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A Salute to the Sisterfriends Who Sustain Us

I looked down at my phone to see a whatsapp message from a woman I had not seen in person for more than six months.

Do you remember that gorgeous man we saw at the Ghana Embassy in Kigali?

Although we had been keeping in touch since we had both left Rwanda – she moving back to London as I headed for Shanghai – we hadn’t had a lengthy text conversation since The New Edition Story aired and we debated whether Fake Ralph was cuter than Real Ralph at Fake Ralph’s age.

Uhm…yeah…I remember that statue of a man who looked like he had been chiseled from stone before being casually placed among all those regular-looking dudes?

I excitedly wondered what inspired this as her first message to me weeks after our in-depth analysis of Fake New Edition’s portrayal of the trials and tribulations of Real New Edition.

Wait…did that painfully gorgeous man end up in London? Are you about to tell me you just happened to cross paths and are now whatsapping me from his bed?

I got the slightly disappointing response of: No…I just thought about what a superb specimen of man he was. And had to share it with someone who would understand.

And then I didn’t hear from this friend again for another month.

In The Crunked Feminists’ Collection, Brittney C. Cooper dedicates a portion of one of her essays to what is often overlooked when the trite conversation about black women’s singleness comes up – normally brought up by a person of any race or gender who has more issues with the singleness of black women than these single black women have themselves. She writes about the blessing of having time. Time for herself, of course. But, most of all, time for the female friendships she has cultivated over decades worth of shared triumphs and failures. Cooper vocalizes something I have always felt when this social media need to write and discuss “think” pieces about everything finds itself regurgitating the same statistic about the unmarried every few years or so.

I spend no time bemoaning my lack of a husband. I am only mildly bothered when I do not have a Bae in my life. (And truth be told, the thing that mostly bothers me when there is no steady Bae is the long stretches of celibacy I am forced to endure since repeated indulgences in casual sex have never truly appealed to me.) While I am aware that being partnered presents multiple advantages as a person grows older, I do not tremble at the thought of common dangers impacting me greater because I will encounter them without a husband.

However, the thought of waking up one day when I am 70 years old and not having at least one of my good girlfriends still in my life terrifies the shit out of me.

I had just finished reading Cooper’s insight into female friendships when my homegirl sent me the random message about that Ghanaian Adonis for no other reason than she thought of me. I giggled and for weeks after, smiled when I remembered her random tribute to a beautiful man she knew I would appreciate.

Since moving to Shanghai, I have gotten several texts from a male friend who could have been Bae (or at the very least, a good enough placeholder for Bae) the entire two years I was in Kigali. I do not remember what those messages contained and while I was glad to hear from him, I was mostly indifferent when he hit me up to “see how Shanghai is treating you so far.” Another man with whom I shared dinner a few times has also sent me one or two texts since I left Kigali. I do not remember what they were about or if I responded to them. Though this dinner companion was as random as my homegirl, my response to him was not as immediate. His messages were sporadic like several of my girlfriends’ communication have been since I left. I have always responded to my girlfriends’ messages as soon as I have seen them. The guy I went out to dinner with a few times…well, I cannot say (with certainty) he always received a prompt response. Or a response at all. For those two months when I was in the United States after leaving Rwanda, I kept my whatsapp connected to my Kigali number so my girlfriends could communicate with me as easily as they had for the past two years. Wanting to keep lines open for potential suitors or past suitors never occurred to me. I still have the Kigali whatsapp number for that same reason.

I have written before about the persistence of loneliness and how it exhibits itself abroad (See, The Thing About Living Abroad Is…). Although I am still fairly new to this Ex Pat life, I can say with absolute assurance it is my formation of female friendships that has made this life livable the last three years and not the time I have devoted to dating men. My dedication to doing the work of connecting with other black women has helped assuage my loneliness more so than doing the work of sifting through online dating profiles to find a man who I am attracted to and who is my intellectual and financial equal. To be clear: I devote the appropriate amount of time to both my life as a friend to other women and my life as a lover to men. But when I think about how I prioritize the two, I am reminded of Cooper’s argument. We continue to flatten the emotional fullness of women’s humanity by making the story of the modern-day single lady all about her quest to cure herself of the illness of singlehood. We write story after story of women’s honest depiction of what it’s like to date and never marry, how dating has changed for the worse since the explosion of Tinder, how women manage to find ways to pass the time as they wait for their husbands to find them.

Why aren’t we giving as much time to painting the picture of single women that many of us can identify with most  – regardless of where we stand on marriage and the desire to end our single status? The time we have to connect with and cherish each other. To support and encourage each other. Hell, just the time we have to SEE each other. When I was in Kigali, one of the women in my circle of girlfriends was married with three kids. We tried to include her as much as we could in our impromptu trips to Giseyni and last minute dinners in Kimihurura. But, like many wives and mothers, she just couldn’t make it out to many of our get togethers. Her husband and children could only fill so much of her emotional needs. Before she took on domestic life, she had fully reveled in her ability to SEE her girlfriends whenever she needed them or they needed her. I sensed in her repeated requests to factor her circumstances into our planning that she had underestimated the value of the time her unmarried self had devoted to bonding with her female friends.

Three years ago, I left my beloved New York City and a country I was not sure I liked. I ended a serious relationship with a man I loved because he was not called to Ex Pat life as I was. I also left behind three women who I had spent most of my adult life with. The first year of my new life, the ex-boyfriend and I were still in communication. Every few months, I would find him in my DM on Facebook talking about nothing in particular, which led to us both chatting about how our lives were going. Somewhere around the 12th month, the DMs stopped coming. I felt a momentary pang of sadness. He had moved on and the likelihood of our ever being in each other’s online or offline lives again was slim. The pang dissipated, though, and when I do have thoughts of him now, they are fleeting moments of hoping that he has met someone who will take care of him. That he is working toward his goals. I don’t miss his DMs. I assumed they would end.

There is a much longer thread in my DM on Facebook that I started with three girlfriends shortly after leaving my beloved New York. In it, we talk about nothing in particular and everything that matters. For three years, the thread has been active, getting bumped after weeks of silence with a period rant or a hearty throwing of shade toward a celebrity, co worker, or commuter.

If that thread ended. If I bumped it with an observation that no matter how much money I spend on bras, they never seem to fully satisfy my boobs’ needs and these women never responded. Not just didn’t say anything in regards to this particular message, but really…just removed themselves from the thread, never to add to it again…

You would find me in the fetal position on my living room floor. I would be in tears questioning my life choices.

Just When I Think These People Have Done the Damn Most…They Add a Dash of Extra.

I am rounding out my 12th year of teaching. That’s approximately 24 parent teacher conferences and roughly 12 sleep away trips with other people’s children. I have seen some things. I have found myself involuntarily caught in the swirling winds created by parents helicoptering over their offspring. Special snowflakes whose brilliance or fragility these parents are convinced have gone undetected by all the other adults who are responsible for their children when they are not around.

