ThreeSixty Journalism: Mac-n-cheese or ugali? This teen eats both

THREESIXTY JOURNALISM

Zawadi Mbele
Photo by Jerry Holt
Zawadi Mbele

Having parents who don’t really understand your culture can be hard. I’ll have a conversation with my dad that goes like this:

“Hey, Dad! Can I go to the mall today?”

“You go to the mall all the time and it’s such a waste of money. Back in my day, we didn’t have a mall to go wander around in. We chased grasshoppers instead and we were so happy!”

“Um, Dad. Pretty sure if there were a mall in the middle of the village, the kids would rather go there instead of chasing grasshoppers.”

My dad usually agrees with me because he realizes that if the children of his village in Africa were exposed to a mall, that’s where they would want to go too.

Being a second-generation immigrant in Minnesota has sometimes been a challenge. I was born in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and came to the United States when I was 3 months old with my mom. My dad and my two older sisters were already here. I am growing up in a very different society from that of my parents, both generation-wise and culture-wise.

I went back to Tanzania in 1999 with my family when I was 7 years old. I didn’t want to be there because the culture and the way people did things were very different from what I was used to. I didn’t want to eat the food that they had, like beans, fish and ugali (a thick porridge made out of corn-meal). Before we left, I had my mom pack many boxes of macaroni and cheese, and that’s what I ate most of the time.

Since the women and girls there didn’t wear jeans or pants, my sisters and I would get stared at a lot when we did. People would call us “mzungu,” which means “white person” in Swahili. They would call us that because they believed that only white American men wear jeans. I felt like an outcast even in Tanzania, my homeland.

One morning in the village I woke up and my whole family was gone. They left me to stay with my grandmother all alone. The problem was that she didn’t speak a word of English, and I didn’t speak many words in Swahili. Somehow we did manage to understand each other. Now when I look back, it makes me appreciate that time I had with her.

Being a second-generation immigrant has also had its challenges in America. People will ask me stereotypical, ignorant questions about Africans. “Do your grandparents own a pet tiger and live in a hut and chase after elephants? Have you ever ridden a giraffe?”

OK, first of all, tigers don’t live in Africa only Asia. Second, no, my grandparents don’t live in a hut or chase after elephants. They actually live in a small adobe-like home with a ridged iron roof. There is a small bathroom and a kitchen, which are in a separate building next door. They also grow coffee, corn (maize), beans, wheat, potatoes and cassava.

And it would be impossible to ride a giraffe. First, you would need to hope that the giraffe would stop for you. Then you would need to somehow get on its back, but that definitely wouldn’t be easy, so good luck with that.

Another thing is that my parents have accents. They speak perfect English, but my friends used to have a hard time understanding them.

“What did your parents say?” my friends would ask. And my parents would be standing right there.

“Just listen harder,” I wanted to say. I used to get very irritated. I just feel like people should take the time and have the patience when they are talking to somebody with an accent.

It’s also hard that I don’t get to see my family back in Tanzania. My friends here in America always talk about how they go to their grandparents’ house and get to spend time with them. Or, that over the weekend, they spent time with their cousins and went to the lake.

I have never really gotten to experience that because my whole extended family is so far away that it’s even difficult to just talk to them on the telephone. I get and empty feeling wishing I had that special close bond with my grandparents and the rest of my family back home.

Now that I am older, I’m starting to appreciate my African heritage more and more. Even though I haven’t been back in about 11 years because it is so expensive. I still feel homesick when I here Tanzania. I hope to go back within the coming year to visit my extended family.

I do feel like I am more of an American than an African. My parents try a hard enough to keep me in touch with my African roots. They teach me Swahili and teach me the values that they learned from their parents, including to be very respectful to the older people. When I become an American citizen someday, I’ll bring all those lessons with me and pass them on to my own children

I am glad that I have grown up as a second-generation immigrant. I’ve come to appreciate other cultures because I can somewhat relate to them. I, too, have grown up being part of two different cultures.

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