Our worlds may be different, but we are all the same.
Two weeks after I graduated from Stanford, I hopped on a plane, solo, unsure what I would find, who all I would meet, and what would come of my time in Africa. However, before I left home, I promised myself that I would go with an open mind and heart. And while I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, I was ultimately prepared to spend the next three months learning and sharing.
Three months later, I’m back in San Francisco with a heart full of incredible memories, insight, and newfound perspective, ready to take on the City and enter the ‘Real World.’
But where do I even begin?
Little did I know that I would end up in Boma La Ng’ombe, a small, rural town in the Kilimanjaro region of Tanzania, where I would call home for two and a half months. Nor did I know that my life would be completely changed thereafter.
My eyes have opened to life in another world — a world that I have come to realize is not so distant from my own.
My eyes have opened to the realities of our human race — the inherent desires that many of us possess to find power, privilege, and love and the challenges that we all face in our daily lives to just find a way to make things work.
There are so many things in my life, in our lives, that are taken for granted each and every day. I admit, this is quite a cliché statement, but after living, breathing, and seeing how people interact and conduct their daily lives in Kenya and Tanzania, I truly, truly stand by it.
One of the greatest realizations that I made during my time in Kenya and Tanzania has led me to ask myself the following question:
How is it that we, as humans, exercise no control over how we are brought to this earth and into this life, yet find ourselves subject to certain privileges or limitations, which are engrained in the society in which we grow up and which we are often forced to abide by and live with?
Though I was extremely fortunate to have been raised by my Vietnamese parents, who not only struggled to build their lives in America but also unknowingly risked their lives escaping their worn-torn country so that their children could be born with privilege, I cannot help but feel frustrated that so many people in this world do not understand how privileged they are to be able to live their lives at their own will and to go to bed each night feeling safe and satiated.
There are so many basic rights that we take for granted that, unfortunately, not everyone in this world has access to, especially women and children.
There are so many luxuries — from wireless internet connection to running water and electricity — that I admit I realized I take for granted.
Whether it was having to race against sunlight after a long day to hand-wash all of my laundry or boiling water each morning and evening to bathe in an outdoor, community bath stall, I was constantly reminded of my privilege. However, it often bothered me that there was this misconception about life in America — everyone is wealthy and life is easy. While there is truth to this belief, I made it a point to comment on the reality.
Life is tough in different ways, no matter who or where you are.
As a foreigner, I immediately stand out and receive much more attention than I am comfortable with. Many are simply curious as to what I’m doing and why I’ve come to their country, their town, or their neighborhood, which is completely valid, while others want to befriend me, offer me special privileges, and believe that I have disposable money to spend on just about anything, merely because I’m a foreigner. What they don’t know is that all of this attention makes me feel incredibly uncomfortable, and I just want to be treated as everyone else.
As a female, there is not a day that I can walk along the road, minding my business without getting disturbed by men. Every day, strangers hiss, whisper and shout at me, look at me up and down, and tell me they love me and want to marry me.
As a Vietnamese-American, people point, stare, and call me not only mchina (Chinese) but also mweupe (white), something I am really not used to. Men even joke that they would be willing to pay 50 cows for my dowry because I’m white.
As I lived my life in Tanzania, I did my best to do what I could to blend in with the locals. This not only meant conversing in Swahili but also bargaining at local markets, dressing in kitenge (African fabric), and greeting all the elders that I pass by. Despite my attempt to immerse myself in the culture and community, I realized that I would never be recognized as an equivalent due to the color of my skin and the texture of my hair.
In America, I’m considered a “woman of color” or “yellow” because I’m Asian. But in Tanzania, girls want my skin because it’s white and my hair because it flows, and boys want to date me because I’m white and a foreigner.
What is this idolization for whiteness? Why must beauty mean white? Why must whites in Tanzanian society be worth more than their black counterparts?
To be honest, it hasn’t been easy being a girl in a man’s world.
In many communities, children lack rights to basic education and are subject to child labor, often left without a voice and self-confidence to attest for their rights. Girls are forced to marriage at incredibly young ages of 11, 12 or 13, sometimes to men three or four times their age. Stories of domestic violence are unfortunately too common.
In some communities, polygamy is still widely practiced, and girls are forced to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM) during their adolescence. After hearing firsthand testimonials from rape and abuse victims — young girls who have found courage to risk their lives in order to fight for their rights — I am left feeling not only inspired to continue educating and empowering young girls but also deeply saddened to know that her story is the reality of hundreds of thousands of girls who have yet to speak.
While these realities are tough to accept, I’m so inspired by the strength and courage that many possess to speak out and serve as advocates in their respective communities.
During the three months that I spent in Africa teaching, learning, and exploring, I found myself falling in love with the hearts of hundreds of disadvantaged youth, fellow colleagues, friends, and neighbors that I had the privilege of working with and encountering.
Just as in America, many of us have joined in on various movements to fight for social justice, whether that be #LeanIn or #BlackLivesMatter, in Kenya and Tanzania, my fellow brothers and sisters are actively doing the same.
Being back home has been difficult for so many reasons — leaving my African friends and family and readjusting to the world that I came from. I left pieces of my heart in Kenya and Tanzania and hope to be back soon.