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Cherishing our Crum Woods

in Columns/Opinions by

Following my morning routine abroad in Hanoi, Vietnam, I am riding the bus from my host family’s house to my classes at Hanoi Medical University. I am mesmerized by the thousands of motorbikes on the road. At least half of the riders are wearing facemasks to protect themselves from pollution. As I exit the bus, I can’t help but notice how difficult it is to breathe as my lungs feel caked in dust and particulate matter.

While I am smiling as I am transfixed by the motorbikes honking at me to move despite walking on the sidewalk, the traffic and horns are a sharp contrast to the peaceful environment I have come to appreciate in the Crum Woods and on Swarthmore’s campus. At Swarthmore, the smell of Japanese honeysuckle and fresh rain accompany me to class each morning, but in Hanoi, the odors of smoke from street vendors, gasoline from motorbikes, and trash from garbage left on the side of the road overwhelm my senses. Back at Swarthmore, when in need of clearing my head, I can stroll through the Crum and get lost in listening to the rushing water of the creek and the chirping of the birds. Here in Hanoi, I am always aware of the motorbike sneaking up behind me and the street vendors yelling, asking me in Vietnamese to purchase something from their stand. I cannot lose myself completely in my thoughts, or else I will not be able to keep up with the quick pace of this city that is unlike any I have ever experienced.

The outdoor space on Swarthmore’s campus, both inside and outside of the Crum Woods, is a precious resource that has become especially dear to my heart these last two years, and even more so now that I must try and seek solace in an area with little to no actual green space. The Crum Woods provides space for students and community members to meditate, reflect, and get lost in their own thoughts. It provides space for students to become the responsible, ethical, and balanced citizens that Swarthmore’s mission demands its students become. In a study conducted last year through the President’s Sustainability Research fellowship, the three most common words students used to describe the Crum were “beautiful,” “diverse,” and “peaceful.” Students discussed enjoying the Crum Woods because they use it for exercise and retreat from the college’s grueling academic atmosphere. Overall, they offered it relieves some of Swarthmore’s pressure that can sometimes become overwhelming. The Visioning Process Final Report the college published last year also found that better use of outdoor space was one of the top desires of students on campus.

Still, students are not taking advantage of the natural spaces that exist on campus because they are “too busy.” However, what if making time to enjoy the natural resources that we have on campus became a priority? After all, studies show that time spent outdoors can actually make students more productive. According to the Huffington Post, two researchers from Stanford University found that walking outdoors boosts creativity, and researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found outdoor activity is likely to improve concentration. Lee and Ingold, in their article “Fieldwork on Foot,” describe the value of the outdoors best when they state, “the rhythms of movement are very different and people draw attention to the specific qualities of the outdoors,” compared to the almost static movements of the indoors.

I challenge you, Swatties, to make embracing the Crum Woods and the arboretum, in which you are all lucky enough to live and immerse yourselves, a goal this semester. Make time to take a walk in the woods, to listen to the sounds around you, and to notice how the natural environment actually improves your wellbeing, and perhaps even motivates you to finish your studies. While you’re at it, use events like the Scott Arboretum Tree Planting and Crum Woods Tours to motivate yourself to enjoy and conserve our woods. I challenge you to let the Crum Woods change you the way that the woods have changed me.

It is because of the Crum Woods that I have come to understand the serenity that exists in the world although our fast-paced and routine-oriented lives attempt to tell us otherwise. I’ll never forget the comfort of the woods last semester when I was practically in tears after failing a paper. I was completely overwhelmed when I realized that I had to quickly recover from that paper because I had a biology exam and other readings to complete. I found myself storming into the woods to walk out my frustration. After a few minutes in the woods, my heart began to slow and my eyes began to dry. Hearing a Carolina wren in the distance and watching a squirrel happily scurry up a tree, a small smile spread across my lips. Though academics are important, there is so much more to the world than one paper. The woods are a constant reminder that there is so much more to explore and so much more life beyond stress. It is because of this peace from the Crum Woods that I have been able to reaffirm my own values and discover where I belong in society.  

Of course, as I am away from the Crum Woods this semester, I still wouldn’t trade exploring for Hanoi for anything. There are aspects of Hanoi that I love and that I could never find at Swarthmore. I can’t even begin to describe how astonished I am by the simplicity of life many people follow, eating pho for lunch on a little blue stool resembling that of a four-legged children’s seat from my childhood. I love the vendors who opt for pedalling around a bike to transport their fruit and goods in baskets, content with wearing a rice hat to cover themselves from the beaming sun. At Swarthmore, we complain about having to sit in our dorm rooms without air conditioning, never mind pedalling a bike in the 100-degree hot, humid weather, but that argument is for another article.