Years ago, when an 8th grader’s auntie showed up to the hotel where we were staying in Washington, D.C. with a home cooked vegan meal to give to her niece because the niece’s mother had insisted we would not truly feed her child the most appetizing non-meat food for the three days she was away from New York City, my fellow chaperones and I laughed throughout the night. Who does that? The kid is 13 years old.  She’ll be fine eating regular vegetarian food for 72 hours…geez.

I wish 5th Year Teacher Keturah could have caught a glimpse of 12th Year Teacher Keturah.  If only New York City Teacher Keturah could see some of this shit that Shanghai Teacher Keturah witnesses on the regular.

Because as per usual, our Chinese brethren have even eclipsed us mediocre Americans in the precision of helicopter parenting.

My first field trip here in China was to a province a two-hour plane ride away from Shanghai. There were 30 students who would be visiting a Kung Fu school and exploring the town where the art form began. Although myself and two teachers from the school were chaperoning, an educational tour company had provided their own teachers and guides to lead the trip.

I noticed one of these “teachers” wasn’t doing anything. To be precise: all she was doing was taking copious amounts of photos. I watched the two younger guides as they explained the history of the places where we were and led the students through ice breaker games when there were lulls in the schedule. But, this lady just kept photographing everything. As the activities got more involved and the kids’ interest increased, she would record videos as well. I also noticed she seemed to be uploading the photos and videos instantly to wechat.

“Who is that lady,” I asked my co-worker who had done most of the coordinating of the trip with the tour company.

“Oh, she’s the photographer,” he answered nonchalantly. “The parents requested someone take as many pictures as possible and upload them in real time in this wechat group they started. So, the tour company had her come along.”

Wait…what? So, parents asked to have their kids’ middle school trip live streamed? And someone green lighted that request?

Seeing the look on my face, my co-worker explained that “Last year, they asked the teachers to do it and we tried to be nice, but by the second day they were asking us to send them personal shots of their kids in front of the sites and asking us why we hadn’t put their kid with his friend for a group activity. Obviously, we stopped doing it at all after that.”

So, pulling this woman, whose real job was in accounts, from her desk and throwing her into this 5-day long trip which involved her hiking for three hours up a mountain while orchestrating photo opps with smiling kids was the compromise?

I am about to ask my co-worker a question he has watched me grapple with for the entire 9 months we have sat in the same office, marking papers and trading stories about our adolescent students acting just like adolescents.

“Don’t stress yourself,” he cuts off my question before I can ask it. “The answer is the same as always: China.”

Hours after this co-worker had reminded me I needed to just accept China for what it was, I was still a bit surprised that this woman was live streaming our school trip.

As my parents and every man I have ever dated will confirm, I am rather hard headed. I don’t stop doing stuff just because people present me with sound reasoning to stop doing it. While sitting at dinner, I mention to the table of grownups how unique this is for me to see. “Wow, providing a photographer for the parents. What a very interesting idea. I’ve never known parents to ask for that.”

One of the younger guides who had been taking charge of the activities said she was relieved that her boss had turned a white-collar office worker into an outdoor adventure photographer. A British blonde who looked to be in her early 30s, this woman had come to China to work in outdoor education at the same time I had come to work in traditional classroom education. She said her first trip with this tour company was on some isolated island that involved the group catching a plane, a bus and a ferry to get to the site where they would spend a week hiking, camping and doing general low-level Survivor-type living.

“This place really was secluded,” she explained. “We had chosen it because it completely disconnected the teenagers from their normal lives and routines.” While the group was taking a break from one of its activities, the woman’s cell phone rang. It was the parent of one of the students; she was quite irate.

“One of the teachers has walked off and left the children. I think he may be drinking alcohol over on the beach while the children wait for him.”

The blonde was speechless. “Excuse me? How did you get my number? And more importantly, how do you know we are on a beach and where this teacher is?”

The woman’s question was answered by an army of parents with binoculars around their necks marching from around a collection of trees.  These people had found a hostel in close enough proximity to the campsite and had been getting up early in the morning to spy on their children to make sure that…it is still unclear to me and the British blonde what exactly they were monitoring every day. Even after sitting the parents down and talking to them about boundaries, she still is not sure what they wanted to protect their children from. What danger lurked in their minds that caused them to catch a plane, a bus and a ferry and crawl up into trees just to watch their children for hours as they tried to pitch a tent and light a fire without a match?

Several paragraphs ago, I openly admitted to being hard headed. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that my reaction to this woman’s story was to blurt out: “The devil is a damn lie and so are you.”

“Oh, how I wish I had the creative mind to make up that kind of story,” she laughed. “It all happened just like I said. No exaggeration at all.”

My co-worker is giving me the I-keep-telling-you-these-people-are-special look when he reminds me of the last time he gave me the look. “Keturah, do we need to review why the SAT is no longer offered anywhere in China? Remember when you were confused about why all the Year 11s had to miss classes and go to Hong Kong just to take the SAT?”

I do remember him casually detailing how when the SAT people did offer the college entrance exam in the People’s Republic of China, they developed elaborate, complicated ways to prevent cheating. From what he told me, even though the system involved something close to strip searching high school students and only allowing them to sit for the exam if they were butt naked, their parents STILL found ways to send them the answers to the test via carrier pigeons and sky writing cliff notes in the air.

When I wrote China: Where People Do The Most On The Regular, some of y’all shared your own stories of spending time in China and bearing witness to the extra ratchetness among its billion citizens. Some of y’all thought I had outdone myself. “Girl, you wrote the hell out of this post” you said. You inaccurately attributed the post to my skills as a writer instead of the craft my Chinese brethren diligently put in to their heightened extraness.

I have accepted that the entire time I am here, I will walk around racking my brain, contorting my mind into complicated answer-seeking positions, trying my hardest to understand before just shrugging my shoulders and deciding: Cuz…China. Do. The. Damn. Most. And then some.

Dear China: So Sorry, but Ms. Kendrick Does Not Accept Bribes

“I told this man in plain English not to send me this jacket.” The jacket is still wrapped in its plastic casing and sitting in the opened shipping box. The rip in the packaging tape shows it was sent to Ms. Ketu Kendrick. I am way pass irritated and not yet solidly livid when I present this “gift” to my boss at the private school where I teach super rich Chinese children whose parents apparently don’t read or understand English enough to fully comprehend the clause in the student handbook that says, “teachers cannot accept gifts” or the words coming out of a teacher’s mouth that say, “No, thank you; please don’t send me a gift.”

