Upon Realizing I Have Lived Abroad for Over a Year

Fifteen months ago, I left a job that I loved in a city that I loved and a relationship with a man I loved to move to Rwanda. I could not name the thing I was looking for that would prompt me to uproot my comfortable life and embark on this new one that I had only vaguely identified as a necessity for reasons I could not clearly articulate to myself, let alone others.

At fifteen months in, I have been on some rather lavish vacations that allowed me the privilege of experiencing the beauty and ugliness of Africa in all its unapologetic extra-ness. I have had to repeatedly turn into Ugly Keturah, complete with raised voice and unholy language, to put a shockingly sexist man in his place and I have stopped speaking in mid-sentence to gawk at the overwhelming beauty of rolling hill upon rolling hill as the sun set over the most lush, green terrain I have ever seen.

I find myself contemplating what exactly I have gained from this year. Why exactly am I certain that I will not be returning to the states anytime soon even though I have had just as many moments of sadness as I have had moments of joy in this land where the people look like me, but I can not claim any more authentic ownership of it than the foreigners who self-consciously roam through the streets uncomfortably aware of their white skin for the first time in their lives.

My biggest take away thus far? It is me and only me. No other than me.

I do not love Rwanda. Depending on the day you ask me, I might not even claim to like it very much. There is a disturbing quiet to Kigali that should not exist in any modern-day city. There is a distance, a misleading “politeness” of the people that feels like a shield, a mask that I am not allowed to mention, much less reach out to touch or remove. I know the history, and more importantly, I know my place. It is not for me to question why these people carefully display only one emotion in any given situation nor is it within my pay grade to even semi-adequately critique how well their ways of coping with their pain actually accomplish the goal of healing what hurts. All I know is something feels superficial about this place. Like just bubbling beneath the surface is a deep, throaty wail waiting to be released. A lost of composure long overdue that might go on for too long and frighten too many people.

Kigali is too small. It breeds a small mindedness. A non-stop silent analysis of my every move and motive.

And yet, I have been and remain happy here. Because it is not Kigali’s responsibility to make me happy. It is mine.

I took a teaching job at a school that has no idea what it wants to be. There are people at this school who are earnest and hard working, but who are not quite sure what a school is supposed to be. As often happens in international schools, the student body is just as transient as the faculty. Yesterday, a 9th grade student returned his copy of Things Fall Apart to me, casually mentioning he would not be coming back to school on Monday. “My dad’s job is moving us back to Wisconsin; I think we leave on the 18th.” This young man showed up to our school last May. Just as abruptly. Just as casually. We accept students who speak absolutely no English who have spent their entire lives in French-speaking schools and/or being taught under a wildly different curriculum and hope everything will work out. (We have not really defined what “work out” means, either.)

And yet, I lam still grateful to have been given the opportunity to begin my career as an international teacher at this school. I still devote shameful amounts of my head space to  figuring out how to master this unmasterable art of teaching. How to be compassionate and influential to students who might well be the future assholes of the world without even trying. I still want to hug my students and my colleagues as much as I want to strangle them.

It is not my school’s responsibility to make me a better educator. It is not my students’ duty to inspire me to love them. Both of those jobs belong to me. And only me.

So, here is what I am left with when I think about what I have gained from this year abroad.

I have gained more of me.

 

9 Responses

  1. I posed this on Facebook:
    Oh my goodness – how lovely. You have put into words what I have been feeling for some time now. Thanks for the inspiration. You are a beacon that it’s time for me to change things in my life.

  2. This is so beautiful. And so true. I can’t even point to a favourite part, because it is all so relevant. When anyone asks me about my experience in Rwanda, I will just send them this link.

    • And how many conversations have we had this year about our shared experience…and neither one of us still can make it clear how complex living here is.

  3. A beautiful and courageously honest piece of writing. I’ve already read it twice.

    • Thanks. I struggled with just how honest I would be. I know I am not of this place so to speak candidly about what I “know” after only a year made me very uneasy. In the end, it is just my experience, my perspective and I hope it is seen as such.

  4. Oh my goodness that was an awesomely amazing read.. Thank you for feeding my intellect and my soul.

  5. As ever: courageous and authentic. Your ability to articulate and acknowledge truths not so pleasant and sweep nothing under the carpet is inspiring. Thank you for this post. I am going to send the link on to Pat Juell (Shira’s friend) who will also find it remarkable, I am certain.

  6. A really nice, thoughtful piece. Well done.

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