Even so, there’s something to be said about valuing a luxury that many of us students don’t fully realize we have on campus. My experience in Hanoi has showed me how lucky we all are to not have to walk around campus with facemasks or smell garbage and toxins every time we leave the indoors. This privilege must motivate us to cherish and protect our woods even more, and we should make a conscious effort to appreciate and care for our natural environment the way it cares for us every day.

Students examine Cuba in Black Studies

in Around Campus/Around Higher Education/News by

On Monday, March 13th, Social Sciences Associate Professor and Department Chair at the State University of New York Empire State College Nadine Fernandez spoke in McCabe Library to community members about race in Cuba. Her speech focused on the history of race among Cuban populations in relation to the family unit and relationships. In the audience were students taking Professor Nina Johnson’s Blacks in Diaspora, the directed reading course of the Black studies department this spring semester. This course also participates in the college’s Experiential Learning Program this semester as it culminates with a trip to the island. The course explores Black identity in Cuba in relation to the migration of Black people and their social movements.

Fernandez’s talk framed the construction of race in Cuban circles through the island’s history. She began with describing the island’s colonial plantation economy that imported enslaved people from Africa, led the audience through the Cuban Revolution, and concluded with commentary on the present day. The talk traced how “the sexual economy of race” in Cuba — explained in Cuba’s Racial Crucible by University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Karen Morrison as how different sexual actors; their relationships; their children, if they are present; and their histories are defined by race — influenced perceptions of race on the island. Further, it defined how race mixing, or people of different races coming together in sexual relationships and in interracial relationships, helped to form the island’s layered organization of race.

Blacks in Diaspora dissects the African experience in different societies that are historically related to the African diaspora, defined by late Nigerian historian J. F. Ade Ajayi in his Africa in the Nineteenth Century Until the 1880s as “the migration of Africans to the outside world under the auspices of the trans-Atlantic and other forms of slave trade.” This semester, the course considers Cuba as a society with a stratified construction and classification of Black, brown, and white people. Coleman Powell ’20 detailed how the talk helped to parse the racial system we work within in the U.S. versus that of Cuba.

“The concepts of one Cuban race clash bitterly with my own understanding of a country [the U.S.] still reeling from the legacy of chattel slavery, Jim Crow, and other institutionalized forms of racism,” Powell said. “Cuba has a history of mixing between races and this is helpful when one is trying to understand the stratification of Cuban society [such as] the racial categories of White, Black, Indigenous peoples, and Mulatto/Mestizo.”

Part of the experiential learning course is the participation in research on the particular aspects of the Cuban experience in relation to race. Prospective Black studies major Brandon Ekweonu ’20 outlined his research intentions.

“I am very interested in studying the different ways in which different Black people around the world understand their own identities,” Ekweonu said. “I want to … gather data as part of my research on the different ways in which people understand ‘race’ and its implications if they even believe that it has implications. Again, I am most interested in who might identify themselves as Black, Black Cuban, or Afro-Cuban and how their narratives may differ from those of white Cubans.”

Powell, who is studying Afro-Cuban social movements and whether there are connections between Afro-Cubans and other people throughout the African diaspora, stated that Fernandez’s talk provided perspective into how to better approach differing encounters with race.

“The talk was helpful in helping me to think about race from the standpoint of Cubans rather than as an American,” Powell said. “I will have to be very meticulous with my word choice in interviews [for my research] because my perception of race related questions may be completely different than someone of Afro-Cuban descent.”

A key component to the course is the trip to Cuba following the Spring 2017 semester. The trip will allow students to continue research ingrained in the culture and environment they were studying. Ekweonu highlighted how the trip will provide new opportunities.

“For a while now, I’ve been particularly interested in the way race is constructed in Latin America,” Ekweonu said. “For me, [the trip] is going to be my first time ever being in Latin America, and therefore the first time I will ever have an opportunity to witness race within a Latin American context apart from experiences in Latinx communities in the United States. It is also a trip that I wouldn’t have been able to afford to make on my own.”

Powell did note that the trip, although exciting, is the product of a semester’s worth of exploration, study, and research. The trip will be contextualized by the work performed and produced by the students.

“The trip will be a culmination of this [semester’s] learning. There is a research component to this class, and before I even think about the itinerary of the trip, I must first have this research done.”

Powell then detailed his motivations for understanding the Cuban history of race.

