Expatriate Moments of Brevity: Life Abroad!

When you relocate to a new country, there are many inevitable awkward moments you run into, whether you’re extremely cautious or simply go with the flow. I’m not even talking about the food where it is apparently normal to add sugar to baked beans or meat, or eat jello with turkey.

It’s not about eating raw fish or crunchy little lifeless animals from the water! And I won’t go into details about a story of someone I know who yanked treats from kids as they rang the door bell for tricks or treats on Halloween. This new comer thought kids were handing out candies!

In the fall of 2006, I said goodbye to my dearest siblings and many friends who gathered at Kigali International Airport in Rwanda to send me off halfway across the globe. I was very excited about the opportunity to continue my studies and experience a new culture. My next stop? United States. The next paragraphs are my observations and experience!

With my bro and sisters on my brother’s Rwandan Traditional Wedding Day!

  • Comparison & Conversion

When you arrive in a new country for the first time, in order to adjust, you start first by comparing everything around you to what you were used to in your home country. You compare buildings, cars, people, dress fashions, you name it.

When you make a trip to the store to buy milk and realize that it’s sold in gallons, yes a gallon (what is that?), for $3.21, you immediately convert it in your own currency to see how much that would be, for example, in Rwandan Francs. Oh, before you figure this out, you first wonder what is a gallon compared to liters etc. Then you do the math to make a decision if your purchase is ideal.

In my very first effort to get my hair done when I arrived in the US, two friends (white and Asian) took me to the best place they knew. The stylist lady who was either white or Latina (definitely not black) assured me that she knew well how to work with black hair. I was ecstatic! The whole process lasted about 30 min. I was very impressed because it normally takes no less than an hour in Rwanda.

To my dismay, not only did my hairdo look as if they didn’t do anything to the hair, but it also cost me around $80. The hairstyle I was looking to get would normally have cost me around $10 in Rwanda. That was the last time I tried…well, until an African friend took me to an African beauty salon where someone finally knew what she was doing!

  • Translation

Oh, yes! You definitely think in Kinyarwanda at first (or whichever your native language is) and translate into English before responding to someone who just asked you what courses you are taking or your major at RIT or how long you have been in the country or simply what you do for a living.

Researchers say that you will know that you are comfortable in a new language when you no longer need to translate in your head from your native language to your new one before you speak or answer a question. Caution: At some point, you may become too comfortable in your new language that you might need to translate back into your native language before you talk; isn’t that funny but true?

Few months ago at my brother’s wedding, I vowed to myself that I’d make an effort to use Kinyarwanda only during my 5 minutes speech. Howbeit, in front of our honored hundreds of guests, as I searched in despair how to say “on behalf of” in Kinyarwanda, I feigned a smile as I apologized to the audience because I had no other word to replace it in order to complete my phrase. I indeed felt betrayed by the language I have spoken my whole life 😦

  • Moments of Boldness

As funny as this may sound, it is a moment of truth! Most likely, casual, humorous conversations and jokes will be different in your home country from your new home. For example, in Rwanda, weight issues are not only an icebreaker to start common daily conversation but also a way to let people know that you pay attention to their size.

People are not afraid to remind you that you’re fat and that you should probably start exercising. This is not a private conversation. It’s in the open for everyone around you to hear. Or perhaps that you are too thin and someone fears you may not have enough food in your home.

A woman carrying a sac on her head!

So, take a person from that context and into the United States. Also note that the only English words this brave person knows how to say related to weight is skinny and fat. Well, you can connect the dots. This creates an awkward moment when you tell someone in the US, especially women, that they are fat (they didn’t just “put on a few extra pounds” because you probably have never heard of such an expression).

I think that the cultural influence, in addition to the language barrier, may bring embarrassing moments for newcomers!

I am normally very careful in what I say to people because I am afraid to hurt their feelings, but once a dear friend poured her feelings out to me and some friends. I went on to tell her it was a first world problem. YEP! I sure did! Back then, it seemed like an innocent comment to go along with our fun conversation. Now I know that it was not the case.

Oh! Did I also mention that I once told a friend I had known for a few years that it was probably about time he started thinking about growing up, because after all, it was a new year and his sense of humor wasn’t amusing anymore! Who in the right mind says that? Fortunately, this gentleman found it funny and laughed about it! A word of advice: DON’T DO IT!

