neema

Where Are You From?

Every conversation with foreigners abroad begins with the
same question—“so, where are you from?” Asked more out of routine than sincere
curiosity, having to answer this question hundreds of times in the past three
months has led me to realize more about myself than I think I was prepared to. It
is not until I began to spend more of my time outside of America that I came to
realize the true complexity of my relationship with it.

My identity as a Kenyan-American girl who identifies more as
Kenyan than she does American—partially out of a deep pride and love for her
motherland, but also partially from a sense of shunning from her adoptive
one—complicates the way I answer this. I was born in Kenya, most of my family
lives in Kenya, and Swahili is my mother tongue. I am Kenyan; but in many ways,
I am not. My English does not ring with a Kenyan melody; I say “wah-tur”
instead of “wah-tah” and I introduce myself as “Nee-ma” instead of “Neh-eh-ma”.
I don’t cross my 7s because I went to public school in Colorado, not a British
school in Nairobi. I am diasporic, and I am conflicted.

I introduce myself as Meiguoren (American) to the older
Chinese who ask where I am from as they eagerly pose to take a photo with my
hair-braided, nose-pierced, brown-skinned self—an aesthetic they see so rarely here
in Beijing. Telling them that I am American only confuses them, and they often
reject this answer, as they are convinced that only White people live in Meiguo
(which, I might add, translates to “beautiful country” in English). I feel
defensive about this rejection. I often want to distance myself from America,
and yet I also want to claim it. I do not consider myself very proud of
America, certainly not now, and yet I still enjoy seeing how excited locals get
when I tell them I am from America. To them, America is still a land full of
promise, freedom and opportunity. I enjoy being associated with this dream and
being received as an ambassador of it, even though I feel that the dream itself
is a façade.

I worry that my desire to claim being American comes not
from a sense of national pride, but rather out of a sense of superiority—a
twisted, internalized, American sense of superiority. The kind of superiority
that comes from a country telling the world that it is the best, and its people
slowly starting to truly believe that. I feel a tremendous amount of shame
admitting that I revel, however briefly, in this sense of superiority, and an
added level of shame knowing that I, an immigrant who managed to make it to
Yale, am an embodiment of this “dream”—a dream which for many is inaccessible
in practice. I am yet to truly explore the true depth of these contradictions,
but rest assured that I will write about it when I feel more ready to.

I suppose what this all has made me question most is how to
reconcile with this part of myself, my American-ness, that I am so grateful for
and yet so frustrated by. Before I start to share about what it has been like
travelling alone as a woman of color, I first want to admit to you that I do
not have these questions of belonging/citizenship answered quite yet. I am
admitting this because my stories, my experiences and my reflections are all
deeply influenced by this conflict. I am not a Black American woman traveling,
nor a Black African woman traveling, but somewhere in between; the way the
world perceives me, and the way I perceive the world around me is inevitably
shaped by this.

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