“As a member of the African-Diaspora myself, I am deeply interested in the political implications of a group that is linked based on a shared cultural memory of slavery because the nature of our struggles for liberation have been inherently political,” he said.

Powell also made note of how the course had extensive connections to other social science fields, and he highlighted links to historical power structures in relation to the African diaspora.

“I entered the course with the expectation that I would find linkages between the diaspora and the field of international relations as well as sociology in general, and I have not been disappointed,” Powell said. “There is a clear link between imperialism, colonialism, and the scattering of the peoples of the diaspora. Imperialism and colonialism have to do with how empires were administered, and this represents some of the earliest manifestations of the field of international relations.”

In sum, Powell described his goals of connecting his academic motivations to understandings of history, contemporary politics, and intercultural relationships.

“The trip is important in fostering engaged scholarship across international borders. What I learn in the classroom will always be applicable in the real world, or at least that is my goal. The trip will also be helpful in fostering dialogue between people of the diaspora,” Powell said.

Ekweonu went on to say how the trip will provide important context in the study of Black experiences and demonstrates the importance of racial and ethnic study programs at Swarthmore and beyond.

“I’m someone who has, for a long time, been having trouble deciding whether or not I wanted to pursue Black studies because of the way it seems to be undervalued by a lot of the academic community. A trip like this reassures me, first of all, that there are professors that are extremely invested in Black studies work in the world and here on campus,” he said. “Second, it reminds and reassures me that so many of my fellow students see just as much value in Black studies as I do. This goes, just as well, for areas like the Latin American and Latino studies program … It reminds me that the work I and so many others want to do is valuable. So, I think this trip means a whole lot for every single person involved.”

Powell echoed this sentiment, explaining the multifaceted nature of the program.

“It is also important to note that this is Black Studies course! The importance of Black Studies as an interdisciplinary field cannot be ignored, especially when it is contributing new and dynamic research to academia,” he said. “Black studies provides a space for discussions on identity, culture, and politics that would not be had otherwise. These discussions and the opportunities, like trip, that discussions produce are necessary if progress towards a more socially conscious state is actually what anyone really wants.”

The Blacks in Diaspora course offers students an opportunity to explore race in Cuba through research and an immersive trip. Students largely see this trip as a way to understand race in another societal context and as reason to support racial and ethnic studies on campus.

Is study abroad really worth it?

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

My fantasy of studying abroad began on the college tour I took during my senior year of high school. Swarthmore College, a floral, east coast school with a tiny acceptance rate was promising to ship me off to Europe and change my life. I was sold and began preparing for my junior fall abroad on the first day of college in Introductory French.  

Throughout my first two years here, the excitement of going abroad lived up to the hype presented by admissions. The Study Abroad Office bombarded us with pictures of students smiling in front of castles and beautiful jungles, while Swatties who were fresh from abroad provided us with unwelcome anecdotes about how much they miss the Spanish way of life, or how the crêpes at ML breakfast are “just not the same as in France.” Yes, we know.

I, however, do not plan to reiterate that narrative. I am not about to declare myself a global citizen who suddenly sees what he was missing all along. I learned many things while I was abroad and gained irreplaceable experiences, but I want to share what happens when you do not have the time of your life. I want to share what it’s like when going abroad is very, very difficult.

Before going to Strasbourg, France during my junior fall, I had never been out of the country. Well, I had been to Canada for an underwhelming 16 hours while touring McGill University, but that didn’t exactly douse me in multicultural knowledge. Traveling was never something my family did, and my parents didn’t have any advice for navigating a new country. Even Swarthmore’s gatekeepers Rosa Bernard and Pat Martin couldn’t predict what I was going to experience in parts unknown.

In France, I first learned a lesson of language. My main goal was to learn French, the language of Voltaire and Pepé le Pew. I had risen for 8:30a.m. classes for four semesters straight, and I felt it was time to collect my reward for all my hard, tiring work. I didn’t want to simply learn more French, I wanted to be fluent by the end of my semester. I wanted utterances about baguettes and the Eiffel tower to slip off my tongue without a second thought. I wanted to seem like I wasn’t American. For reasons I never really figured out, this seems to be a common goal of foreigners traveling abroad.

When I listened to others talk about their language immersion programs, I heard a lot of rhetoric about a “click” moment, during which one experiences what seemed like some sort of linguistic nirvana. The “click” advice promised that, after a few weeks of frustration, I could rest assured that I would start to “get it.” My vowels would sound more exact, the syntax of my sentences would align naturally, and native French would no longer sounds like gargling and random tongue flips.

Click.

