By Akhil Sud
Two leather armchairs sat facing each other at an angle, in the warmth of the dimly lit Silliman common room – and in them sat Julia and myself – cookies and tea at hand. A sophomore from Zimbabwe, Julia is someone I am proud to call a close friend. Even after a conversation that lasted one hour and fifteen minutes, I could have gone on talking for so much longer.
Part I – Julia
Julia loves a good book, art, and red wine. “I’m very passionate about children and women – from women in the top tier jobs to women at the bottom, in the dust. I think there are issues that no matter where you are in the social ladder or where you are in the racial ladder, there are some issues that just permeate all of that.” Her love for engineering and her love for cooking arise from her love for making things using her hands. She doesn’t believe in living life according to a formula. “You see things and weigh them out depending on your situation in life. It’s all about where you are, what you have, and what you can do with it.”
In the future, she sees herself solving problems for developing countries. “I’m very interested in finding engineering solutions for the world’s problems.” She feels that policy makers get caught up in long-term, big-picture concepts, and lose sight of crucial problems that need to be dealt with effectively in the present. “For a lady in the village, what’s democracy when you can give her something to grind her corn on. I believe in little solutions.”
Julia did six years of high school at a co-educational Catholic boarding school, which, in part, is why she feels that she doesn’t have “a concept of home”. The patriarchy of Julia’s native culture was reflected in the way her school was run. For example, the girls had stipulated periods in which they could study, and weren’t allowed to attend their instructors’ office hours. “Girls had to sweep the classroom every day in my school. By the time I left, both boys and girls had to sweep the classroom.” It took a lot of shouting, but Julia managed to rebel and effect change. The challenge for a girl questioning older men was multi-layered given a culture that taught people to respect authority, and equated manhood with authority in the sphere of gender. At home, Julia rebelled on behalf of her gender. In a smaller incident here at Yale, Julia rebelled on behalf of her continent, when she got Yale Dining to prepare an African feast for the students of Yale. Everyone was grateful.
Part II – Julia’s Zimbabwe
If you had to create a picture of life in your country for an outsider, what would you say? How does the interplay of economic, political, religious, and cultural factors shape life for the average person?
“I would paint a home scene. The Zimbabwean home is truly the building block of the Zimbabwean community. You’d find a family that goes to the church down the road every Sunday; a family that uses US dollars as a currency because they, as a country, don’t have a currency of their own anymore; a family where everyone knows someone who’s outside the country, because of the situation at home; a country where nobody talks about politics though everyone is worried about it.” She also talked about how everyone drinks a lot of Coke. “They put high fructose corn syrup in the American one, but back home they put real sugar. So you should try it – it’s completely different!” Further, she described how the Zimbabwean life is one that is chalked out in advance. “You’re born, you go to school, after high school you go to college, after college you find a nice boy while you’re working, you get married, and then you start over again.” “But you seem the kind of person that defies the norm,” I said. “I am. I’m so terrible at that! My mother says that a lot about me; that I am so not for the easy road; that I hate what has been done before. I think I’m too curious – that’s what my father tells me. He says I was born asking questions. I always want to know ‘why’, which has got me into a lot of trouble back home! I suppose this doesn’t sound too interesting to an American, because in America they’re encouraged to ask ‘Why?’” Julia also said that Zimbabwe has a very large middle class, and that whatever economic disparity there exists in Zimbabwe, is dwarfed by that plaguing the United States.
Can you talk some more about gender issues in Zimbabwe? Perhaps compare the situation back home with that in the west.
“From a very young age, I used to refuse to kneel before my father.” Julia said that her father is a very modern man, and that he never minded Julia’s defiance. She also said that she, like all the girls, had to learn how to carry water on their heads. She had no use of this knowledge, because she lives in a city – but she had to learn nevertheless, just because she was a girl. “Feminism back home and feminism here are different.” She believes that the fights being fought are different. The fight in Zimbabwe is for the bare essentials – “for women to get an education” – whereas the fight in America and at Yale is concerned with arguably less fundamental issues. “I have trouble connecting with Yale feminists, because all I get is stuff about abortion, contraception and so on.” She does believe that such issues are important, and are relevant for America given the place it is in – but they seem like distant problems when seen from the eyes of Zimbabwean feminism. The role of education in the fight for gender equality is integral, particularly in Julia’s Zimbabwe. She believes that educating a woman educates a household, and is thus absolutely essential for social betterment of any kind.
