Preparing for my study abroad experience, I did not expect to stand out in Ghana as much as I had in the United States as a black person. Now, at the end of my first two weeks in Ghana, I have felt a similar feeling of otherness, but I also recognize the nuances of that feeling here.
Instead of my race, my nationality marks me as different. The most significant example of this feeling was during a trip to Accra mall. After successfully taking the public transportation by myself for the first time, I crossed the street toward the mall. A small girl began reaching out her hand and begging for some money. As I continued walking, saying that I did not have any to give her, she wrapped her arms around my legs and held onto me. Though I have experienced instances of people begging in my hometown of New York City, this experience was rooted in the conception, and in my case the misconception, that all Americans are wealthy. As someone who has endured and still feels the constraints of poverty, this moment caused my true self to feel invisible as the American stereotype became hypervisible. Witnessing the power of this stereotype in that moment left me frustrated and uneasy.
Differently, I have managed to make my true self not only visible, but understood here in Ghana. One night, as I was cooking in the International Students Hostel, a man who was in the kitchen told me I was the first international student he saw that had cooked yams and plantain instead of just eating pre-made food from around campus. Pleased and surprised, he also revealed that he owned a company that exported Ghanaian fruits and vegetables. Another day, a woman also saw me cooking. She thought that I may have been half Ghanaian since she saw that I knew how to cook the yams. I explained that my mother is Jamaican so I had grown up eating yams and had recently learned how to cook them. Here, I began to “rewrite the script” as one of my program’s staff members had urged us to do while in Ghana. By showing a willingness to cook these particular foods and discussing my ethnicity, I did not necessarily erase my difference completely. I was obviously still an American international student. However, I did complicate our shared understanding of how different we all are while also highlighting the differences among Americans due to our various ethnic backgrounds. I do not imagine most people think of Jamaican Americans when they think of American, so it felt like small victories to have these conversations with Ghanaians. These moments left me feeling seen.
Moving forward, I realize that differences are inevitable. Even with similarities, shared qualities between the Ghanaians and I do not mean sameness. Furthermore, I cannot “rewrite the script” by downplaying my differences. Rather, by presenting my genuine self, even if that marks me as “the other,” I can have more honest, meaningful, and beneficial interactions here in Ghana. When becoming a visitor in new cultures across the globe, the problem is not differences between people or cultures. The problem is oversimplified differences or even inaccurate ones. Valuing and embracing differences instead of expecting “to fit in” completely has become my mindset for my year abroad. With that mindset, I plan to continue thinking about how feelings of belonging depend on different identity factors such as race or ethnicity. My experiences so far have gotten me off to a great start!
Me at the University of Ghana’s Law School.