This may have been the worst piece of advice I received. As I learned in Strasbourg, acquiring a new language is a never-ending battle. It’s the look of confusion and possibly insult on the waiter’s face when you try to order water and you’re not sure if you want “eau” or “de l’eau” or “d’eau.” It’s starting out your semester reading “L’étranger” by Camus, giving up after a week, and exchanging it with a translated version of Charlotte’s Web, which you still need a pocket dictionary to get through. It’s the daily struggle that I experienced in trying to understand my professors and internship director during my program.

The second half of my program was an internship in a linguistics lab. It mostly involved asking my director to repeat herself three times in a row and on the fourth time nodding my head and not answering the question that I didn’t know she had asked. I know that my French improved while I was there, but the linguistic barrier drove me crazy, if not made me feel lonely. It accentuated my status as an outsider and, for the first time, brought my identity as an American to the front and center of my attention.

Fall of 2016 was not an easy time for anyone to be an American. In my young memory, politics had never been more vicious. I watched with anxiety as the presidential race unfolded into a cock fight during September and October. I eagerly awaited the end of it until I woke up the morning of November 9th to the living nightmare that no one expected. It was not easy to feel like the only American on that day. There were other Americans in my program, but by that time, I had started working in a linguistics laboratory with only French people, who were, to my surprise, not feeling the same sense of tragedy that I was. The American election was of course covered by French media, but the French people around me were not offering me their shoulders to cry on. France may as well have been a different planet. They were French, and I was an American in France at a time when many in my country were questioning what it meant to be an American. In the moment when everyone I loved was in turmoil over an uncertain future and I was across an entire ocean, I could only think, “what am I doing here?”

I certainly experienced a plethora wonderful things in France. I miss the beautiful cities, food, and language—everything my textbook promised me. I grew accustomed to biking through the narrow streets and sipping little, bitter cups of coffee. At the end of my internship, I wrote a 31-page paper in French on regional French lexicon, something I was quite proud of. I had a touching goodbye with my internship director, too. When we parted ways, she even started to tear up. To be honest I thought it was a little weird, seeing that I never understood a word she said in the three months we knew each other and didn’t realize we had that kind of relationship. Touching, nonetheless.

Most people will say that everyone should go abroad during college. You might never get the opportunity again, or you should do it “while you’re young.” While there is no part of me that regrets going to France, I am happy to be home, and I don’t agree that everyone should go abroad. It is a challenge that, if one is not emotionally ready, can be a miserable experience. If I go back to France, I won’t be ashamed of acting like a tourist. I won’t be embarrassed for shaking a hand rather than kissing someone’s cheeks when greeting them. What I value from my journey was not the tutorial on how to live like the French—it was the lesson on how to love living like an American.    

I’m just dirt in the wind, without a home

in Campus Journal by

Thinking about home is my greatest source of anxiety. I crossed the border when I was 3 years old and grew up in North Carolina, but I never quite felt like the US was my home. Despite the fact that I only had vague memories of Mexico, I always wanted to return. This summer was my first time returning and I was surprised by how quickly I slipped into the normalcy of living in Mexico. I had cried for weeks leading up to the trip because I feared that the place I had always considered home would not be what I expected, but it was exactly the part of me I had always felt was missing.

I came to feel at peace in Mexico, but I could not help but to think about what this meant for the piece of me still tied to the US. I left Mexico knowing that I will always be of that place, but feeling more conflicted than ever about my presence in the US. My presence here feels political, my NC ID says that I have “legal presence, no lawful status.” How can I feel at home in a place where my existence is so conditional?

Flash forward to now, in my study abroad program in Madrid where it has been easy to tell people I’m from Mexico when they ask where I am from, and I have started to deny my US identity perhaps more than I should. I was speaking with an advisor at the program about my conflict navigating my identity between two countries and she said to me, “consider that it is possible to have roots in many places because people aren’t like trees and we can do that with our roots.”

When she said this, I thought of my parents and how they have planted roots in the US both literally and metaphorically. My mom often talks about the many trees she planted in our house in Mexico and how she was sad to leave them when we migrated. She refused to plant trees in the US for a while. When we would go shopping for our garden, I would ask her to buy trees, but she would always say in Spanish, “We could plant those trees, but we would leave them when we leave the US or if we get deported.” 16 years later, we now have two peach trees in our yard. The first was an accident, a tree that grew after someone threw a peach seed on the ground. The second, my mom planted so that the first tree wouldn’t look so misplaced in our yard. I was joking when I asked my mom, “but what happens to the trees if we leave or get deported?”

