It always smells worse in the stench of your clothes and feet on the other side. The pictures from your time walking the streets, that for days had seemed near normal, suddenly seem so much more surreal. From immersion in an environment where you are extreme minority (i.e. only white people you see for three days) back into an insanely diverse context of the grueling experience of JFK’s Passport Control. Some blame the dizziness on jet lag from 30 hours straight of traveling, others seek to understand the re-entry process, and many grab for ways to reconcile the two worlds.
I find myself in a strange place of increased awareness of the world’s connectedness. That dirt road village where I wore my head covered and skirt to my ankles to respect the culture of the people, yet still stood out as the obvious spectacle every step of the way, is in fact quite connected to the neighborhood where I live. Nearly every person in those streets has some relative living in my streets or nation. We are not in two worlds, but in the same.
In this same shared world, we live out life in what appears on the surface to be drastically different circumstances. And while this is true to the naked eye, it does not take more than a few cups of tea on a short stool in Mama’s “restaurant” or a few hours at the henna and hair salon to realize they are not only connected, they are not better or worse. They are life.
When we asked the Somali people, “What should we know about your culture?” They often responded glowingly first, “Somali culture is great.” Some who have tasted the opportunity of the west come back to the Somali Region, many staying as they prefer the life they find there. Of course, this is not true of all, especially those who have suffered direct affects of the war or have lived in the camps rather than free cities the last few decades.
One high school student at the Somali private school shared, “We are all Somali, all one people. No matter where we go, we are the great people, the Somali.”
Yet this strength of identity does not deter a hunger for other cultures and places. Rather, they all wish to live in nations all around the globe, to call them home for a time. Yet their nomadic nature allows them to maintain a Somali core, adjusting to host culture as needed for the time and place.
I believe I might just have some nomadic spirit in myself as well. In each culture I experience and learn from, I am only more aware of my core identity, and the coming and going becomes significantly easier – the normal breathing patterns of life in the created world.
I breathe out Somali Ethiopia and breathe in New York, but the dust remains on my sandals along with the imprint on my heart.