I was seventeen. I had just moved to Berlin, Germany, from Nairobi, Kenya, right after high school on a German cultural exchange program. As I loved learning languages and especially excelled at German, I decided with the permission of my parents to live in Berlin for about a year to put my language skills to the test while experiencing the culture. This I considered the perfect gap year before I decided what I wanted to do in college.
In more ways than one, this trip was special to me as it was also my very first international trip outside of Africa. I was also traveling all alone. Even though I was going to live with a host family it was very much going to be a new experience for me. And this made it even more exciting. It was everything I loved rolled into one big adventure. Travel. Culture. Language. New places. Meeting new people. What was not to love?
True to my expectations, Berlin was everything I had dreamt it would be. Some kind of utopia. Where everything worked effortlessly. Clean. Extremely Clean. Very well planned and organized. Technology everywhere. Beautiful German machinery on the roads. Great infrastructure. A very modern public transport system with schedules that were always on time. Everything was proper. Like clock work. Very German.
For a young Kenyan/African girl, this was rather a step up from what I was used to. Less than good infrastructure. Not very beautiful, old and mostly Japanese machinery on the roads. Neither a very reliable nor comfortable public transport system. Lots of dust everywhere. I mean everywhere. And not the best planning of anything. But it was home. And it was what I knew. Until this moment. Nevertheless, I did not, would not let it show. In fact I got into the new system rather fast. Like a fish to water I took to everything. I dare say that it would have been hard to pick me out as the new comer had I not been a little more tanned than the locals.
One afternoon, on my way home from my classes, I was seated next to what I assumed was a middle aged woman in the top section of the double decker bus. She had awkwardly been staring at me the whole way probably because I was the only black person I could see in the bus. Or maybe because this particular bus line went towards one of the poshest areas in the city of Berlin. Yes. My host family did pretty well and consequently lived in one of the nicest areas of west Berlin. In the few weeks I had lived there I had not seen another black person in the area where we lived which meant that anytime I walked around alone or with my school friends who were of course white, I stood out easily. But that did not bother me much. I had expected it. After all my mother had always told me that I was quite easy on the eyes. Back to the lady in the bus, presumably when she really could not figure me out, she finally chose to say hello and introduce herself. I responded with a warm African smile and she proceeded to have a conversation. It started off as most regular chats do.
She asked me where I was from and I told her Kenya, adding that I was only a few weeks old in the country. She paused and then with a very puzzled and disbelieving look she asked me a question that I had never imagined I would have to deal with in what seemed at the time like the most sophisticated society I could imagine.
“How did you get here from Kenya? Surely there can’t be planes that actually go there, right?
I paused. And then as if I had not quite understood or heard her question I asked her to repeat it. And she did. Word for word.
I stopped. Hoping that she’d follow through with a laugh and maybe a ‘just kidding’. But she did not. And neither did she flinch. She looked straight at me waiting for my response. No. She was not kidding. Nor was she going to rephrase her question.
I wondered to myself how it was possible that she did not know how one travels from one country to another. Especially over oceans and seas. I wondered if perhaps she had no idea where Kenya was. Which on its own was a big deal to me who knew my atlas impeccably. Wasn’t that a question of mere common sense? How could one live in one of the world’s richest countries and cities, not to mention the poshest areas and still not know or figure out how I had arrived there, from my country? I concluded two things. That she was either being very condescending or very ignorant. I sincerely hoped it was the former.
So I rolled my eyes in a reflex and with obvious disgust. Just as I was beginning to swell with rage and starting to allow my facial expressions to do the talking for me, as I so often had done in situations that called for it, I remembered I was not in Kenya. Not in my dusty comfort zone. In fact I was so far from it, that I was the only person of my color let alone nationality in the bus. I pictured several outcomes that were probable as a result of my next move. And they were neither pretty nor helpful. A few even included never been able to roll my pretty eyes like that again. After all nothing was predictable around me. Not for now.
Obviously sanity prevailed and thankfully I lived to tell the story. But perhaps most critically I began building a new defense mechanism within me, that I did not realize until more than a decade later. A skill that I would very much rely on often than I had expected in the years that followed.
With a little self persuasion my facial expressions bounced right back to normal. A cheeky yet warm expression. And filled with a peace and confidence in my voice I wittily responded to her with a smile.
“I swam all the way here, ma'am.”
She looked at me expectantly waiting for me to say something more. Then she carried on with her offensive.
“Really? Did you really swim here?” She asked seemingly very sorry for me.
“No. Would you swim to Kenya?” I asked with as much tolerance as I could.
Not that I expected her to respond to my question, but when she did not, I figured out what was ailing her and I decided to let her ignorance become her bliss. She appeared to sense my indifference to the conversation and thankfully restrained herself from carrying on. So we both sat in silence until soon I was getting off the bus at my stop and wondering if perhaps I had been too quick to assume that everyone in this beautiful city of technology, was as sophisticated or as informed as I had imagined.
Suddenly I was seeing things differently. No doubt my host family had been nothing but a class act with me. But now I was aware that not everyone was open minded. That there were some that looked at me and immediately chose to think the worst of me or my situation. That they did not see me as the African girl that was visiting Berlin because she loved her German classes so much and excelled at them or the African girl that loved to travel, or the African girl that willingly chose to come and experience German culture for herself at her family’s expense, rather they looked at me and thought ‘I wonder what sort of things she had to do to get herself here’. Or ‘I wonder exactly what it took for her to get here’. They thought the worst.
This was an important lesson for me. I learned that I needed to quickly recognize when I was talking to these kind of people. That I needed to learn how to respond to them. To do it in a subtle manner so that they would realize their own ignorance. Much in the same way I had done with the lady in the bus. Hopefully if nothing else, I had given her a reason to consider the absurdity of her questions to me. Hopefully if she really did not know how an African girl would get from one country to another, now she was going to do some research on it. And if she was just being rude or condescending, then she realized that I was onto her too.
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