“I’m not leaving unless they deport me. My kids have grown up here and I’ve been here so long, this is my home now,” my mom answered. My dad shares the same feelings. My parents have started to make their home here and while this is also my home, my roots have not fully planted themselves here. My parents have accepted that the US is home now in a way I can’t seem to accept. It has been a little over a month since I left Mexico…and I’m still making sense of it all.

 

I am confronting for the first time that the reason I have not allowed my roots to grow in US soil is because I have never felt welcomed here. Here, I have always been ‘illegal’ and it feels that I am not allowed to exist in a way that is my own. Even in my first years in the US, I knew something was not right. I can’t quite describe what it feels like, but it was something heavy in my stomach and I would have an overwhelming urge to run away and go back to a country I barely remembered. I wanted be with the family I only knew from pictures and quick conversations on the phone. It’s a feeling I did not have in Mexico because for the first time in my life, I felt sense of belonging and happiness I have not been able to feel in the US.

 

Leaving Mexico at the end of the summer was much different than the first time I left. This time I didn’t have to cross a border by foot, I got to comfortably fly back under my own terms and I knew I had family waiting for me when I landed. Unlike the first time that I entered the US, it felt like coming home (despite the hours I spent waiting for immigration to process me), but it still felt like I was leaving another home.

 

I guess what I’m trying conclude here is how much my definition of home has been influenced by politics and how maybe it would be different if I was documented, if I did not have to go through a long process trying to leave and reenter and if there was not a physical border separating me from my motherland. I’m trying to understand how much I want politics to influence me on this.
There’s actually no conclusion to what I’m saying because my feelings about this are not fully developed and I have a lot of progress to make. I’ll admit that I do feel bitter due to the treatment my people and I experience everyday in this country, so part of me wants to rebel and not accept this place until it accepts me, but I don’t believe this approach is making me happy. I want my roots to be okay planting themselves and growing in both places, but one is growing almost by accident because I happened to be born in Mexico and feel happy there, the other is growing because I’m choosing to plant it so that I can start to learn to live between two countries and be happy in both places. I’m trying to understand under what conditions I want to call the US home.

On Finding happiness, when you’re here and when you leave

in Campus Journal/Columns by

Hi friends! We are studying abroad in Madrid this semester, and we have been reflecting on our lives at Swarthmore and how they compare to our lives abroad. With a new super cool world view, we thought we would share some of the things we want to do differently when we get back.

My name is Marième (Mah-ree-em.) I am a junior from Dakar, Sénégal, and I am double-majoring in Spanish and psychology. Swarthmore has given me a lot of insight into US culture, and really helped me develop a stable work ethic. I am also active in the Swarthmore African Student Association, SREHUP (Student Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia), and WOCKA (Women of Color Kick Ass). I always wanted to go abroad because I knew that four years at Swat would be overwhelming for me as someone who enjoys living in different places. As a result, I am going to spend one semester in Madrid and another one in Montevideo (see you in fall 2k17 lololol.)

Hi y’all, I’m María, a junior, born in Michoacan, Mexico and raised in a small town outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. I’m doing a Peace and Conflict Studies and Spanish special major with a minor in Latin American Studies. On campus, I’m a Writing Associate and I am involved with the Lang Center, Intercultural Center, ENLACE and WOCKA. Swarthmore has the resources that have allowed me to do many of the things I have always dreamt of doing, including going abroad. I wanted to learn more about myself and a new culture in a country I have never been before and, admittedly, to get a break from what can sometimes be an overwhelming  environment at Swarthmore.

Now that we have spent a week and a half in Madrid, we are all-knowing abuelitas and want to share our wisdom with you.

Swat tips after reflecting from far away:

  • Swat can often become a bubble/cage where work takes up more of your life than it really should. As obvious as it may sound, you should really make time for yourself and yourself only. It can be as simple as taking a hike in the Crum, going to Philly for a cool event, or just resting on Parrish beach with earphones on. It’s a good idea to put it in your schedule as “me-time” in order to really commit to it.
  • Social life at Swarthmore can be very particular. Know that if you don’t feel completely comfortable with it, we found that social life in other places can be much more diverse with many more options, and there’s nothing wrong with you if you don’t feel like you’re fitting in or struggling to fit in.
  • When we arrived at Swat, we sometimes felt like everyone around us was 1000 times smarter than us. F*** that. Everyone at Swarthmore is worthy of being here, and that includes you. The student body has a million different talents and you have your own!

