I sat on the floor in the middle of the mall, at one of those gathering places in the center with couches and tables. Mostly, it looked like people were just tiredly sitting and waiting, checking their watches, hoping for others in their group to finish up so they could finally go home. Until that moment, I’d never felt so at home in a mall. Surrounding me were my new friends – a man and woman from Zimbabwe who work for USAID, a white American man with E. Africa experience and an eco-friendly and anti-capitalism worldview, a young black American man who spent a semester in China and has powerful messages in the form of tattoos along his arms and shoulders, and a young S. Sudanese man living in the UK and taking the summer courses here in VA. We were all different, yet the same. None of us quite fit in. These are my people.
Though Eastern Mennonite University is quite diverse, once off the campus of EMU, it’s a smack in the face of white, middle and working class Americans. I guess I look like them…but, I don’t feel like them anymore. That’s pretty weird. I’ve gotten very used to being the ethnic minority, and enduring the inconvenience and frustration of being racially profiled. Now that I blend in again, I feel extremely out of place.
This morning I woke up and heard children playing. When I looked out the window, there were 3 kids out in their beautiful, thick lawn – one was swinging from a sturdy tree swing, another was gliding along the smooth driveway on her scooter, and the other was practicing his baseball swing with what looked like their dad. It was so American. It was so summer. It was so my childhood. It was so my children’s former life. But not anymore. We’ve changed. I felt a sense of loss – probably a loss of my identity.
I used to be the stroller pushing mom, ready for a shopping trip to Target. Today, though, the idea of Target scared me (having nothing at all to do with the restroom policy), so I hid away in the thrift store instead. Maybe I like thrift stores better because it’s such an eclectic mix of styles and colors, and everything there already has lived a life and has stories to tell. Maybe I feel a little bit at home amongst those already-been-out-in-the-world pieces of clothing, books and housewares.
A week after leaving Chad and I’m still jumping at the bangs and creaks I hear in the dorm walls. In a split second I can be convinced of gunshots or a low flying fighter jet, and then remember where I am. I haven’t seen any trucks full of camo-clad guys with automatic weapons, or even any single automatic weapon. I haven’t seen any polio-ridden children pulling themselves down the road by their hands. There haven’t been any beggars, and no police have picked me out of a crowd for being my color. I did see an ant on my sink, and I smiled at him happily…he made me feel at home, even though he didn’t bite me. I haven’t sweat once. My heart palpitations have stopped. I’m wearing yoga pants. I haven’t seen anyone pooping on the side of the road. There was one classmate wearing a Kaptani (the robe-like outfit that most Muslim men in Chad wear), and I knew I wanted to be his friend – and we were – he’s Nigerian, so we’re neighbors. There’s ridiculously amazing GRASS! At Starbucks, I’m not sure what to choose. I’m not sure that I’ve seen even a single piece of trash on the ground. I tried chatting with a black American woman in a store – she was having none of that with me. I miss my neighbors and my family. My feet are clean. My dorm room is cold. Things that come out of the fridge are actually cold. I heated up coffee in a microwave. I just put my clothes into a dryer.
I used to fit in here, but now I’m just a visitor. An American visiting America. That’s a really strange thing to be. I look American on the outside, but hardly feel it anymore on the inside. I should probably just go back to the thrift store…again…