      • Weird obsessions

When you move to another country, at first you tend to stick to what looks familiar. For example, when you spot at the grocery store the powdered milk NIDO used a lot in Africa for tea, you want to jump with excitement for all shoppers to know that you have found a hidden gem in your new home. Similarly, when you go back to visit your country, everything looks so amazing that you want to snap photos of women carrying baskets on their heads or babies on their backs, in the streets, or just a typical traffic jam in the city.

You cherish everything that keeps you close to things you grew up seeing. You want to take everything back with you when you return to your new home…food, clothes, traditional decorations, everything. Likewise, if you could take everything you started liking in your new home on the trip with you, you would just do it. In the end, sometimes people will notice some obsessions that seem all too unfamiliar to both cultures.

You see the first picture with my siblings where my sisters and I are wearing Rwandan women traditional outfits? Those outfits have been around for ages. They’re basically worn by women on special occasions in Rwanda. Married women can own and wear them anytime (for parties etc.) but single women mostly rent them for special occasions.

Now, I am not entirely sure why I am beyond excited to own not one, but two of those, for myself, which are the gifts my brother and his wife gave to me on their wedding day. I cannot wait to wrap one of them around me and walk in it. And why am I obsessed with this? I have no clue!

Speaking of obsessions. I love everything about this photo. Why? Every detail in the background!

      • Where are you from?

This one will probably follow you always especially if you move to a new country at an older age. Your accent will always be such a giveaway. As soon as you open your mouth, at least in the United States, people are eager to ask where you’re from. Some people are funny enough to conclude that every black person with an accent must definitely be from Jamaica, and that’s probably one of the states of Africa, because after all, Africa is one country with many states just like Unites States.

      • Challenges on both ends

As harsh as it sounds, when you go back and forth between the two cultures, you will definitely realize that you blend in neither culture. You just choose what to adapt to and what to ignore. For example, time is very important in western countries, while it doesn’t mean anything in Africa at least. When in Africa, I often find myself annoyed by people who are late for meetings, especially when they don’t call to let me know that something came up.

When that happens, people around me wonder if I just fell from another planet because being late is normal in Rwanda. Similarly, as much as I try very hard, after several years, I still struggle to find the food that I like or adjust to the cold/hot weather in the US. Rwanda is a tropical country and the weather is close to perfection: (high 50s – low 90s) all year around.

      • Language butchering

In a country that speaks a different language than yours, you will realize that when you don’t pronounce their language the same way, you may be asked to repeat. Shortly after I arrived in the United States for the first time, I asked someone a question that had “learning” in it but they definitely heard “running“. Only then I realized that, “R” is pronounced differently from “L” in English while in Kinyarwanda they are identical.

Downtown Kigali in the distance on the hilltop!

Downtown Kigali in the distance on the hilltop!

      • Lagging behind

If you visit your home country, no matter how often you do that, you will realize that you live in the past (or at least the last time you were there). You will be amazed by how much everything has changed: new fashions, buildings, roads, sayings, new obsessions. Even if little has changed, it’s a big deal to you how everything looks. The excitement may plunge you into long explanations, only to realize that you sound like you are speaking a foreign language to your own people.

Believe me! Your efforts to describe that new beautiful tall building they just built where the bus station used to be won’t seize the moment for those who have seen the building under construction the year before. The breathtaking view from the hill where you can see most of the downtown Kigali at night with its beautiful lights? It’s just in your head, no one else finds it that stunning! It’s just life, you go into a series of emotions, whether young or older.

      • Embracing the new culture

This is very important and the final phase in the process of adjusting to the new culture and definitely a big deal if you want to enjoy your expatriate life. Some people tend to stick only around the community of people from their home countries. This one may render you bitter toward the new culture when you’re faced with a situation outside your community.

I once met a man from Rwanda who had been living in the US for 12 years at the time, but this man couldn’t speak English for a whole minute, literally. I was heartbroken! Take time to get out of your comfort zone and try new things. Be patient, humble and respectful. Explore, learn, master the language, and adapt to the culture. This will definitely make your life easier.

How about you? What has been your experience in a foreign country?

Rising From Ashes: Beyond Broken Memories!

“Lord, I have treasured your word in my heart, that I may not sin against You”  Psalm 119:11

Growing up in a happy family with the most loving parents anyone can wish for, nothing could ever have possibly hinted for an imminent danger or prepared me for what was about to unfold before my eyes as a little girl.