“And he still sent it to you?” The principal who has worked in and around China for 15 years actually seems as surprised as I am. “Well, this is a first,” he chuckles. He ponders his reaction for a moment and then realizes he has lied. “Naw, it isn’t. This is China.” He thanks me for informing him of this gift giver’s aggressive campaign to get me to write favorable recommendation letters for his daughter and advises me to return the jacket with as much humility as I can. “Just remember, they think something is wrong with us for not accepting gifts so frame it like you really want to take it, but because of the school policy…”

I consider myself a woman of great integrity and I am also of the firm belief that students, generally, have already shown themselves worthy of a satisfactory recommendation letter when they ask me to write one for them. Although teenagers are not as equipped with the skills for honest introspection as adults (in theory), they can sense when a teacher is pleased with their performance and they know what their report cards show. Only students who do well in my class and have been rewarded with verbal accolades – both in private and in public – from me have asked me to write them recommendation letters. There is absolutely no need for parents to “sweeten the deal” for me. If their child were truly a waste of a seat in my class, I would politely decline their recommendation request and suggest they ask a teacher in whose class they have shown greater promise.  What could possibly be the point of accepting a bribe from a parent whose B+ student works harder than me in my class?

I need someone to tell China I believe in its children. Without qualifiers or disclaimers. They are young people so why wouldn’t I believe in them? I would like for someone to tell my students’ parents I am not any greater or lesser impressed with their children than the children I taught in Rwanda or the ones I taught in the United States. The Chinese versions of student work ethic and academic achievement look no different than the work ethic and achievement of every teenager in every school in every corner of this world. Can someone please ask these parents to stop sending Ms. Kendrick “gifts” with notes that remind her “only two more recommendation letters to send!”

The first time it happened, I naively took it for what it was supposed to be: an appreciation of the extra time it would take me to write a thoughtful letter highlighting the student’s strengths and weaknesses. A student, who in all honesty, was quite mediocre, but still showed promise shyly hovered near my desk after I had dismissed her class. I saw she had a form in her hand that she periodically glanced at before looking toward me and then quickly averting her eyes when they met mine. “Do you need something, Sweetie,” I helped her initiate the conversation. When she sheepishly explained she was applying to a high school in the United States and she was sorry for bothering me, but the school needed a recommendation letter from her English teacher, I told her I would be happy to write her one. I took the form out of her shaky hand and said, “I will try to get it done within the next week or so, okay?”

When I turned to pack up my bag and leave the room, the student pulled out a Chanel box from somewhere and then grinned at me, “Uhm…my mom helped me pick this out for you.” For about two seconds, I hesitated because the timing seemed…convenient to say the least. But, why would this sweet child who I had previously acknowledged in class for improving in her analytical skills have any ulterior motives? “Aww, thank you, Sweetie,” I patted her on the shoulder as I took the box.

And then she gave me this look. I do not have adequate words to describe what I saw in her eyes. Just my gut told me, Ms. Kendrick, this is not what you think it is. When I brought the most fly, perfectly designed sunglasses to my supervisor, my gut was confirmed. “Yeah, this is supposed to influence what you put in the letter,” the Head of the English Department said nonchalantly as she agreed to gently break it to the student on my behalf that this gift had to be returned to her mother. “The girl and her mother have good taste, though; these glasses are so you.” She complained all she had been offered in the past was thoughtless cash. And the parent hadn’t even bothered to make her feel like a lady when he offered it. “Literally, he slid an envelope across the table as he suggested his son be moved up to the honors class even though he was barely cracking a C in the regular class.” She proceeded to regale me with outrageous stories that explained why the school finally had to write a clear policy in the handbook so it would curb the thinly veiled attempts of privileged parents to give their child an extra edge in the competitive world of studying abroad.

“As you can see, even with the policy there are still parents who continue to do what they think works.” The Head of the English Department sighed. “I am not so sure everyone on our staff actually follows the policy themselves.  So, there’s that.”

I get it. There are 23 million people in Shanghai alone. Has the population of China itself exceeded a billion yet? A student being good enough is not enough even within China. If you factor into the equation students who seek to leave the isolated bubble of China and enter a culture and curriculum that, in many ways, is the polar opposite of their homeland’s, well…yeah…what conscientious parent wouldn’t see the need to “sweeten the deal” for his kid who is good enough but may not be as good as the 1000+ other applicants he has heard is applying to the same schools in America as his daughter?

But, I still need one of y’all to tell these people with words and in a tone more convincing than mine that I don’t want their damn “gifts.” I am growing annoyed at being forced to discreetly whisper to a student that I need to see her in the hall and then play like I am flattered and torn as I say, “Your father is very kind and I know he doesn’t mean anything by this, but the school has a policy, so…”

China: Where People Do The Most On The Regular

I should preface this by saying I grew up in New Orleans, a city that dismisses schools for an entire week in February just so students, teachers and their families can go out and do the most. Under the bridge. Uptown on St. Charles. In the quarter. I have not only bore witness to all manner of extra happening on the streets of the lower nine, but also watched in amusement as the most broke out among the saved sitting in the pews off Freret Street.

I lived a great majority of my adult life in New York City, where people doing the most are in just as great supply as rodents. I have watched a woman carefully polish the nail of her sixth toe on the train. On my way to work, I used to pass an able bodied homeless man who lectured commuters about laziness and greed as he openly admitted he was pan handling so he could later buy a bag of weed and a six pack of beer.

I am no stranger to the most getting done. I am not struck with surprise when I see people going beyond just extra and taking it all the way to too damn much.

But, I had never been to China before this August, much less even remotely considered living here. I have witnessed so much extra just within the city of Shanghai that it has led me to hypothesize how our Chinese brethern go about planning their day. I envision a conversation that goes something like this:

Chinese Person #1: What should we do today?
Chinese Person #2: I dunno. I feel like we should do a lot.
Chinese Person #1: No, a lot…that is not enough.
Chinese Person #2: You are right; we should do more. Let’s do more today.
Chinese Person #1: This is still not sufficient. You know what we must do…
(Both look at each other with knowing eyes)
Chinese Person #1 and #2: The most. We must do the most.

And my observations thus far prove that the Chinese are focused on and committed to their daily agenda. They do not lay head to pillow until the most has gotten done.

Doing The Most On Top a Mountain

My friend and I went on a hike of Yellow Mountain. The gorgeous mountain is in Huangshan, a province about a 6-hour drive from Shanghai. While I was left speechless by the breathe-taking views of foggy clouds hanging lazily over the mountain peaks, I also found myself at a loss of words over all the unabashed ratchetness taking place on this mountain.

One of the tour guides had strapped an amplifier to his back. A microphone was attached to the portable amp. And so was a radio. As I was commenting on this view that was such flawless perfection it looked like a painting, my friend and I had to pause our conversation because the tour guide’s absolutely audible voice could be heard on the microphone screaming in Chinese to the people in his group. He sounded angry, but I had learned that’s just how the locals sound when they talk. I wondered why he needed the microphone to speak when his natural tone seemed to be screaming. I also wondered if turning off the music that he was playing on the amplifier would help him communicate better with his clients.

“Why does this experience need a soundtrack?” I asked my friend.
“Better yet,” she responded. “Why do we all have to hear this soundtrack? Maybe his group should’ve brought headphones if they needed to have musical accompaniment on this hike.”

