I’m writing with Five Minute Friday at Lisa-Jo’s today–the only thing that gets me writing these days!
My husband remarked to me this last morning of a week with temperatures soaring past 90, “I figured out one way Africa changed me. Everyone at work makes fun of me because I don’t wear shorts. It’s not conscious. I just don’t even think of it.”
Lest I mislead anyone, plenty of people in plenty of places in Africa probably wear shorts. But my husband, whose best friends weren’t other ex-pats when he lived on the coast in Kenya, absorbed a way of thinking that he isn’t even aware of most days. I have too. Shorts on grown-men make me turn away, as if I spied something forbidden, or at least very uncomfortable.
I haven’t owned a pair of shorts since high school. I occasionally try to run in my husband’s shorts on really hot days. It’s a circus. They aren’t much shorter than my running capris anyway, I have to constantly readjust the drawstring waist and I always give up before I planned to. I relax with other mothers on the playground or at Toddler Time or at evening VBS and I put myself on edge as I compare: not only am I the only adult wearing jeans in 90 degree weather, I’m the only one in a three-quarter length sleeve shirt.
I am used to a semi-permanent state of un-belonging (I borrowed that from another FMF post!). Only when I choose to unbelong in the Horn of Africa, it’s obvious. One local friend was remarked about all my ex-pat friends: “Oh, her nose makes her look Arab,” “She looks Lebanese,” “She must be from such-and-such a place.” She claimed a closer belonging for each person than they really had; most were from America, Canada or Brazil. After going around the room, she stopped at me and said, “You look Arab from the back.” From the back, of course, I looked like one long swath of pink fabric, covered from head to toe. But there we could talk about my unbelonging, my different attempts to belong, my conscious choices to not belong. I made those decisions all day long; they were both wearying and exciting.
I often taste that bittersweet unbelonging here, only it isn’t obvious. So we don’t talk about it.
A friend prayed for me the best thing I’ve heard since I’ve been home here. She said something and then said, “While she’s away.” I have no idea what she was asking God to do while I was away but I felt profoundly understood. Most people say, “Welcome home!” and pray for great things “while I’m home.” On some days, I know I have no home. On other days, I have many homes. But right now, I am away.
Last Monday night fresh basil sprigs sat tall in a glass on my counter next to the sweetest watermelon we’ve had yet. In a flash of inspiration, I knew I needed to eat a basil leaf on top of my watermelon slice. If summer has a taste, that’s it. I’m sure that foodie blogs or Le Cordon Bleu knew that the combination could take my breath away but I had never tried it. (I asked the same praying friend to try it and she told me, “That just ruined my watermelon. I ate a leaf.” We are radically different people which is why I love her.) There is no obvious marriage between watermelon and basil. So it is with me. I am at home and away. I belong and I don’t. Others might notice and they might not. You wear shorts, and I avert my eyes. It is obvious and hidden. I am American and I took shape in Africa. I speak English and I speak Somali. I am watermelon and basil. The unlikely combination is perfectly me.