Sunday, February 13, 2011

Traveling Abroad

My first semester senior year of college, I traveled to Kenya through a study abroad program with St. Lawrence University in Upstate New York. Traveling abroad was probably the best decision I made in college and the four months I spent in Kenya are probably the most influential and memorable four months of my life so far.

Nearly 20 years have passed since I made the trip, but many of the experiences and the people I met through the program are still fresh in my mind. Of those experiences, one which I have already written about is how I was received by the Kenyan population as a white person and as a person of short stature. Twenty six students were in my program. All but a few of us were white. The orientation taught us that, as whites, we may be treated differently. We quickly learned the word Muzumgu, which is the Swahili Language slang term for white person. I was the only person of short stature in the program. Though nothing in the orientation covered treatment of people of short stature, I anticipated that my experience in Kenya as a little person might be different from my experience as a little person in the United States, particularly at a tiny Midwestern school at which everyone knew my name.

Indeed, the experience was different. Strangers in Nairobi treated me no different than strangers do in Chicago, but farther away from large urban areas, the experiences became a little extreme, and in some cases a little surreal. My first week in Kenya, in a small town several hours west of Kenya, as I walked through a large outdoor market with my host brothers, a gigantic crowd, howling and laughing, followed us. My host brothers, trying to protect me, kept glancing my direction and commenting, "Everyone is so happy to see you!" When I was not looking, my brothers would kick dirt at the throngs of people and motion with their arms to stay back.

Later in the semester, at a very remote village, I was mobbed by what felt like the entire village. We were only at the village for a little while, but it seemed like I spent every moment being touched or patted or poked. But sometimes, even far away from Nairobi, everything felt normal, sometimes even more normal than Chicago. About half way through the semester, for my internship, I went on my own to a small town for several weeks. I have no memory at all of ever being treated differently there, either as a white person or a little person. Similarly, I spent a couple of nights with one other student in a tiny village. Far from being mobbed by the residents as had happened at the other village, the other student and I became one of the community for a few days, spending our time herding goats and cows like everyone else in the village. I attracted attention, not because I looked physically different, but because I accidentally herded my set of goats into a prickly bush.

Last week, my wife and I traveled to the U.S. Virgin Islands. The University of VI had invited my wife to present two days worth of workshops on supports for siblings of people with disabilities. Lucky me, I got to tag along.

Now, it would have been insulting, ignorant and naive of me to assume that my experience in the Virgin Islands, as a person of short stature, would mirror my experience in Kenya. But I don't travel abroad (though technically I don't think the U.S. Virgin Islands is abroad) very often. And as we prepared for our trip to the Caribbean, I wondered what it would be like in the Virgin Islands. And as I wondered, I was reminded of my experiences in Kenya.

More than half way into the trip, I pondered aloud to my wife if people on the islands were aware of the m-word. My wife said that was ridiculous. Of course people know the word. But I hadn't heard the word used once and I didn't hear the word used once. Not only that, I wasn't treated much differently than anyone else. The big test came one day when we were out and about just as school let out. We were walking among scores of young kids in their school uniforms. The kids didn't appear to pay us any attention. Not even in Chicago, where I have lived since 1992, can I walk amongst a group of school kids without some bit of attention.

This is not to say everything was perfect. Once, paying for a mango at a fruit stand, my wife was advised by the vendor that I should join the circus and earn some good money.

In some ways, it's too bad that when I am about to enter a new situation, or a new group of people, I wonder how I will be received as a person of short stature. But I also guess that feeling that way is only natural, considering that so many of my experiences have been impacted in one way or another by how strangers embrace or reject difference. With this in my, it was quite refreshing to go to a new place that, for the most part, treated difference as if it were a natural part of the human condition.

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