“Where are you from?”
“You are a liar!” he shouted at me. The others jumped in. “You aren’t American! Just look at your face, your eyes, your hair!”
I was helping ‘storm’ the local arts market in Accra, Ghana, with other sales reps at the startup where I’m interning. We were ready to leave when we met a group of shop owners near the entrance who were more curious about figuring out where exactly I was from.
“I was born in California,” I added as if that made my Americanness any more persuasive. To them, it didn’t matter where I was born. It was how I looked.
In my three weeks here, I’ve lost track of the “ni hao” greetings I’ve received on the streets. Sometimes it’s from kids not even eight years old. On other occasions, I’m sitting in the backseat of an Uber in the middle of an intersection when a trotro (bus) driver looks at me and shouts, “Hey ching chong!”–twice. In any case, I usually respond with a polite hello and a smile and walk away. Sometimes my American accent catches them off guard. Mandarin isn’t even my mother tongue. In Cantonese–my first language–we say “hello,” a product of British rule of Hong Kong for over 150 years, or sometimes “nei5 hou2.”
No matter where I go, I always feel slightly out of place. In the U.S., I’m Asian. In Hong Kong, I’m American. At MIT, I’m from the Bay Area. Within my family, I’m Cantonese. Here in Ghana, I come from China. But because I’m always juggling multiple identities, expressed or assumed, I treat it as an opportunity to fluidly adapt to new cultures and environments I find myself in. So far, here in Ghana, I’m not only learning more about the diverse local traditions, identities, and histories that make this country unique–for example, the numerous local tribes, languages, and cultures, and the legacy of its colonial past–but about myself, and what it means to be Hong Kong-American in a completely different continent.
As it turns out, there are a lot more commonalities with Ghana and my own identities than I ever expected.
To start, let’s talk about food. Food is my favorite way to explore my own culture and new ones wherever I go, and Ghana is no exception. Since I arrived, my co-workers have been introducing me to new local street vendors. I’m trying new dishes every day: waakye, redred, jollof, palava, banku with tilapia, fried plantain, yams, and sweet potatoes, fufu with goat, fried rice, Indomie noodles, pawpaw smoothies, and much more. Banku reminds me of sourdough bread bowls unique to San Francisco. Fufu reminds me of mochi, my favorite dessert. Their take on fried rice and noodles seems to be inspired by similar dishes in Cantonese cuisine. Indomie noodles with sausage remind me of instant ramen with spam I loved as a kid. There’s even this hot pepper sauce called shito that reminds me of fish or shrimp paste used in other Asian dishes. The local Malta drink reminds me of the taste of traditional Chinese herbal jelly. Alvaro brings memories of Martinelli’s from California. Even the culture of street food is reminiscent of a similar culture in Hong Kong. I’ve been surprised at the connections I can make between local dishes here and ones that I’ve grown up with that have become a part of my own identity. These new ingredients have not only excited my taste buds but expanded my palette to encompass some of the diverse culinary traditions of Ghana and West Africa.
Beyond the food, it’s also been interesting to dive a bit deeper into the history of Ghana and draw parallels to those of my own identities. Hong Kong and Ghana (and the U.S.) were former British colonies. I was born two days after the handover of Hong Kong on July 1, 1997. Here in Ghana, July 1st is Republic Day, the day Kwame Nkrumah became the country’s first president. Of course, we also celebrate the Fourth of July back in the U.S. for our own independence. The most tangible impact of British colonial rule is that, even though these countries span three different continents, English is an official language in all three countries. But in Ghana and Hong Kong, the local languages blend in with British English. Here I’ve started to switch out “that’s right” or “you see?” with “aha,” as well as using “please” more often. I already say “ah” and “aiya” way too many times, and put “lah” at the end of my sentences, as Hongkongers like to do. We even use “aunty” in both countries to refer to a woman older and to show respect or deference. In Ghana, there’s Pidgin English; in Hong Kong, or whenever I converse with my parents, we often mix the two together and call it Chinglish or Kongish. “Okay, please,” perhaps I’ll carry with me some of the “small small” slang I’ve picked up here, “aha.”
As I continue to get a deeper understanding of what makes Ghana unique and exciting, I’m learning more about myself and how my different identities fit within a global context. I’m no longer afraid of people asking me where I’m from. It’s only a superficial question. Where we’re from shouldn’t be the primary thing that distinguishes us from one another. Instead, it should be an opportunity to engage in dialogue and uncover shared experiences that bring us closer together. Just in my short time here, I’ve found that we have more things in common than we might think.
Kevin Shum recently graduated from MIT, as a member of the class of 2019. He studied Computer Science. This summer, he is interning at OZE in Accra, Ghana, as a UI/UX intern building tools to empower small businesses.