Tips if you are considering study abroad (which you totally should if you can):

  • DEADLINES: The deadline is in October if you want to go in the spring, and in April if you want to go in the fall. You’ll have to do two separate applications, one for your program and one for Swat. Keep in mind that the deadline for your program might be earlier than Swat’s, so make sure you start early and apply to at least two programs just in case.
  • [Bitch Better Have My Money by Rihanna plays in the background] If you’re on financial aid, it remains the same while you’re abroad. Make sure to take advantage of all the money you can get. Swarthmore will give you money for room/board and your plane ticket, but you should also ask the study abroad office for funds for transport, Internet, and other essential expenses. Get ur $$$$$$$$$$$.
  • Immerse yourself. Most programs have some sort of language pledge, and it’s really important that you respect it. We noticed that it is easy for American students to speak English when no one is watching, but it will help you immensely if you get used to speaking the language with the other people in your program from day 1.
  • BTW send postcards so you have friends to come back to when study abroad is over.

To the new kids, we don’t know y’all yet, but we are sending you tons of love and postive vibes for your first year at Swat. We had a lot of time to think about what to say to you because our classes have not started so you should defintely follow this A+, 10/10 advice.

Abrazos,

Marième and María/ your abuelitas amargadas (aka bitter grandmothers).

CORRECTION: 

The pieces currently contains the sentence “The deadline is in October if you want to go abroad in the spring, and in April in you want to go in the fall.”
As mentioned by Director for Off-Campus StudyPatricia C. Martin, the deadline for students who wan to study abroad in the fall is actually in February. The upcoming deadline for fall or academic year applicants is February 20.

Au-dedans

in Columns/Opinions by

For almost a year now I’ve been struggling with stomach issues which have progressively taken over my life. It started out as a sort of uncomfortable affliction, something that I could turn down if I simply paid attention to other things. Then it started to appear when I was in class, specifically during an independent study that I had last semester in preparation for my trip to Senegal. I would be overcome with nausea and discomfort for no apparent reason, and this nausea would trigger in me an anxiety that would only seem to exacerbate the fire in my stomach. Yet, I was too busy at Swarthmore to pay much attention to these issues, which came and went so randomly that I wasn’t convinced that they were really there. I hadn’t had any anxiety issues at all junior year, which was remarkable considering how much of an emotional roller coaster sophomore and freshman year had been. My psychological issues seemed to transform into bouts of pensiveness and introspection instead of episodes of self-loathing and existential angst. I would find myself questioning my choices, the absence of my choices, and the spaces in between the people around me. I found myself doing things because I could do them, not because I wanted to.

I am not sure if the fire in my stomach is really just my body’s way of bringing affliction back into my life, my mind renewing its war against my senses and my sensibilities. I cannot know that, although the last time I went to CAPS in the spring, my counselor told me that she didn’t think I needed the program anymore. I told her, “I just want someone to listen to me and tell me I’m making sense,” and she responded calmly, as all trained professionals are taught to do so well, “you should begin listening to yourself.”

Nonetheless, the past few months have been hard. Right after the semester ended, my stomach began to give me problems and these issues continued throughout my long winter break. Even when people saw me at Swarthmore during those two or three days I stayed in Willets, I was struggling with a lack of appetite and a general feeling of malaise in my bowels which I kept entirely to myself. I have never been a person to share my suffering with others, and publishing this in the school newspaper for my friends, professors, and associates to read is an act that an older part of me is loath to do. Yet, being here has made me realize that it is that smaller, older part of me who I truly have to come to terms with.

The past few days I’ve been walking around Dakar by myself. I have been feeling better, almost normal, actually, and feel the need to take advantage of this bout of good health by going around and seeing the city. I also decided that I would go out alone. I asked to my friends in my program to come with me, but I told myself that if no one was interested, I would still go out and see Dakar. I realized that my fear of being alone was something I brought with me from the United States. At Swarthmore, I enjoyed my solitude, but hated the idea of being truly disconnected from someone. I found that I was okay with loneliness in certain contexts, and that I could always count on seeing a familiar face somewhere on campus. Yet, here, in a foreign country, I don’t know anyone. I have a certain visibility as a Westerner, despite being black, which is a topic of conversation for the people I pass on the street. They see my brownish skin and curly dyed hair and my three ear piercings and ask themselves questions about my identity, to figure out what I am about. Sophomore year, this would have bothered me to no end, to be so visibly analyzed, but now it doesn’t matter. Slowly but surely, I am coming to terms with these questions, these personal afflictions, that have plagued my character for years. Slowly but surely, as I am becoming more comfortable in my body, as my time wanes in this ancient place, I am beginning to accomplish the greatest feat of my emotional and psychological development — an acceptance of who I am, both for the bad and the good.

