I think of my friend Iriza. She is half Burundian and half Rwandese and grew up in Italy but now lives in France, and she attended high school with me in Singapore. This is my scant attempt at scraping the top of her identity; she is a fine example of the pots we talk about, the ones in which all cultures melt.
I thought leaving for Singapore would be an easy process. I was going to get on a plane for the first time, so who could turn down that offer? Honestly, that is beside the point (Still, this was the first time I would board a plane — QR 535 to be exact). I was joining the United World College of South East Asia for the two-year International Baccalaureate program. There are certain stages in travel preparation where one moves from uneasy nerves, to excitement, then numbness kicks in and finally the nerves strike a blow again. I did not escape this metamorphic cycle, and as a self-acclaimed expert I can confidently speak on this topic. My nerves experienced an unsparing uprooting with each mention of “passport,” “visa,” “Asia,” and “travel well.” “Miss u, <3” messages from my friends were undoubtedly the worst. These texts left me with a sense of incompleteness, a state of “unbeing,” as if I was betraying them by leaving Kenya. Yet the adolescent and unnerving spelling of “u” remained uninspiring, so I did not cry. My stomach was not full of jittery butterflies; they had morphed into a swarm of sadistic bees that jabbed and poked at my insides, leaving me pained by the fact that I would be leaving my family behind in Kenya. But, true to the cycle theory, I returned to the excitement stage soon enough.
Singapore was humid. Singapore is humid. My face was constantly sticky, and soon I learned that my modest clothes covered too much skin to compete with the vicious heat. I got used to the concept of “Air Con” everywhere, and back sweat did not disgust me; it was an accepted way of life. I began to respect traffic lights, because those are merely decorative on the streets of Nairobi. I learned to call all the elders in the community “auntie” or “uncle,” and decorating my sentences with “lah” became the norm while I was out in the city. I ate way too much Laksa and later learned that’s where all the calories had been hidden. I drank Teh Tarik every Sunday after attending church service. I assimilated, yet with all this, I still stood out.
I often wondered how Iriza coped with having so many facets to her identity. And by identity, I mean basic descriptors. She was black, French, Rwandese, multilingual and so much more. And here I was, struggling with fitting into this one culture. I have always been just Kenyan, and that is all I had ever known. In Kenya, I disappeared in crowds, and looked like every other 19-year-old girl around the corner, give or take a few kilos. I grew up in a black world, and have never stood out by virtue of my color. Soon I found myself in unpleasant situations where my complexion was the topic of conversation for minutes. Minutes. My hair! Ah, how I learned that hair is truly political. It was as if I had signs jutting out of my head reading “Touch this,” “Free petting,” “Tug and see reaction.” Unperturbed, I read this as innocent curiosity from my non-African peers, but the questions concerning my hair care process, once from a bald, Japanese man, soon left me feeling beleaguered.
I could be seen. My dark skin, dreadlocked hair, wide hips, and foreign accent were visible. I felt especially out of place in crowds where I was the only black person. Little kids stole glances at me, yet their mothers did not reprimand them because they found themselves staring too. Outside schools, the black population in Singapore is very small. As a result, there were special moments when I would spot a black person on a train and feel a gush of familiarity that made me crave home, crave to be engulfed in a sea of likeness.
But I must admit, I grew to love the questions. Speaking about my hair, skin, and continent made me realize how special I am and I learned to appreciate the vital space I occupy in this world. I inspired a Swazi friend to get dreadlocks and taught my roommate from Timor-Leste how to undo braids (that is a whole other story). Life became a series of exchanges, rather than the monotony of fitting in. I do not want to fit in. I want to be uncomfortable. To be visible even when I do not want to stand out. To be driven to share myself because through me so many people can learn. I want to be a fruitful vessel. I grew fiercely patriotic during my time in Singapore since I learned to love all the glorious things that make Kenya so wonderfully unique. The same process happened internally, and I find special things within me always. To be seen is not so bad after all.