And speaking of the people in the group…AsianJesusinHeaven, the number of pictures they were taking on the assortment of gigantic cameras they were carrying. If anyone has ever gone to a school dance at a black school in the 80s and 90s, you will remember the large white cloth that was airbrushed with some “exotic looking” locale and the theme of the dance (A Night in Paris!) in graffiti font. What you will also recall is how you and your friends posed for the photo in front the official backdrop for the dance. I want you to imagine the squatting, peace sign throwing, body slightly turned to the left with that one leg sticking out as you put on your “can’t tell me nothing” stare. Now, put some Chinese people in your image standing on the edge of a cliff next to a sign that reads: “Please do not stand on this edge because you could die.”

If it means risking your life, then it must be done. If we are going to check off DID THE MOST before we go to bed tonight, we will need to pose for these dozen pictures with no less than 6 different cameras on the edge of this mountain.

Doing the Most on a Flight

I am a sucker for a good flight deal. So, when I saw a ticket to Malaysia for the equivalent of $150 USD, I booked without looking too closely at the details. Once I did look closely, I discovered the outgoing flight was on China Southern Airlines. I had never flown a local airline in China since I had only been here for about two months when I took advantage of the flight deal. I told myself that the low price and the local flavor of the airline were probably not good signs, but nothing could be worse than the awfulness of Kenya Airways in Africa and Delta Airlines in America.

I was naive. I will not even begin to address the ratchetness that is China Southern Airlines because that is beside the point. (And I am flying them again tomorrow when I go to Bali so it would make me sort of a hypocritical hater to speak ill of them now).

But, the passengers.

It started with boarding. I was in the minority in more than just the obvious way. I actually brought a carry on sized bag to be stowed away in the overhead bin. EVERY OTHER GODDAMN PASSENGER brought all of their worldly possessions as carry on. They stuffed and forced their fake Dolce and Vitton suitcases into the bins of this sold out flight amidst angry-sounding flight attendants trying to reason with them. I was accustomed to one or two passengers trying to flout the carryon rule with a bag that was just a bit too large or two carryon sized bags instead of one (and if we are being honest, I had tried to get away with it once or twice myself). But, when the whole damn plane does it? When it’s only like 3 people looking awkwardly at each other as the passengers get up in their feelings when the flight attendants put their feet down and just start jacking their gigantic ass bags and almost throwing them out the door to the luggage people waiting to cart off the carry on bags that should have been checked luggage in the first place?

But, then when the plane was landing. AsianJesusinHeaven? Why, Lord? Just. Why?

I was coming out of my free wine-induced nap when I heard the pilot’s voice. We had been on the plane long enough for me to figure out that he was likely making his “we are beginning our descent into Kuala Lumpar” announcement so I began to put my tray table back into position and look for my shoes underneath the chair.

The other passengers did more than me. They got up from their seats and started pulling out their bags from the overhead bin. Given the drama that had happened before we even began to taxi on the runway, I really should not have been surprised. But, alas, I was.

I can feel the plane descending and there are multiple people standing up with their bags like we are sitting at the gate waiting for them to open the door of the plane.

Angry sounding flight attendants can be heard and occasionally, passengers respond with tones that are the most and facial expressions that are more than the most.

And I am just sitting there like: Who does this? And why? I answer myself quickly. The Chinese. Because they do the damn most.

Doing the Most in the Classroom

I consider myself a benevolent dictator when I am teaching. I do not have the energy nor can I sustain the disciplinarian stance long enough to be more than a fair, yet firm educator.

So, when I say to one of the students I am in charge of in the boarding program, “Sweetie, your room was late for breakfast again so you girls won’t be able to go see the drama club’s play during your free time tonight,” I expect a disappointed, “No, please, let us go and we will not be late again.” Maybe a prolonged attempt to get me to change the rule that applies to everyone in the dorm just this one time since it was a special thing they would have to miss.

So, when this 7th grade girl breaks out into a deep belly wail and does a slow body wall slide that ends with her on the floor, I am totally flummoxed.

“No, Ms. Kendrick, please Ms. Kendrick. Let us go. Please let us go.” I sit in my chair as this child reacts to a punishmnent I and several other teachers have administered this month alone as if she has been sentenced to a beheading. At one point, the usher board has to come over to her and put their arms around her, wipe off her face, help her off the floor, tell her it would be alright, Jesus would deliver her and other things in both Chinese and English.

It takes almost five minutes for her to get herself together. 10 minutes later she is apologizing to me for doing the most and saying she and her roommates would work harder to get themselves together in the morning.

I accept her apology because I have come to accept the culture for what it is.

People often expect me to be more taken aback by the super curiosity about my blackness in China, but I have been practicing to fix my face and look unmoved when I am super curious about the levels of extra that happen daily here. I can count on one hand the number of times I have felt super watched because I was so obviously not from here. I have lost count of the number of times I have actually shaken my head in amused awe as the Chinese checked off the latest ratchetness goal from their list, though.

Save Yourself From Pictures of Strangers’ Penises

I am one of the lucky ones. I, an attractive, heterosexual single woman who has been dating attractive heterosexual single men for upwards of two decades, have never received a photo of a man’s penis without explicitly asking for one. (And that is neither your business nor the central thesis of this post so focus, please.)

And yes, I am in the lucky minority.

It seems like in the last five or six years, good girlfriends, close acquaintances, a stray co worker here and there have casually mentioned having to avoid a man in real life or block him in internet/smart phone life, because “this fool sent me a picture of his peen…and it was such a sad picture…and peen, none the less.” Each time some perturbed woman has shared this with me, I have wondered the same thing she was wondering, “Who sends unsolicited pictures of their special place to people they don’t really know?” After that question goes unanswered, I have usually moved on to the one that has inspired these words you are now reading: “Why have I been spared this pervasive tom foolery?” Don’t get me wrong; I am grateful to the universe for its compassion, but I do wonder how this trend in 21st century courting has managed to bypass my screen.

Mr. Monkey, the unofficial cab driver of the faculty at the boarding school where I teach, has caused me to reflect on the subconscious strategy I have employed to inadvertently shield me from ugly, ill shaped private parts greeting me at 7 o’ clock in the morning. He has made me realize I am acutely aware of how dick-pic-sending men vet their victims.

Mr. Monkey speaks approximately 7 phrases in English. I speak 2.5 words of Chinese. Thanks to Wechat’s super useful translate feature, he and I are able to send text messages through the app that result in my being able to use him for regular rides to the airport, metro and the bank. For some reason, Mr. Monkey has taken to sending me videos randomly. And by random, I mean…truly there is no rhyme or reason to the videos and when he sends them. Three days after we arrange my pick up from the airport, I see a video on the thread. A guy gets on a bike and runs into a tree. I assume Mr. Monkey meant to send this to a friend with whom he shares funny memes and other internet silliness and just ignore the post.

A week after that, I get a video of goats running around carefree as if they are at recess in goat primary school. Then, someone starts chasing after the goats with a machete. Mr. Monkey sends a message with the video this time. “Very funny?” It strikes me: Oh, he intends for me to engage in banter with him about these videos.