As I struggle through my stomach issues, uncertain of what malady is attempting to seize the reins of my life, I can find solace in the fact that I have reached a point of self-acceptance and inner peace in my life which I have never experienced before. And in the coming weeks, as I head to the doctors to figure this problem out once and for all — I have been horribly unsuccessful with Senegalese doctors — I am confident that I am now in a place to take this issue head-on, knowing that in the end, like all tribulations, it will make me a better person.

The ties that bind

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The other day I stopped by a fruit vendor to get some oranges. I was alone, and not in the best of moods, which explained why I was alone and why I wanted to get something sweet inside of my stomach. Recently I’ve been having stomach issues, the likes of which have only seemed to have gotten worse during my time here in Senegal, a reality which has made both my biological mother and my host mother greatly uneasy. As of recently, my diet consists of eating mostly fruits and vegetables, although I do not believe that my previous meat intake is what is causing these issues. I have begun a tentative prohibition of all dairy and gluten products out of fear that anything like that could cause me gastric distress.

Nonetheless, I approached the man and started my negotiations immediately. In hindsight, I did not start off with a friendly “Asalaam Maleekum/Ça va?” combo, a gambit which in Senegal means “I am acknowledging that you are a decent human being with whom I’d like to conduct business.” Wrong decision number one. I ask the vendor, who is chatting with a group of three other men, how much an orange and a grapefruit would cost. The word for grapefruit in French still feels awkward in my mouth, and I am not sure as I am saying it if it’s a masculine or feminine word but, for the most part, I am conducting myself without the usual scorn of perfectionism to which I am rightly accustomed in my French classes at Swarthmore. It’s actually quite refreshing to speak French uninhibited by my own self-imposed judgment. For the most part, life at Swarthmore, whether we discuss it or not, is a constant va-et-vient of being sized up and assessed. This may not be everyone’s experience at all, but it has characterized my time there for the past two and a half years. It isn’t a bad thing, either. I chose to come to Swat in order to give myself a challenge, and the school has been likely the most challenging experience I have ever faced. Yet, in my French classes, I found myself pushing myself even further than I had in my other classes, mostly because I saw French as a means of accurately assessing my skills. It is a somewhat difficult task to determine someone’s ability to analyze a book or delineate an argument, but a person’s ability to speak a language is far easier to quantify and scrutinize. I spent hours in the library in the thin section of books dedicated to French grammar and phonology, learning to perfect my pseudo-French accent from listening carefully to my professors and mimicking them under my breath. When I incorrectly conjugated a word, I felt as if I had betrayed myself and applied an incredible amount of pressure on my psyche to attain unattainable feats of perfectionism.

But here, things are somewhat different.

For one, everyone who sees me, before I even open my mouth, knows that I am not from here. It is the way that I walk, the color of my skin, the kink of my hair—unbeknownst to me, these are signs that read “foreigner” to the Senegalese, a marker I cannot scrub off or cover up. As I walk down the street, my money in my money-belt, talking to my white classmates, it is apparent that I do not belong, that I am a newcomer, that I am American. So when I open my mouth and speak French or speak Wolof, it is a surprise to these Senegalese people that I can carry a conversation with them at all, even if I mess up a conjugation or mispronounce a word. The process of speaking a language is beginning to transition away from being a quantifier of one’s skill and prowess, into a means of communicating ideas from one person to another. Languages are not IQ tests. They are ways of conceptualizing the world.

The fruit vendor smiled at my fumbling, and the men behind him began to say something in Wolof which I did not understand. My program had not taught me many phrases that Wolofs say to themselves about Americans, but I heard two words which perked my ears immediately, the likes of which were clear: Ameriken and Afriken.

While the men went back and forth about me being an American and also being an African, I began to think more about what it meant to be a buffer zone between the white students in my program and the black Senegalese. I am not the typical Senegalese person. Yet, I am not the typical tourist, either. I occupy a liminal space between here and there, between American and African. I rarely resemble the mental images that come to mind when you think of the United States or Africa. When I told my host parents I was African-American, they at first thought I was métis, the word for “mixed.” They asked me where my ancestors came from. When I told them that they were from the Carolinas, they asked where they came from before then, a question to which I responded with just a shrug and a blank expression.

These are the ties that bind me, a line drawn across the Atlantic in my blood, with my heritage, which reaches back to this land of my ancestors. It is like coming back from the world of spirits believed to exist on the other side of the Atlantic, the place to which the lost and the sold were cast away so many years ago in a history which many have attempted to forget. Being in Senegal now, speaking in French, is like coming home to a house occupied by a different family of the same name.

