liked the food I was eating.
"I guess so…" I mumbled nervously after an awkward silence. Fortunately people got interested in somebody else and left me to chew my own thoughts.
Nancy (far right) on a night out with friends in Chicago
I kept turning the question over in my head later on by myself. My family had never really starved but we still could eat only so much with the food crisis gnawing at everybody. I had not seen meat in a while before I landed in Chicago. Even before our meals never had as much variety as the ones I was having then. Different is as much as I would describe the experience, but I was gripped by a sudden anger that I could yet explain.
Sitting in my human rights class was a most enlightening and consuming experience as it turned out. One of the readings for the day had been an extract entitled "Zimbabwe, worst of the worst," from a book some knowledgeable American economist had written. I found myself ironically confronted with a theoretical and intellectual analysis of my experiences and that of my family and friends. It was like an intrusion into my space. No matter what, I felt the school of thought could never tread the grounds of experience. But a more important experience was at hand. For the first time in my life I had to face up to the reality of my life and the most frustrating part was trying to out myself from it on intellectual grounds to no avail. "U of Ced" is what my friends and I would call it. "Let's sit on the green grass of the quads and solve life's issues." Back at home if you asked me how I felt about politics, I could not care less. I had never voted and it did not matter to me (not that it would make any difference to the situation if I did). I did not even have a bank account for all that mattered. I had never thought of the facets of reality that dawned on me in that class and a familiar feeling of outrage came over me.
At first it was an outrage at my colleagues. How dare they sit there and think they can understand and solve issues about my life in a cosy little lecture room at the University of Chicago?! How dare they sit there and ask me questions of how it felt to live my life? How dare they sit there and ask me smugly if I liked food I had never seen in my life before, or had in a long time for that matter? How dare they ask me how I liked America so far, when I had…
Then the accusations halted. I buried my head in my hands as the waters of Lake Michigan lapped a few feet from me on my walk by the lake. I finished that sentence with great difficulty…
When I had never experienced anything like it before…
I finally understood my anger. It was an outrage at fate, feeling cheated by fate for never having had any of this before. A nostalgic feeling came over me as I remembered an autobiography I had read sometime in high school, "My life with AIDS." It was about a woman who had an intricate childhood being abused by her father and watching her mother being violated as such. She got married to a man who was no less patronizing than her father and she referred to her life as "bearing the bruises of her marriage with dignity like a good woman should." She ended up alone with a broken heart and HIV/AIDS eating up her soul still.
But she was lifted from these ashes of despair by a man she met at the height of her illness. Of him she writes that she had never experienced anything like this before. She never knew a life that was fulfilling as the one she lived then, and she had never felt loved so wholly. She felt the same anger that I felt. She expressed how she did not feel any remorse towards her late husband. It had been a norm to her when he beat her up. She had thought that it was right. That's what marriages are like. She had seen her own mother through it right? But now, she saw the difference. She had not had anything to compare with until then.
That woman revealed the truth to me in all its nakedness. I was angry at not being able to answer all these questions probed to me because I had nothing else to compare them with. I thought of myself and my family back at home. My father had struggled to put four of his kids in school on a pattern maker's salary, me being the last and getting schooled by everybody else. He clothed us and fed us in that way too. Zimbabwe started to get bad economically and he lost his job that had seemed promising at that time but he still hustled to keep things together. We had known struggle all our lives. That was the norm to us. I did not even have a passport before I became a Usap participant because I did not anticipate living any other life besides the one I had then. The world of difference between America and Zimbabwe widened before my eyes with these painstaking realizations.
Mine was a desperate anger. A frustration of having been in a situation that I could not help, and worse thinking that my family was still in it and hoping that I would be the one to redeem them at some point in time of life.
Before I left home my father would make me take down the map of America that we had been given at PDO (Pre-departure Orientation) and point out to him where exactly Chicago was as well as explain how Chicago was in Illinois but Illinois is not a country. I still go through the rigorous explanations of what I am studying (which I have no idea yet), how I have been on a plane about four times now but not gone outside America and at times describing what I have eaten in detail. I sometimes never get round to asking how everybody else is before we get cut off. When I do ask, I always get the same response, "It's tough but we are fine."
When I hang up the phone I sit back and think of my father boasting to his friends on a cold morning in the back of a old truck to work, of all his daughter is accomplishing in a far off land.
Subtle differences that hardly whisper their presence in the air, but still rear their ugly head to remind me of where I come from and sometimes how much catching up I need to do with my new world.