For those new to my posts, I was in the 7th grade when Rwanda descended into the worst atrocities of the 20th century, the Genocide against the minority Tutsi group. Over a million citizens were mercilessly slaughtered in a little over three month. This staggering number includes my parents, two of my siblings, friends, relatives, neighbors, fellow citizens.

9th Grader

Sometime between 1995 and 1996

Before this worst nightmare could be over, all seemed surreal for lack of a better term. Absolutely alone and abandoned, the first person to shelter me was my uncle’s wife whom we met in a refugee camp in the heart of the capital as we were being evacuated. After the Genocide ended, little did I know then, Shelia had found herself a nanny, for her two children under the age of 2, and a maid for her house: Hard labor, house keeping, watching kids, lack of sleep. My nightmare was too far from over.

Many months later, unaware that I had survived, on my way home from school, my mom’s youngest sister Beata spotted me. After learning my living situation, she sneaked me out and took me to her house. Beata worked for the government and her husband worked for the United Nations. Yet another expectation of love was as harsh as a death penalty. For many years I lived there, not only that she didn’t think I needed sanitary pads for women, my aunt waited until she didn’t like her clothes and shoes to pass it on me when she indulged herself with the most expensive outfits.

Inside the mansion’s brick walls, I was nothing but a slave as I dealt with emotional abuses at the hands of my so called aunt. As each day turned me into a hopeful young woman who’s thankful to have a roof over her and lived one day at a time, the hatred of a relative intensified, afraid that as a teenager, I may become her rival. Soon after that, my every single move was controlled. I was not allowed to eat with the family, or talk freely and my empty wardrobe was supervised. Slowly, I became a prisoner in my room as I was ordered to stay out of sight. I was accused of stealing grocery money as I shopped and carried heavy groceries by myself despite that the family owned a vehicle.

Then one day, Beata told me to leave her house. Honestly, I wondered what had taken her so long, leave alone knowing the crime I committed. As I embarked in a long road to recovery, it would be a long time before I would be convinced that NOT ALL married women are evil. Entering years of darkness and college, every day revealed mysteries as I begged people to give me a shelter for the night and wandered by day. I surely came few inches close to making streets my night shelter or perhaps selling myself for money to survive.

August 2012

August 2012

Nonetheless, I graduated among the top of my class with a Bachelors degree in Engineering, and was offered a full time job days before my graduation day. Only three months into the job, I won a full scholarship to grad school in United States, where I earned a Masters Degree in Engineering. Two years later, a job opportunity I have always wanted presented itself. Moreover, I was able to keep my 3 younger siblings in school, who were all under 10 during the Genocide: my brother Eric and sister Alice are expecting Master’s degrees and my baby sister Mireille will complete her undergraduate, ALL in 2014.

ALL IN ALL, I praise GOD Almighty, the Father of the fatherless who held my hand and reminded me that I was NOT alone as I witnessed the cruelty of the human kind, both relatives and strangers. I owe Him every great thing I possess, materialistic and life blessings. He never cease to amaze me. For that I am humbly thankful for:

  1. His unconditional love. I often think that God loves me more than any other living creature. By His Grace, I was able to forgive my aunts, those who killed my family members and everyone who has hurt me or was not there when I needed them the most. One by one, by name, I wish them nothing but the salvation revealed on the cross of Jesus.
  2. My brother and two sisters who are the greatest gift I will boast about, all my days. They are my sunshine on a cloudy day. God and my parents have my word, that, these three will always be loved as long as I breathe. There is nothing that will ever change this.
  3. That somewhere in a foreign land, thousands and thousands of miles away from my home country and people we share so much in common, I have at last a place I call home, where I feel young and loved. A country where I am no longer afraid of hunger and homelessness. I am incredibly blessed with parents who have nothing in common with me through eyes of flesh, but they call me their daughter. It is a place where my soul has healed, a country that showered me with love and hope.  These two phrases from my new parents are engraved in my heart and I carry them with humility and gratitude:  Wherever you will be in the world, remember that you have a home here, and a birthday card that reads daughter, your birthday will always be special“.