The belly of the Atlantic

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I remember once going to the beach on a school field trip. We went to Sandy Hook on probably the worst day. There had just been a terrible storm, the likes of which blew hundreds of jellyfish onto the shore, waiting to die and become food for the gulls. We looked at the ocean on this inopportune day from a distance, for my teacher, whose face is now but a smudge in my mind, did not allow us to go onto the beach. Across the water, I could see nothing. The earth swelled on the horizon, obscuring whatever could have been further out at sea beyond my vision. At this moment, inhabiting that memory, as someone deeply inhales the scents trapped in the old clothes of the long-lost, I can imagine the understanding that nothing existed across the Atlantic and that it was impossible to cross. We hear that Columbus believed the world was smaller, and this was true, but mathematicians had known the diameter of the Earth and knew that it would be impossible for someone to cross the ends of the planet which the Atlantic Ocean represented.

Flash forward almost ten years, and I’m on a flight climbing fast out of JFK. New York City and Long Island are but an amalgamation of pretty orange lights, arranged into what seems to me to be the veins of mint leaves. As I try to read my book, I peek out occasionally to see the city slowly disappearing from my field of vision, swallowed up by a blackness which I can only imagine to be the Atlantic Ocean. The second time I look back, I can only see a vague collection of orange, an amoebic figure in the corner of the sky. The third time, I see nothing.

I did not think that the Atlantic Ocean would end for it was all I saw for several hours. With time, I found it more and more difficult to concentrate on my book, and I put it down in an attempt to get some rest. When my body only allowed me to sleep for thirty or so minutes, I found myself stealing glances at the blackness of the ocean from behind my complimentary sleep-mask. In my mind, there is not much distance between Europe and the United States, for on a map, one can stretch their thumb between the two continents. The United States seems so much larger than the rest of the world — a reality I began to question when it took nearly four hours to finish flying from Morocco to Dakar which was relatively negligible in my ignorance. Yet, as I gazed out of my plane, my body, inert, rocketing at several hundreds of miles an hour several thousands of miles above the sea, I began to realize the gravity of the adventure I had just embarked upon. I realized that I was soon to be further away from my parents than I had ever been in a country I knew little about in which business was conducted in a language that I had little confidence speaking. In those moments, I switched places with the child who stared breathlessly at the expanse of the Atlantic, at the gravity of the world’s immensity. The travel nurse’s warnings to me about all of the terrible maladies I could get which could so easily extinguish my life played over and over again to the beat of my increasing heart rate. In a rehearsed motion, I closed my eyes – still blindfolded – and said my gibberish mantra and the words “all is well.”

After a brief layover in Paris, I arrived in Dakar after another long flight, this time over land and a bit of sea. Spain seemed like a mass of jagged glass from the distance over which we flew, and I believe I woke up from a brief nap somewhere near the coast of Andalucia, the Mediterranean seeming somewhat pallid and quiet. Then we delved into the thick of it before Morocco came and went, followed by the disputed territories of Western Sahara, all of which I assumed only from the flight map which updated every few minutes or so. In reality, the camera on the plane only revealed a mass of sand dunes which, like the Atlantic, seemed infinite.

Dakar is the westernmost point in Afro-Eurasia. No other point on this continental body is closer to the United States, to home, than this city in a relatively unknown country called Senegal. The city is on its own peninsula, Cap-Vert, a hangnail of the African continent which juts out into the Atlantic. A statue in the city, the African Renaissance Monument, the largest in all of Africa, depicts a child pointing out across the water towards les États-Unis. My only connections to home now are my passport, social media and a few Skype credits I’ve accrued.

Why Senegal? I admit, it’s off the beaten path of study abroad destinations. Even now, writing this from my room at my hostel, my suitcase packed to meet my host mother and father tomorrow, I question how much easier my life may have been if I had study in Grenoble or Rouen like I had planned freshman year. Yet, I told myself that I would be coming here to “find myself” in the most typical of ways and I remain steadfast in those plans. Somewhere in this country, I will discover a truth which I would never have seen in France or Belgium or Switzerland. As they say in Senegal, inch’Allah.

I am optimistic of the future, here in sunny Dakar. Optimistic about learning new things, experiencing a new culture, and discovering new nuances to my character. The mythical call of Africa which has been in my ear for months now is gone, for I’m here now, in the land of my ancestors.

Tomorrow I will go to the beach and use the compass on my phone to locate where my family is in the United States, across the unfathomable belly of the Atlantic. And if I see that kid, somehow, across the sea, I’ll whisper over the waves “all is well.”

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