Now, here is when the strategy to not have to look at a man’s wrinkly, itty bitty johnson comes into play. There is a slight chance Mr. Monkey just thinks I am a nice teacher lady and he wants to practice his English. There is a chance he sends random ass videos about random ass things to several of his customers. There is a chance the videos are harmless.

But, I am not willing to take that chance. When I was much younger, I joked with a man about something I can not remember now. It was a typical smart ass remark that playfully mocked some trait he professed to have. He seemed to take me seriously so I quickly explained, “Oh, don’t mind me; I am just teasing you.” His response: “Oh, you like teasing people, huh?” I took his question as a literal follow up to my very literal explanation. I then found out we were having two different conversations; the one he was having was laced with delusional assumptions.

The minute or so of awkwardness that ensued taught me a valuable lesson: Men be vetting women.

I have not responded to any of the three videos that followed the one with the goats who were unaware recess would end with their slaughter. I have ridden in Mr. Monkey’s car once since the random videos started showing up on my Wechat. I made no mention of the videos and “Why don’t you say anything about my funny videos” is not one of the seven English phrases Mr. Monkey has memorized and can repeat with confidence.

My messages that only say: “Need to go to metro. Tomorrow at 4” let Mr. Monkey know my only interest in him is as a reliable driver who can get me to and fro in a timely fashion. His possible vetting of me should have left him with this conclusion: She is not one of those un-owned women who wants to engage in negotiations with potential buyers. Any possible follow up of a picture of his peen, a video of his peen or a link to a picture or video of his peen should be effectively averted.

Yes, I realize the flaws with my strategy. The not so subtle reinforcement of victim blaming it suggests. There is, also, sufficient evidence to prove my don’t-engage-with-terrorists defense is shaky. One of the first women who shared her trauma of an almost-stranger gifting her a picture of his abnormally large peen ended her story with: I really don’t know how he got my number, either. She had met him through other people and imagined that given the context of that meeting, he could have gotten her information from a mutual acquaintance who assumed this seemingly sane and civilized person was just collecting numbers to build a network of young professionals with whom he could exchange useful resources.

Flaws and hypocrisies aside, I will again state: I am in that minority of single women who have only heard about this phenomenon of adult men peddling their marked down merchandise via the smart phones of consumers who still don’t want whatever it is they think they’re selling. If you have been as fortunate as I have been, I suggest you increase your awareness and be hyper vigilant. Mr. Monkey tried to figure out where I was going the last time he drove me to the airport. I stared at him blankly and continued to look out the window.

I no longer get videos.

You’re welcome, Single Women of the World.

See, The Thing About Living Abroad Is…

If you’re not careful, this life will crack you wide open. While you are traveling to the latest country. While you are laughing at the latest miscommunication that resulted in your being in a completely different place than you thought you told the driver. While you are reveling at all the money that still remains in your savings account. If you don’t pay attention, your adventurous life laced with privilege will reveal ruptures. Not in your life itself. (No, that will still be pretty privileged and awesome) But in you. They will look like tiny abrasions at first. As if you got off the moto just a bit too quickly before checking to see if your leg was far enough away from the tail pipe. Those tiny abrasions. Barely noticeable burns. If you are not looking closely, carefully, you will be scooting around your new city with all your insides hanging out, leaving a trail of truths behind for these latest foreigners to assess in a language you do not understand.

I watched it happen in Kigali. So many sets of friends because…

So many relationships – from casual hook ups to married child rearing – that began and continued because…

The other person was just there.

About four months into my first international post, I realized I was friends with a woman who I did not like very much. It was not that I greatly disliked her, either. She had not done anything cruel to me nor was she a bad person at all. I just didn’t connect with her. And yet, here I was accepting invitations to go places with her. Grudgingly coming up with things for us to do so we could become even closer “friends.” Feeling bad for making up excuses for why I had to reschedule those things I did not want to do in the first place. I watched other acquaintances do this as well. Ex Pats determined to recreate the social networks they lost once they left their home countries gravitating to other English-speaking foreigners. Or paying off the locals with rounds of beer and subsidized trips to neighboring countries because “we are friends and if they could afford to return the favor, I am sure they would.”

Loneliness is not an emotion only the international globe trotter feels. It is one that every human will feel at points throughout their lives, regardless of who is or is not in that life when the emotion happens to surface. There is something that loneliness experienced abroad reveals, though. For me, I have seen it reveal how deeply delusional you can become about WHY you continue to nurture a friendship with a woman when the only common trait shared between you is you both speak English. There is a great amount of farce involved in continuing to respond to messages from a man who you only vaguely liked when you accepted a date from him and quickly decided on that date was an asshole and not a very cute one at that. There is a dogged decision to believe you are just trying to be more open. “Let me give this a chance. Isn’t that why I moved? For new experiences.”

You tell yourself that you are sitting through awkward conversations with this woman who consistently irritates you because you don’t want to rush to judgment. She is probably just as in need of friendship as you are.

In fact, she is just there. That is why you still talk to her. She is just there.

Just like the average-looking asshole. You are not still returning his messages because you are trying to figure out if the assholey things he says are just cultural idiosyncrasies that your western mind doesn’t quite understand. No, he is an asshole. An asshole who is just there. And this is why you have not told him, “Stop contacting me. I will never have time to go out with you again.” He is there. And his being there offers you comfort if you choose to take it. If offers you an out. If you choose to take it.

What Ex Pat loneliness can also reveal is that you are a damn good liar. You could easily release these people from your life. But, the lie you tell yourself is that it is nicer to lead people on, continuing to pretend you are interested in a connection, than to allow them the time to nurture a connection with someone who truly does value them in ways you do not. If Holden is a terrific liar, then you are an exceptional one. You convince yourself the lie is about the fake friend and the asshole dude. It is to spare their hurt feelings. But, see…it is really about you, Hun. You would feel kindda bad having to admit you are collecting people you don’t really want to keep anyway.

Before I left Kigali, I had strengthened my spiritual practice so Shanghai would not crack me open. If Kigali almost did, I knew this place definitely would.

I am looking around me now at the people who I encounter and observing the newbies start the delusion. Forced conversations that don’t have to become anything more than just small talk, but what if these are entry points into for real friendship? Flirtatious looks that are thought to be more significant than simply you are cute and his fiancée is still far away in London and he misses her so.

The realization that you have uprooted yourself and now have to recreate a life that had run almost by itself can cause a sense of isolation that is deeper than the loneliness one feels when she is in an unsatisfactory relationship in a country and culture that she understands. Or the loneliness felt when one has gone a long period of time without the intimacy that even a dysfunctional partnership can bring. The rebuilding of a support network can be more unclear in its design and architecture. I understand oh so well why people choose the delusion. The superficial and strained connections make them feel safe.

The unfortunate truth is, though, they are not any safer than if they just stopped lying. At some point, they will have to face the reality of what they have done. They have left their families. They have left their friends. They have left their good jobs. They have left all the distractions those families and friends and good jobs mercifully provided.

The rush to find replacements for those distractions will likely be the catalyst for their being cracked open more so than it will be the magic elixir to stop it from happening in the first place.