    My New Family

    With my family at a cousin’s wedding in May 2012

  4. The coolest job ever and the most awesome company I work for.
  5. The most amazing community, the Summit Church family, that helps me growing into knowing God more.
  6. The most incredible friends in my life. I can proudly say that I know all the great people out there.  If I started naming one by one, we would be here all day, but let me say that my heart lives in many countries in all continents. They make me feel special.
  7. The opportunities I have had this year to speak in front of few small groups as well as large audiences, sharing what the Lord Has done in my life.
  8. Great friends who shared my story on their blogs or journals. I am very honored and indebted to:
  • Kimberly Kaye Harms. She is an incredible woman of the King, wife and mother of 3 handsome boys. She hails from Huxley, Iowa. We met at a Christian Writers Conference in Wheaton, Illinois in June 2012. She has already shared several of my articles, not to mention her help and time editing some of my articles. I am truly honored that she is my friend.
  • Felicia Alvarez. She is an amazing and beautiful young woman of God. She lives in San Diego, California. We also met at the same Christian Writers Conference in Illinois in 2012.
  • The Summit Church Senior Pastor J.D Greear, from Durham, North Carolina. I am very humbled and honored to know J.D and to have met his amazing wife Veronica and their 4 beautiful children. Him and his family have contributed to my spiritual growth, not only by sharing my story with many people but also finding me opportunities to reach more audiences and new connections, their love and hospitality. God alone knows how grateful I am to them.
  • Andy Rogers at RBC/Discovery House Publishers in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who has been working on including a part of my story in Our Daily Bread journal.
When I look back in my past, it truly humbles me to I see where and who I am today. The truth is, even though I don’t know what the future holds, I know Jesus holds my future and that’s enough for me, even when I am faced with a dead end. My greatest dream is to be what God created and has been preparing me for. Without a shadow of doubt, I believe I had found my passion to cope with Challenges of Life. I hope to be a blessing to many broken lives around the globe; some of them I have been in their shoes: homeless, poor, hungry, orphans, abandoned, however God will decide to use me. I put my YES on the table. I will not change my mind!
Don’t let bad experiences define you, overcome evil with good!
As I look forward to 2014 with a lot of excitement and what God has in store for me, I wish you and your loved ones a prosperous year.
God bless you
Alphonsine

“Rwanda…..is it that next to Texas?”

No kidding. I wish this was a joke but it actually happened, when a Northeastern man, who shall remain nameless, approached one of my friends to ask where she is from. It is true, United States is massive, with many large states that I call countries. By the time you fly from New York to LA for example, someone who had left about the same time may have landed in London and rested. Rwanda is only 395.18 sq miles larger than the state of Maryland. Maryland ranks 42nd in size, out of 50 states. Per Wikipedia, the continent of Europe is only 135, 899 sq miles larger than the United States as a country (this includes water for both). So don’t blame me if I call states countries. It’s no wonder some Americans imagine their country as being almost the whole world and everything else tiny and surrounding it.

Some citizens, especially in New York City have this pride of thinking the city as it being the whole state. I attended grad school in Rochester, NY. Recently though, I met someone in Long Island who is from Brooklyn; when I mentioned that I lived in New York, this person answered: “FYI, we don’t consider upstate as a part of New York.” Go figure! Oh and by the way, there is a map that shows how a New Yorker sees the rest of the US. I did not want to attach the image because it uses some language I wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing, but New Jersey is apparently considered the armpit of NY. The mid west is called Tornadoes and Jesus and it has just one big city or something (Chicago!); the north west is a place you fly over to get to Seattle. And that’s the entire north, pretty much. I am sure a Texan sees United States differently too. You gotta love these people.

8391 miles apart
Kigali is about 8391 miles from Houston 😀

So you see, it’s not just the rest of the world viewed as a miniature by some Americans, it’s everyone else. As an advice, if you are from another country, don’t be offended if someone tells you that they never heard of your country before. Many Americans have not visited all 50 states either. But I just like the sense of humor in it all. One day, I volunteered for the Shepherd’s Table Soup Kitchen, a Christian organization that feeds the homeless. I met a very sweet woman, probably in her 60-70s. Shh, I am terrible at guessing age. On one occasion, I met an other lady on the plane and we became friends. During one hour flight, she insisted so many times that I guess how old she was. When I relented, I was 10 years off :(. She really looked like my auntie Angela who is 95.

