It’s funny because when I agreed to share my GTL experience in relation to my identity, I thought I knew exactly what would transpire and what I would be writing about after my trip.
To offer some more context, I had interned with MIT-Arab World during my freshman summer at a tech company in Amman, Jordan. Jordan had been #1 on my bucket list for countries to visit for some time. I actually didn’t know anything about the history, or culture but rather, I had heard that Amman was the prime location to study Arabic. Like many non-Arab Muslims across the globe, I was able to read and write in the language, but not understand – American Muslims go to Sunday school too! Additionally, it was going to be the holy month of Ramadan in which Muslims fast from dawn until sunset and I had never observed Ramadan in a Muslim country with my fellow co-religionists. I imagined being in a land where the athaan, Islamic call to prayer, reverberates throughout and I welcome it instead of trying to clumsily silence it on my phone before anyone heard the ‘Allahu Akbar’s.
I had some absolutely fantastic moments in Jordan, but what I didn’t expect was how I was perceived by the locals. In the U.S, the most noticeable thing about me is how I wear my faith on my head: my hijab. What I did not anticipate was how I stood out in Jordan due to my cinnamon skin and obviously South Asian facial features. I remember all the stares I would collect from my walk to work in my dress pants, my briefcase in hand, and I remember having the creeping feeling that the locals were wondering why I was dressed like that when all other South Asians from the diaspora were maids and laborers. I was no longer ‘the Muslim’, I was ‘the brown person’. These experiences made my aware of my cultural identity. Through the lens of others, I was able to realize that part of myself and explore what my cherished and now activated Bengali heritage meant to *me*.
I thought that South Africa would similarly teach me about who I was, and it did! Just not in the way I expected (as per usual).
For many of us on the trip – we (mostly I) call ourselves the MIT Big 6 after the Big 5 – it was our first time visiting an African country. As a low-income student with no immediate roots to the land, I would have never been able to visit had it not been for MISTI. Thus, I had intended to experience South African culture to its absolute fullest. Throughout the majority of the program, we kept asking the locals what traditional dishes and places they recommended to eat at. Though we pressed on, by the third day, I had eaten mostly curries, Mexican cuisine, and things like lasagna. We were told chutney chips were traditional! I knew what it would taste like before I ate it, and it was as if I hadn’t even traveled 10,000 miles to experience another culture.
From the first step I took outside O.R. Tambo Airport, I remember smelling this distinct *smell*. It smelled like sunshine and humidity, like bustling human traffic, like hospitality, and a good-sized disregard for uptight rules. I knew I was home. Just about every airport I had visited outside the global North had this smell, and I didn’t hold back my smile because I felt like I already belonged. I was ready to see street vendors lined up, crazy (read: action packed) driving, explosive colors of people all around: basically everything I loved that the US couldn’t warm up to.
But I was wrong – there were absolutely no people on the streets, everyone stayed in their lane as they drove! There was none of the familiar chaos I was looking forward to and that’s exactly the thing: Just like the hunt for traditional food, I found myself realizing that I kept trying to impose my own beliefs. My own biases. If you know anything about South Africa, you know there are 11 federally recognized national languages, multiple ethnic groups that have existed for generations with long and detailed histories, and a melting pot of religions! Of course there is no one ‘traditional dish’ – what could that even be? SA is part of the BRICS consortium–it is a major emerging nation–so even though I wanted it to be like Bangladesh, my motherland, it was wrong of me to assume so much.
There was such a rainbow of different people, no one noticed my skin color or even my headscarf. I blended right in. I learned less about myself through the lens of how others viewed me and more about the lens in which I understood the world.
Travel is one of the best tests of character, and it can also breathe life and truth into a people’s’ narrative. Thank you, South Africa; I owe you one.
Jeba is a member of the class of 2020 studying Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. This independent activities period, she is teaching computer science in Johannesburg, South Africa through MISTI Global Teaching Labs (GTL).