You’re Too Fat for Everything

Our story of obesity begins in a “medical clinic” in Shanghai’s city center. I and about 20 other teachers who are new to the faculty of this innovative international school have been bused down to get another medical check although we each had one done in whichever country we were residing when we accepted this post in order to obtain the month-long visa that would get us into China. But, we are told that the Chinese trust no medical reports but their own and so…

Off we go to this “clinic.”

It all happens quickly. The human resources manager is directing each of us quickly to the reception desk where we hand over our passport, get a number, fill out a form and then get handed a robe that we are told is “one size fits all.” I am skeptical when I go into the changing room and actually open the robe. Will the entirety of both of my breasts fit into the confines of this cotton? I share my concerns with the tiny little lady standing outside the changing room who is quite aggressively trying to quickly get me out the room and onto a scale.

“Uhm…yeah…Miss…this robe is too small.”

“No,” she quickly responds. “It is one size fit all.”

I look at the robe and then at my breasts. Look at the little lady. Then back at my breasts. I eye the robe one more time. “Mam, I am sure there is a robe that is one size fits all, but I don’t think it is this one.”

“Just put on robe.”

I do as I am told and proceed to walk out the room and flash my new colleagues.

The little lady rushes up to me saying something like, “It is all out. It is all out. I will help you.” As she tries to refashion the ties on the robe, I tell her that I have the breasts of a black woman from the American South and they cannot be forced into this handkerchief with string. The little lady is not a quitter; she is quite diligent. She works this robe around my impressive bosom and somehow manages to make me modest without a large piece of duct tape around the northern region of my body.

Once I get on the scale, two sets of eyes widen in shock. Mine and the little lady’s. I am thinking to myself, “Oh shit…look at me dropping these pounds like it’s nothing. Getting all sexy without sending folk a note of warning first.” The little lady’s widened eyes register something a bit different. They seem to be wondering why the numbers keep getting higher and then when they settle why I am doing a mini-twerk on the scale instead of crying.

Once we leave the medical clinic, where all of us were hoarded from room to room to get poked and prodded by gruff people who may or may not have been doctors, we are told we will be taken to look at electric scooters with the chance to purchase. “The nearest subway station is only a 10-minute scooter ride away from school…on a good traffic day,” one of the teachers on the welcoming committee informs us. “But, in general, it is a good idea to have a scooter if you don’t live in the city center because suburban life is suburban life no matter the country, ya know.”

I spot my scooter immediately. It is a cute little red number with a black basket and more importantly, a seat that can encompass a black girl’s booty. I plant my flag on this scooter by sitting on it and threatening the other teachers with, “Listen, if any of y’all sneak and buy this one, I know where you work and I can easily find out where you live.” I am just imagining myself scooting through Songjiang with fresh produce in my basket, honking at bad drivers and spouting out the few cuss words I plan on learning in Mandarin next week.

The owner of the scooter shop calls over the Chinese co-worker who is our translator on this trip. She turns away from me and says lots of words that I don’t understand to my co-worker. My co-worker uses much less words when she turns to me and says, “Uhm…she wants to know if you are sure you want this one?” She pauses and tries to find more words. “Like, will you be comfortable with this seat?”

I wiggle on the seat again and chuckle that my ass is not spilling off even a little bit and it is better than most seats on the bikes in most spin classes in New York City. She sees that I don’t get it. And for some reason, the owner of the shop who cannot speak a lick of English sees I don’t get it either. So, she turns away from me again and says more words to my co-worker, complete with hand gestures and pauses and attempts to find the right words.

“She thinks if you get this one, the ride will not be stable and you will just be back to get one of those bikes over there.”

Still clueless, I innocently ask, “Why wouldn’t the ride be stable?”

Finally, my co-worker cannot find anymore words and whispers, “Body size does matter.”

And then it hits me, this shop owner has been trying to say, “Get yo fat ass off this scooter that is not designed for an American body because if you buy it and then it breaks, you gon come waltzing your ass back up in here complaining like you Americans always do, wanting me to give you another bike that is better for your big ass…like this one over here I have been trying to direct you to for the last 30 minutes.”

I am tickled to death that there has been an entire lengthy conversation about how to deal with the problem of my obesity, particularly since I fail to even realize I am obese, given I honestly don’t see how this bike is too small. I am even allowed to take my scooter out for a test run, where it becomes clear to me and the other fat ass American who was eyeing a blue one of the same model that we are planning to buy a scooter that is really meant for a prepubescent girl.

When I return from my wobbly ride around the parking lot, I say to the shop keeper, “Yeah, I need a bigger one, don’t I?” She nods enthusiastically. She looks a little relieved that she did not have to tell me I was fat as she may have had to tell a non-Asian person this in the past and it did not go very well.

I am going to end with the beginning of another story that I am confident you can finish on your own.

Yesterday, I went to get a massage. I was led into a nicely decorated private room with a cup of tea and handed a spa uniform of shorts and a top.

“You put this on and then knock on door when done.”

I looked at the uniform and then at my body and then at the nice little man who had directed me into this nice little room.

Displacement in Your Own Homeland

A strange thing happens when you spend long periods of times away from your home country. One of my first conversations with an American woman who had spent many years abroad was about this very strange thing. I had been living in Rwanda for about 3 months and commenting on how surprised I was that it didn’t feel as strange and awkward as I had thought it would.

“The first time you go home, it will.” She offered. “You don’t realize how much you have changed, how much you have missed in the lives of loved ones until that first trip home.”

My first trip home was last year. I had not been back to the United States for 12 months. And it overwhelmed and frustrated me more so than it did welcome me back into its open arms. Aside from the country itself, talking to people I had known for my entire life also felt awkward and forced. Like I was trying not to make the conversation all about me, but they wanted to ask me questions about living abroad even though they did not know what to ask.

I made it through last year’s visit home without the strangeness completely discoloring my reunion with my three favorite things: family, friends and fried foods.

I thought the strangeness would lessen this time around. It actually has gotten noticeably worse.

New York City has become strange for me.

My New York City feels out of place. Not totally ill fitting, but like the waistline of my favorite dress falling a little bit lower than it should and thus actually highlighting my babyless bump rather than hiding it.

It is hard to explain what feels out of place. The best comparison I have for it is when I actually lived here and would go home to visit New Orleans every Christmas. I enjoyed being back home, but as the years passed and I got off the plane at the Louis Armstrong Airport, it felt like I was a visitor although I had spent more years in this place than I had in the place I had chosen to live. The fact that twice now I have gotten off the plane in the LaGuardia Airport and felt this very same way has created a sense of displacement and confusion that makes me reconsider coming back to the states annually.

“I might have to do it every two years,” I commented on a thread in an online travel group. The original poster had returned with her children from the UAE to visit family. She, too, felt out of place. Her children felt guilty that they didn’t interact with their cousins the same way they had before. “The long ass flight alone, the jetlag and now….this,” my comment continued. “It feels like too much all at once.”