Continuing to describe Zimbabwean society, Julia talked about how hospitality and perseverance are key characteristics of the Zimbabwean people. She also talked about the significance of dance, music, food, and family to any African society. “They say Africans are born to the drumbeat.” Having experienced some of African culture myself when I was in South Africa, I could appreciate her sentiment. Even in my mind music is one of the hallmarks of African culture, as is a love for the wilderness and a closeness to nature. The safaris and bonfires, accompanied with singing and food under a dark canopy of stars – my memories of the time I spent in Africa as a child still make me feel connected to the great continent and its lovely people, even here at Yale.
What, according to you, are the most essential reforms that need to be carried out in Zimbabwe?
Julia talked about three main problems. First, since the people of Zimbabwe have been through so much hardship, they tend to forget that conditions, while better than before, are far from ideal. Second, corruption has so deeply infected Zimbabwe at so many levels, that one is forced to be corrupt to get anything done. Third, while the education system is excellent (as evidenced by a literacy rate up there in the nineties), it lacks freshness, creativity, and innovation.
Part III – Julia’s Yale
“Hands down the people!” said Julia, when I asked what her favorite thing about Yale was. She said that she has met people who are both intelligent and friendly – something she feels (and I concur) is a Yale specialty. She loves cross campus because of its architecture, and is finding it difficult to welcome the new sculpture with open arms. She had a hard time choosing her favorite classes, but narrowed them down to two – Human Population and Chinese. She even spent a summer in China, learning Chinese. An ardent fan of all things Asian, Julia loved every moment of that trip. I have been begging her to come to India, because I know how much she would enjoy it.
What are the most significant differences between American culture and your own? What can each culture learn from the other?
“America has a big aversion to the aspect of culture as a set of rules. I think it stems from their notion of freedom – being able to do whatever you want. But I think there are great things that come from social organization in an age old culture.” Julia values the cohesion and discipline that comes with culture. The same girl that refused to kneel before her father, holds dear the fact that elders should be addressed with “Good morning” instead of “Hi”. I suppose only someone grounded in culture can appreciate the nuanced difference between these seemingly similar things. “I don’t like it when my professor says ‘Hi Julia!’ to me and expects me to say ‘Hi’ and address him by his first name – I cannot do that.” On the other hand, Julia feels that freedom of thought is one thing that Zimbabwe can learn from America. Then we chatted a bit about American spellings, pronunciations, and units of measurement (and how loveably absurd they all are).
How do you identify with African American culture?
“I don’t identify with it at all; and a lot of Africans do not agree with me here.” Julia believes that the African American and African cultures share roots in a culture that no longer exists – that of Africa before colonization. Both cultures have diverged from that common point – one molded by British colonization, and the other by slavery, and the local American culture. “This can also be extrapolated to black French people or black people in South America – you’ve never heard of black French people identifying with African culture.” She added, “I think African American culture is a beautiful culture. African Americans have given us jazz, they’ve given us the blues, they’ve given us rap – but I think that these are completely different cultures. I feel closer to Indians, and other such people who have been under British colonization – those who understand the value of afternoon tea, and scones, and Catholic education. I think it’s a big folly to assume that just because we look marginally the same, we have some sort of cultural connection.”
What does it mean to stay true to one’s roots while adapting to a new culture?
“You need to accept that you are going to change, but you also need to know that you are the one who decides where to change.” Julia said that she has experienced change in the way she feels about certain issues, like gay rights and capitalism, while she continues to hold dear things like her religion. Very astutely, she described the three tiers of her religion. The first tier is the belief in a higher power, the second is being responsible for the welfare of others, and the third tier houses all ritualistic aspects of religion – which she deems as the least important. She feels that a large number of Americans can learn something from her culture’s notion of religion. True to this philosophy, Julia is always dedicated to solving other people’s problems, and refuses to accept any rule at face value. She also talked about how people in the west “kill themselves over body image” while people back home “don’t care if you’re skinny or you’re fat”. With regard to this, I personally feel that America can afford to be concerned with things like body image, which seem trivial to a country like Zimbabwe, where the idea of starving oneself on purpose would seem absurd.
“Okay, so that officially concludes our chat. I honestly wouldn’t mind carrying this on. I really enjoyed it!” “We should do it the other way round now. I should interview you.” As I mulled over the terrifying idea of having to answer my own questions, I was thankful that I didn’t have to worry about that. Instead, I turned my thoughts to Julia. Describing Julia in a nutshell is a difficult task. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to try (though afraid to fail). Patriotic she is, as she is feminist. She is assertive and grounded. She is from a country where the norm is to fear authority in any form, and yet she is unafraid. Most of all, however, the thing that defines Julia for me, is that she chooses what to cherish, and then cherishes with the utmost loyalty.
Akhil Sud ’16 is in Silliman College. He contributes regularly to the Vicarious Globetrotter blog. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.