As if in a trance, I picked up my bags, put one foot in front of the other until, by some miracle, I found myself staring into the eyes of the poker-faced official sitting behind the check-in counter.
In retrospect, this was my longest journey ever. Not even the ensuing twenty-nine hour flight from Zimbabwe to New York via the United Arab Emirates could compare to the long distance from the zone of familiarity where my family stood waving affectionately to the South African Airways check-in point where a man in authority sat, indifferent to the cares of the world.
I had waited for too long for this day. Home was an army camp where my aunt always played Sergeant at Arms and imposed on us the role of subordinates. Every morning we would wake up to her shrill voice screaming commands. And every evening, I would go to bed relieved that it was one day closer to the date of my departure.
My uncle is a hard man who believes in justice, strict discipline and hard work. He is a devout believer in corporal punishment and in his “justice” metes out five lashes of thick fan belt rubber on the back of whoever does anything wrong. I lived in awe and fear of him and made sure that our paths never crossed. I turned down one party invitation after another because partying was unbecoming in his eyes. Whenever he was home, I dissuaded my friends from visiting me or even calling because I desperately did not want to lose favor in his eyes.
As the day of my departure drew near, I could hardly contain my excitement. Freedom, independence and peace would finally be mine. After eighteen years, I would finally be a teenager!! And like a broken record, the words “Obama, here I come!” replayed themselves in my mind.
But as I wept at the airport, none of these thoughts came to mind. All I could think about was how I was leaving behind an excellent cook of an aunt whose ethnic recipes would never be served in Silliman Dining Hall (purportedly Yale University’s best dining facility). An aunt whose laughter was very rare – and when you made her laugh, you felt a warm glow envelope you making you appreciate life’s smallest moments.
Leaving home meant leaving an uncle, foster father and best friend who had confidence (or was it overconfidence?) in my capabilities and good sense of judgment. He loved me more than he loved his own children but he, just like me, nurtured the secret fear that my pursuit of education would erode the Christian values and African ethos that he had single-handedly instilled in me. He always mirrored my exact sentiments and for that reason, we related excellently. Would I ever find anyone like him in America? I put aside the now-hopelessly soaked tissue and let tears cascade freely down my cheeks.
The benefits of an American education entice a wide range of people regardless of race, religious preference or political affiliation. However, it is that bold leap into the unknown that most of us dread. In our hearts, we question ourselves, “What if I do not fit in?” “What if I do not make any friends?” “What if no one likes me?”
In the month that I have been at Yale University, I have learned that I know who I am: a Zimbabwean in America, and that, on its own, dictates my personality. I have come to realize that dramatic social metamorphosis cannot be imposed on anyone by external factors.
My room is always as tidy as my aunt taught me it should be. I have found American parties to be so unfamiliar that they expose my social ineptness, and so, on a Friday night I would rather be on Google, stalking the works of my professors instead of striking up conversations with strangers in some ill-lit room.
My experience so far has also taught me that love is a common currency that every human trades in. Give out love and you will receive it. Put a smile on your face and everyone will smile back. Do not be afraid to reach out for your dreams, to aim for the stars because whenever you jump, love – like life insurance- will be your safety net.
I am living harmoniously with my suitemates, all of whom are American. Not a day goes by without a smile on my face, tears of happiness in my eyes and love in my heart. On my birthday, September 4, a large group of fellow freshmen, all of whom I had known for less than a month, threw me a surprise party. As I beamed at them all in pure bewilderment, I knew that I had arrived home.