26 October 2015

there's no place like home.

Often times, when I reveal that I am an American, Tanzanians will immediately sing praises of the United States and ask how I can help them get there. 

“Will you take me with you next time you go home?”

“How much would it cost to get to the United States?”

“If only I could get a sponsor to educate me in America…”

"Here, at least take my child with you."

The desire to get to the United States is endless, especially among young people. But for those Tanzanians and East Africans I’ve met who have been to Europe or the United States, they always move back here. Why?

I have to admit, I used to believe that everyone wanted to get to the United States. Perhaps due to media coverage of immigration, I wrongly assumed that, given the opportunity, most non-Americans would jump at the chance to get a resident permit. For the majority of young Tanzanians, this is the case. As I’ve written about before, they are bombarded with images and sounds of a bright, shiny world, a world filled with celebrities, money, and consumerism. And they want to be a part of it.

That’s why I’ve been surprised (and humbled) at the fact that nearly every East African I have met who has lived in or visited the States has no desire to settle there permanently. I mean, we’re not all living like Beyonce, but as a whole, we’re doing a heck of a lot better than Tanzania. So what gives?

It boils down to culture.

For one thing, we North Americans (and probably Europeans too) seem pretty cold to East Africans.

Cold? you’re thinking to yourself. I’m not cold! I’m very friendly!

Well, before coming here, I would have said the same thing. But compared to Tanzanians, I’m starting to think they’re right.

"Why don’t people greet one another on the sidewalk?" East Africans ask me. "If I see someone on the street and I know him, I’ll yell out to him because I’m so happy to see him! And he’ll yell back, because he’s really happy to see me too! But if you do this in the States, people look at you strangely, like you’re doing something wrong."

This is true, right? You rarely greet people you don’t know and even when you do, it should be quiet and polite, so as not to disturb people around you. And you know there have been times when you saw someone you know, but for whatever reason pretended like you didn't see them. Come on, admit it.

"It’s too quiet," East Africans tell me. "Everywhere I went, people weren’t talking to one another… On the street, on public transportation, in coffee shops. It was all too quiet!"

And yes, compared to Tanzanians, we are pretty quiet. Tanzanians love to talk. In a talking war, Tanzanians would win, hands down. Greeting one another can sometimes be a game here, seeing how many things you can ask about before the other person gives up.

How are you?
How is everything at your house?
How's work?
How is the family?
You sure you're okay?

Seriously, this is how conversations go here.

"And people don't like to be near one another," Tanzanians complain to me about Westerners. "You can walk into a restaurant and everyone is sitting alone!"

This one always makes me giggle because our cultures are just so different. As a whole, Americans are a pretty private people. We like our alone time. In public spaces, we like to observe one another rather than interact.

Here, it's the exact opposite. Tanzanians feel sad for people who are alone and feel it's their obligation to be with them, in order to cheer them up. In church, for example, if you sit in a pew by yourself, you can almost be guaranteed that someone will come sit right next to you instead of, say, the empty pew behind you. Tanzanians take comfort in being physically close to one another.

Even when love is involved, culture still seems to reign supreme. I've met many Tanzanians who had romantic relationships with Americans or Westerners and in the beginning, they were open to moving overseas to be with their partner or spouse. But it rarely works. The Tanzanian in the relationship often feels unable to adapt to the States or completely fit in. They'd rather be back here. And so, either the couple breaks up or the Westerner resolves themselves to living over here.

It's been extremely humbling to learn all of this, that the "Land of Dreams" doesn't in fact turn out to be a dream for everyone who emigrates there. But it's been comforting too. Michael and I have expressed, through this blog, how difficult adapting to another culture can be, especially one as foreign as Tanzania to an American. Yet it's a two-way street. When I meet these Tanzanians who've been to the other side and come back, we can only smile at each other. We share that secret together - there's no place like home.


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