For four weeks in New Orleans, I felt out of sorts. Confused. But, that was not as unsettling to me as this same confusion and feeling of “not just right” that has engulfed me in the two days I have been back in my beloved New York City. For the two years I was in Rwanda, folk occasionally asked me if I missed America. I remember responding, “No, not really. But, I missed New York City the moment I got in the cab and was driving to the airport to leave it.” And this is why the displacement here has been more upsetting to me.

How can I feel out of place here in this city?

The same woman who warned me about this strange feeling, also advised me to be conscious of how I moved around my international life to make the displacement when I visited home worthwhile. She was planning on moving back to the states permanently because she realized her 7 years traveling around the world was turning into the life she was trying to escape in the states.

“It was just unconscious choices with no real thought. There’s an opening for an English teacher in Turkey, so I guess I’ll just apply and see what happens. Oh, why not just move to  Argentina?” For many of us who choose the difficulties of life abroad, the benefit of the choice is the knowledge that we didn’t just settle for the road often traveled. We decided to make a conscious choice to follow our hearts and try a life that is not part of the “American adulthood contract.” If you talk to some American Ex Pats who sold houses and dropped out of PHD programs six months shy of completion, they describe “just sleeping walking through life. Not being active in creating my own happiness.”

This friend realized that her country hopping was becoming as unplugged and unfulfilled as her country staying. “Make sure you are doing this with intention. Have goals and plans and actual thought out REASONS for jobs you take and where you take them.” She confirmed what I had learned when I was offered this job in Rwanda so quickly. An American teacher with an advanced degree and certifications truly can work pretty much anywhere and demand the higher end of the pay scale without much effort. That luxury can cause a person to make life and career decisions like a toddler in a candy store filled with only his favorite chocolates during the buy-one-get-five-free sale.

I was fortunate to receive such sage advice early on in this journey. And I have remained true to the sentiment of that wisdom. I accepted my next job based on where I want to be professionally and financially in the next five years just as much as I did my need to be in a major, metropolitan city again as well as explore another region of this big, beautifully ugly earth. If I am going to sit through shows with my favorite performer in venues that were like second homes in a city that I would have married if the laws weren’t so damn restrictive and fight back the urge to yell at all of this to stop being so different, so strange, then there needs to be a pay-off for me. A big one.

Another Pathetic Attempt to Properly Explain His Profound Impact

“You like him? THAT freak? Why???”

Even though I was in college and technically an adult, I censored my response to my mother’s shock that I was obsessed with a man who seemed to be a homosexual, cross dressing nymphomaniac.

That is precisely why I like him, Ma. That was in my head.

What came out of my mouth were safe statements about his boldness, his indifference to being a black man wearing high heels and posing on album covers naked like women were expected to do no matter how well they played the piano and hit all the notes and danced all the steps in perfect sync. “Do you hear that guitar?” I chided my mother. “How come you spent your income tax sending me to youth retreat? Why didn’t you get me guitar lessons instead?”

She laughed along with me, but her face still registered confusion and a bit of concern. Was I changing into someone other than the upstanding, church going daughter who grew up so committed to the fundamentalist Christian sect our family was a part of that when every member of that family continually flouted the doctrines of the Seventh Day Adventist church she chastised them by saying, “We may as well just be Baptist, then.” Although I would not become a bad person, what did my worship of this raunchy, gender-bending musician mean I was going to become?

She had reasonable cause for concern.

I had heard the song before I saw the movie. I don’t remember how I heard it or who placed their headphones over my ears and demanded, “You have got to check this out.” I do know that somewhere in my mid to late teens, someone told me about this guy who had released this song that was in this movie a few years back. When I heard this song, it made me question further what well-meaning adults at my church and its affiliate school were trying to convince me of: There was something my gender precluded me from deeply desiring in its purest form. With no prettied up side orders. Just this delectable entrée.

Sex.

In this guy’s song a woman wanted sex. She was not nasty about it. She was not ashamed of it. She saw this guy in a hotel. She invited him to her house. She prepared him for what he was about to experience and got his consent. In writing. She had sex with him. Even thanked him for the evening.

This guy did not sing about this experience with any special message on either the shaming side or encouraging side. The same way Anita Baker nonchalantly sang about the sweetness of love this guy sang about this regular woman who took part in the pleasure of the flesh and then left.

As if this was what women did.

As if this were normal.

This guy had no idea how much that simple story blew my mind. Made me have to face the recurring desire I had for a rotating number of boys with whom I was in passionate fantasy relationships.

In my church, the message was: Sex was not necessarily a bad thing. Sexuality was perfectly normal. We just had to control it. It was best explored with a person to whom you were legally married. (Or at the very least, committed enough to that marriage was likely in the near future.) To do otherwise, left you, as a young woman, susceptible to broken heartedness, wasted child bearing years and a continued cycle of “being used up” by men who did not think enough of you to give you more than an orgasm. “But will they give you their last name?,” I remember one of those upstanding church ladies asking the group of girls who were sleeping over at her house after an A.Y. meeting.

This message often left me feeling defeated. Even though I was completely sure I liked boys, I was unsure if I wanted a grown one living up in my house 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. (And I was leaning towards a won’t-you-just-stay-here-from-Saturday-til- Tuesday compromise even by 10th grade actually.) I was absolutely certain I did not care about wasted child bearing years because the mere premise of changing the diapers of, feeding and trying to rock soothingly to sleep crying, ever-present babies struck me as a ridiculously ill-fitting dress to wear just to show off my womanhood. Even without trying on that lifestyle, I knew it mismatched the adulthood I envisioned for myself.

Where did this leave me and these feelings I was having for the Lorenzos and Johns and Larrys who kept popping up in my fantasies? Was I supposed to not remotely consider exploring this thing that God supposedly made a natural part of me since I would not likely marry them or any other boy?

And here was this guy, winking at girls like me and boys like him behind curly bangs, eyes trimmed with the smoky black lining of a skilled make up artist’s mascara pencil. Saying these things about his body and all the pleasures he treated it to. Lacing the music itself with sounds that would come to mirror, for me, the type of smiling fatigue one experienced post-sex, only to prove his manhood by adding those lyrics to finish off the deal.

At one point, this guy even had the audacity to say to my face, “I know you ain’t getting none. And I know you want to.”

It would be years after I began my obsession with him that I would try to be as bold as the woman in that song. By then, I had left behind the Christian church and was able to at least identify the layers of shame and guilt it wrapped around me even if I were still too young to effectively address the unraveling of those layers.

I called a man who I had been attracted to for what felt like centuries. I was tired of wanting him and not having him. I invited him to my apartment. Much like the guy who sang that song, this man eagerly came over.

We were both in our early 20s. So, of course this man never called me back after our night together.

I distinctly remember waiting for the shame and the sadness that were supposed to follow this experience of “being used.” I do not have memories of either. I do recall feelings of regret. We would never do more of what we had done that night? Had I known, I would have been more like the woman in that guy’s song and suggested we do other things, too. Things a young, inexperienced version of that woman would not have developed the courage to initiate just yet. It would take me another decade to be that kind of bold, but I knew then. I knew that the raw desire I felt and had satiated that night was, indeed, normal. As normal as that guy kept making it out to be in each subsequent song he released. I knew that giving into that desire could be as fulfilling when you had it a la carte as when it was paired with committed partnership.

