Going to America – Mustings of a Kenyan

Derrick Okull

America. The U.S. The States. Land of the free, home of the brave, domain of Bill Gates, McDonalds, Kellogs, Who wants to be a millionaire.

I always imagined America to have sunny blue skies, homes with white picket fences and the perfect family on the inside. You know, the type that has two parents, one and a half children and a dog.

And the grass. The grass would be greener than any grass I'd ever seen. Greener than the grass in the rainy season back home in Kenya. Yes, that's the place that I dreamed of.

That is the America where I would go to find refuge from all the stresses of my life, and take advantage of the boundless opportunities. That's the place where everything is democratic, none more equal than the other.

The land of opportunity. I would make quick big bucks, live in those nice homes with picket fences and maybe even have the one and a half children and a yellow dog to complete the picture. When I was growing up, my grandfather always told me I must go to America, because he said that was where all the answers to life would be provided in full.

My father said that I must hold an American degree, for that was the key to life. Half the shows on television depicted the perfect American life, and the only reason I watched the box was to occasionally escape into the fantasy of being in America. Such was my joy therefore when I said those tearful good-byes to my folks, friends and others who were glad to see me go at the airport.

But there is a lot they didn't tell me about this great land of opportunity. They didn't tell me that when I landed at Philadelphia International Airport in the sunny summer weather, I didn't need my heavy woolen sweater, made in Kenya. They didn't tell me that the flight leaving London at 11.00am and landing in Philadelphia at 2.00pm was not actually 3hours but 8hours.

Something about the time being different here. They didn't tell me that everyone in America spoke so fast, that they walked so fast and drove so fast, and that I would have to declare the mangoes, papaya and spices that were nicely packed in a corner of my suitcase.

I approached the immigration counter lugging my suitcase that was probably as heavy as me and had taken several family members to painstakingly pack. I could still hear my father admonishing me two days before: "Why are you carrying so much tea and spices? Don't you think they have them in America?" But my friend who was going to meet me on the other side had specifically asked for these items. Like my dad, I didn't understand what the big deal was.

I couldn't know at the time. A year later, I would wonder why Kenyans drink their beer warm and Americans their tea cold, complete with ice in it. And that only months later I would willingly trade McDonalds for greasy "Kenchic" fries, infact willing to drop the numerous tasteless low-fat processed foods for a taste of "bhajia's" wrapped in old newspaper.

Some myths proved true about America. Life is fast, people walk fast, talk fast, drive fast and even eat fast. In the work-place? Gone are the "no-hurry-in-Africa'" days of working 8.00am to 5.00pm with a leisurely one-hour lunch.

I sorely miss the sacred lunch-hour where offices came to a standstill and workers packed down-town restaurants and parks to relish their meals and even sneak in a siesta. Everybody seems to be in a hurry.

And almost everyone has a cell phone, a beeper, email, and voicemail. Or a cell phone that is a beeper, a beeper that has voicemail, email that has voicemail, a cell phone with internet access, the combinations are endless. Yet somehow, in this whirlwind where everything seems to work, something still seems amiss.

Here, students eat in class, dress in any manner they deem fit, ask a million and one questions about Kenya (Many call it Africa, others assume we are all runners, and yet others think we live in the jungle with lions, giraffes, leopards, elephants and monkeys).

Students here address professors by their first names, something that would be called disrespectful in Kenya. Here it's called fostering a casual learning environment. There is a different vocabulary and a different dictionary too.

Not only are petrol stations called gas stations, the aerial of a car is called an antenna, its windscreen is a windshield, its boot is a trunk, but trunks are also swimming costumes, which are also known as swimsuits or bathing suits. I had to learn to spell "colour" as "color," refer to "trousers" as "pants," or "toilets" as "restrooms" or "bathrooms." I had to learn to speak of "pants" with a straight face, for the word refers to "underwear" in queen's English, which is what is spoken in Kenya.

There is an unwritten dress code for almost every occasion; take a look around whenever there is a job fair on campus - white shirt, black tie, black trousers, sorry, pants, and shiny black shoes. It looks like a uniform; or wear your favorite suit to class, like I used to do back home on Fridays, and listen to everyone's reaction.

And then there is the obsession with weight. I have got in trouble with ladies whom I told they had gained weight since the last time I saw them, something that would be a big complement back home.

TV commercials are always telling people new ways to lose weight, lose weight and then lose weight. But doesn't someone somewhere ever need to gain weight? At least I know I do, otherwise my grandfather will never believe me when I tell him I was in America.

While America hasn't made me a millionaire yet, I now own a car, which I could not drive for weeks because I was afraid to drive on the right side of the road (they keep left in Kenya); I now have credit cards (I get pre-approved applications every week), live in a large apartment and almost eat like a king everyday, luxuries I thought were only available to wealthy businessmen. But like those wealthy businessmen, I pay bills and taxes, only without the luxury of a wealthy businessman's salary.

Being in America has not yet given me the elusive "American dream" of white picket fences. But what I have achieved so far is more valuable than anything I ever aspired to attain. I have learnt the painful lesson that what I saw on T.V and dreamt about every day is just that - a mere fantasy. The same hard work that Kenyans in Kenya have to do to make ends meet, Kenyans here must do too. Not every American has a white picket fence and beautiful lawn, and the streets of America's cities have some inhabitants too.

I have learnt to speak to people without having to repeat for them to understand me; Now when I call home, they say I have an accent, and when I speak to people here, they say I have an accent too.

I have learnt to tell my professor when I think he is wrong, and I am slowly learning to flash a quick "smile" when my eyes meet a stranger's eyes. And when I go back home to my country, I will let my dog come into my house, even have its own room, and ask the vet not to shoot him if he gets sick.

Derrick Okull (doo101@psu.edu) is a graduate student in Department of Food Science. He is the current president of African Students' Association.

Source - International Student Council

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