Today, one of my students, a young woman from Cameroon, interviewed me for a project on Nelson Mandela that she is doing for another class.
We had the most interesting conversation. After she interviewed me, she told me how she almost changed her topic from Mandela because when her teacher did an oral survey of the class, many of the students had chosen Michael Jordan and other athletes and celebrities. She could not understand, because the project is supposed to explore the person's impact on individuals and the world at large. "I know they are stars," she said, "But I was thinking, 'what?"."
Her teacher persuaded her to stay with Mandela. She also told me that she is still adjusting to living here and the perceptions that people have about her. One guy that she dated briefly apparently asked her if she knew people that rode lions. She asked me was it okay to call that a stupid question. I assured her that it was. He also asked her about her king. She told him they didn't have a king (too much Coming to America, I'm sure), but a president. Different African countries have different governments she told him, which floored him.
I told her that our kids are very USA-oriented. They just don't know the rest of the world. That's why we bitch about the idea of learning other languages or about other cultures. She laughed at that--"You all speak English," she said. "But French is my first language and I speak English and in high school, I studied German."
Then she told me how her roommate had been hesitantly asking her questions after looking through some of her pictures, "Y'all have beaches?" (Because all she's seen is pictures of African deserts); "You have a TV in your room? And a CD player?" These questions shocked my student. She said, over and over, she has to tell people, "Yes, we have what you have."
That response apparently bugged her ex-date buddy. He asked her one day, "If you have everything, why'd you come here then?" "To learn more," she said.
I told her all our kids hear about Africa is famine, war, and AIDS.
"But that is not all of Africa," she told me (I thought that was a simple but profound statement). She said that she thought that maybe Americans just didn't know about Africa. So she asked the guy what he knew about Europe.
Nothing. He claimed he only knew the States. And so she asked him, did he know all the state capitols. No to that, as well.
"So it is not only Africa," she said.
"I'm afraid not."
At which point she suggested a plan of action. She believes that all American students should write their "minister of education" and demand to be taught more about the world.
"America is big," she said. "And many people want to come here. But there is more than America."