To say we lost an icon seems trite now.

It hasn’t even been a full week yet and the count of tribute pieces is up to the hundreds…or more.

They all pretty much say the same thing: This is inadequate. I don’t have the right words. The ones I offer you are not even as good as his worst album. I should stop writing now. And you should stop reading. Because it is all insufficient.

Mine is no different.

I am now 40.

He was 57.

I never knew that when I was forced to think about why he had such a profound impact on me, the words you just read would come out.

So, you can stop reading now.

I, too, now admit the 1300 words you just ingested are inadequate, possibly incoherent and not even as good as Kiss.

How to Survive West African Beef

Growing up in New Orleans cultivated unique life skills in ya girl.  My culinary sophistication is so evolved I can sense when food is improperly seasoned from just a half bite. I also hold a deep understanding of the absolute healing power of all things deep fried. The most important skill the N.O. taught me, though, is how to survive. How to not lose my precious life out here in these streets. I know how to not get myself killed by people who don’t necessarily dislike me, but can not allow my disinterest in the New Orleans Saints to go unpunished. To be fair, I do not have (nor have I ever had) anything against the football team; I just have never had any interest in the sports. None of them. However, if you are a New Orleanian, you have to at least feign some excitement when the drunken slurs of slightly insane Saints fans crescendos into unified chants of “WHO DAT!” I half ass who datted! my way through my entire childhood; I continue the faux excitement even as an adult. Every now and again, I am able to make some reference to Breezus “eating dem dirty birds” (a phrase which I am about 57% sure refers to that sportsing team in Atlanta that may be the rivals of the Saints and whose mascot is most likely some sort of fowl).

Who knew that my ability to remain, at the very least, neutral among deranged New Orleanians watching/discussing/preparing for/reading about/remembering a pivotal Saints game would prepare me for all this beef between the major nations of West Africa? And by major nations, I mean the big 3: Ghana, Senegal and Nigeria.

There are many things over which these three countries compete. It seems like jollof rice is one of these things. A very big one. I have listened with practiced neutrality to many conversations about whose jollof rice is the “real” one and whose jollof rice is more “African,” which I assume means which country put jollof on the map.

“Ghana stole it from us.” Joyce Lynn’s statement surprises me because right before she said it, I had asked this question: “Where in Dakar can I go for some good jollof rice?”

“I know you have probably had it before when you were in Accra,” she continues. “But, you should know, it was not the real thing. It was stolen.”

I sense there is more Joyce Lynn needs me to know about Ghana’s thieving ass and its inferior rice. I lean in and raise my eye brows as if to say, “Really? Those bastards stole jollof rice from you?”

“We serve it better than they do.” Joyce Lynn then describes the “special presentation” that the Senegalese do when they serve jollof rice. There are lots of details as she talks about the different colors and the placement of chicken along side the rice so it is not so plain looking. With each tedious detail, I nod and go “OOOO?” Joyce Lynn also needs me to know that, in addition to being non-creative thieves, Ghanaians also use inferior ingredients in their ill-gotten recipe. “The rice they use. It is no good. No good at all.”

I listen to Joyce Lynn explain why the grain of rice is important and am careful not to bring up a recent thread I followed in an online travel group where a psychotic gang of Nigerians challenged an aggressive mob of Ghanaians to some sort of jollof rice cook off. Many taunts were thrown back and forth. I left the room (out of fear for my virtual safety) when the leader of the Ghanaian jollof mafia mocked the Nigerians by suggesting that when their rice was inevitably deemed substandard, he would line all the Nigerians up against the wall and have his other aggressively crazy friends throw banku at them. The thread had begun with someone asking why Ghana’s jollof got such a bad rep from other West Africans. Almost 50 comments later, no one had even mentioned Senegalese jollof rice. Not one person. I knew better than to say this to Joyce Lynn.

During our dinner that exposed me to more than I really needed to know about the complexity of rice, Joyce Lynn’s father introduced me to even more things that Senegal did better than the rest of every other country on the entire continent.

“Do you like this place we have taken you to?”

I look around the nicely decorated restaurant with a lovely view of the monument he and his daughter will arrange for someone to take me to see.

“Yes,” I nod enthusiastically. “It is very nice and the food is good.”

“Well, you must not come here alone at night. Ever. At a certain time of night, this turns into a place where lots of men come. They will maul you. If you must come back, call my daughter here to come with you.”

I am touched that this papa is extending his fatherly protection to me, just some nondescript American woman who is renting his flat for a week. “Chrys, that is very sweet of you. But, how you gon’ send a 24 year old to protect me from boys who are probably only a few years older than her?” We all chuckle, but Chrys adds: “My dear, you must know the difference between Senegalese men and other African men.”

Apparently, Senegalese men are much more clever than their Nigerian counterparts. “Let’s say you are in Lagos, a man will just grab you and tell you to come sit down and then he will put lots of alcohol in front of you. Those Nigerians – they are very direct. Very bold. They sometimes tell us we use too many words. They say: ‘Why are you still talking…oooo?’ So, they grab women when they are in these bars and then make them drink alcohol.”

According to Chrys, Senegalese men are much better at wooing women than Nigerians. They have lots of sweet talk stored in their minds for “just the right moment.” And they also dance well. They will say all these sweet things, “impress you with all those clever moves and before you realize it, you will be pregnant.”

So, although they are bitter that Ghana has put their signature dish on the map, Senegal takes solace in the fact that their men’s game is so much tighter than the men of Nigeria they can not only impregnate unsuspecting women, they can plant their seed with only a “Baby, you are so beautiful” and some superior foot work.

The competition (already won by “the obviously better country” in the mind of the Nigerian, Ghanaian and Senegalese) extends far beyond the actual western side of Africa. When I met a Nigerian at a party in Rwanda, one of the first questions he asked me was: “Have you been to Nigeria yet?” When I said that I had not, but was planning to visit West Africa soon, he quickly perked up. “You will go to Nigeria?” I told him that it was not the first country on my list.

“But, where will you go then?”

“Probably Ghana…”

Then, he got that look I knew well. When I was a teenager, I saw that same look on my pastor’s face when he looped an entire sermon about salvation around a Saints metaphor, in which their victory on the following Sunday would be analogous to the celebration all we saints sitting in the pews would feel on judgment day.

“Ghana is a nice country,” The Nigerian began. “But, how can you go there first? You can not say you have been to Africa until you have been to Nigeria.”

All the visitors on that Sabbath day gave their lives to Christ by the time Pastor Francois had finished describing the joy, the ultimate testament of the power of our prayers, the depth of our faith that the Saints’ victory would show.

“Who dat!” I yelled at the confused Nigerian.

“I do not understand.”

“Neither do I, Homie.”

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