So this wonderful lady at the Soup Kitchen asked me where I come from. By the way, some people think Africa as one country, so often I try to spare details and introduce myself as from Africa. Normally when I say just that and someone answers: “cool”, then I know they don’t really know much about Africa or where it is. But I wanted to keep a conversation going so I asked this lady: “Do you know much about Africa”?  And the sweet lady answered innocently with excitement: “Yes of course I do. I have been on a mission trip to HAITI”. YEP. True story!

Actually, I was not any different before I first arrived in the US. I thought that Canada was in Europe, because they speak French. I was shocked that just on the other side of the Rochester’s Lake Ontario lay the Canada’s Toronto. BUT this was my ignorance; since last year, I made it my goal to learn the world map. I must say that I am doing pretty good. My intention with this is not to point out anyone’s flaws or judging. I am just writing what I have seen, that’s all. We are after all brothers and sisters.

  • Weight versus Age

These two are a big deal in these two countries, and this is especially for just women. Back home, some women throw birthday parties until they turn 25, and after that, they just stop counting. The following year may be another 25th birthday. Unlike in the US, I don’t remember the last time I was asked about my age in Rwanda. At a birthday party, you come, eat and go. You simply don’t ask how old someone is. It’s not being rude, it’s just our culture I guess. After I arrived in the US, I was shocked to hear someone asking me how old I am, in front of a group of people. Seriously? Why? I wondered. But in the end, I realized that it’s just as asking your name. BUT the weight, it’s a no no. Do never ask someone around here how much they weigh.

On the other hand, the weight number isn’t a big deal in Rwanda; but the way we approach it, it can get sensitive and personal. It’s just more than asking you how much they weigh. If you gain so much weight in Rwanda, someone may walk to you and let you know that you might be bursting out soon if you do not stop eating whatever you are feasting on those days. They will remind that you should join a gym or starve. They don’t use polite or sweet expressions such as you have put on a few pounds; they will make you aware that you are fat. Facebook isn’t that helpful either; if you post a picture, someone may ignore a cute dress and shoes you have on to comment that you are simply huge and asks you what had happened to you. We somehow learned to laugh it out. After being in a culture that reacts differently, it made me wonder if it hurts people back home to be told such things.

By the way, did I mention that gaining weight may be a complement somehow? When a woman gets married and doesn’t put on few pounds, she must not be happy in her marriage. Losing too many pounds may be equally negative. When I first arrived in the United States, I lost several pounds; it took me a while to get used to the food around here. And guess what? Rumor had it that I must be poor and starving here. Yep. As a proof, most my Facebook pictures have such comments asking me why I am so thin. Of course this is nothing hurtful comparing to gaining weight.  Don’t get me wrong, Rwandans are the most hospitable people I have ever met. This is just another casual conversation. I will write more about hospitality in my next post.

One day I joked with friends about this weight topic. One of my friends made it clear to me that she would rather be asked how old she is than her weight. She is very tiny by the way. And I let her know that I would rather repeat my weight to everyone rather than my age. It is very interesting how different cultures can be. Needless to say, that night was full of laughter. Our mutual friends teased this friend that next time when they see her with a few extra pounds, they would ask her if she’s been feasting on McDonald’s. Another friend mentioned to me that if she came to Rwanda and someone told her that she looked fat, she would simply cry. Sadly, I told her that I was just preparing her in case it happens!

  • Being On Time

This is just a language we don’t speak where I come from. When I first arrived in Rochester, New York, I was blessed to have someone to give me an advice. He was a Rwandan Professor at RIT. He said that if I wanted to succeed in this country, I would have to be on time. He said that if it’s 10 am, I should plan to arrive anytime before 10 am and wait by the door if needed. He made it clear that if I was a minute or two late, they may not take me in. I was scared and in rush always. Why is that? Okay so in Rwanda, when you arrive at a place on time, it probably means you are not that important and have nothing else to do. If you were such an important person, you would have been busy with other things.

It took me a while to arrive at 7pm to a party that starts at 7. Not because I am important, but because I was used to show up when I can. Ceremonies in Rwanda end when everyone leaves! When you host a party, 7pm probably means 9pm. And people won’t even display any sign of remorse for making you wait for them, or arriving late. Everyone just somehow thinks that the time is there to get you going, not necessarily to follow it. One American writer who currently lives in Africa said it well: “the African time runs a couple of hours  behind the real time”. This is nothing but the truth!

If you have lived in another country, what were key takeaways in the new culture comparing to yours?