I was born and raised in a diverse city, so, theoretically, I never found it bewildering to have cross-cultural friendships. I didn’t truly experience the meaning of this until I lived abroad in East Africa for four months.
The study abroad program itself was vast and challenging, but the lifelong lessons and relationships I would take with me came specifically from in and around my homestay.
Every day I would walk home from the university campus to my Ugandan Mama’s home, my home. Mama Harriet lived right next door a middle-age Rwandan woman, Aunty Janet, who made her living by running a small, but necessary shop on the side of the residential road. Her nephew also lived in her home and would help run the shop. His name was Muzungu, which actually was the neutral street name for a white person or foreigner.
In Ugandan culture, hanging out in doors during daylight hours isn’t really a societal norm, so I quickly made friends with Muzungu by sitting outside in front of the roadside shop while he manned it. We got to know each other and swapped some stories. Sometimes I’d stay after closing and we’d continue our conversation on the front porch underneath a modest mango tree. I’d inquire about the culture there and he’d give me insight and stories. Then, role swap, I would be giving insight about American culture. We philosophized a lot, discussing Christianity in different contexts, local theology, paradigms and the like.
We would watch each other live life. I’d listen to him interact with walk-by customers and local residents. He’d help the kids gawk at me as I went on afternoon jogs through the neighborhood (people don’t jog for exercise there) or see me handwashing my clothes in the front yard. Eventually we started walking places together— a young, lanky Rwandan dude and a chunky, tall American girl. “Muzungu and Muzungu!”, people would say and point… his real name, my local label. It was occasionally overwhelming, but overall, we’d just both let it slide.
Apparently we were both accustomed to sticking out in our natural contexts and through that discovery, we learned how much we had much in common.
Our friendship is five years old now and my relationship with Mama Harriet remains as well. The most distinct element I’ve learned through this is how differing culture is often painted out to be one of the largest, unconquerable barriers that lay between ourselves and another. However, searching for common ground is like gold mining. It takes work and a time investment; sometimes you find a little, sometimes a huge amount! Today, Muzungu is the same authentic human I met five years ago. We see the world differently and yet the same. At the core, we are two beautifully different human beings, who, like any set of friends, learned to respect and appreciate the other person for the whole of who they were ~ looking past the lens of culture or country, status or skin color, and to the individual themselves.
Don’t bypass your opportunities to go mining; you might just strike gold too. “
Read more of Emily’s stories at: http://www.capacityforculture.com