Into the Mind of a Cultural Chameleon
I recently read Trevor Noah’s book, “Born a Crime” and I absolutely loved it. I loved his descriptions of his childhood, his interactions with his mother and different facets of South African society. It was hilarious and sobering in equal measures.
One of the parts which really struck me was when he described himself as a“cultural chameleon”; using language to fit in different groups and get by, but also never being able to fully fit into any of them.
I feel like a “cultural chameleon” most of the time.
I am a Kenyan of Asian origin. Born in London. Grew up in Mombasa. Studied in Qatar and Jordan. I’m now living in my hometown of Mombasa.
I’ve always loved learning languages and through them, different cultures. It kind of opened doors for me to understand the world better and made me see life with a new lens each time. Learning a new language and immersing myself in its culture is such an exhilarating experience for me in that, even without actually traveling somewhere, I can unlock parts of the world, and parts of myself that I never knew existed.
However, the downside to all of this is that all the languages that I’ve learned over the years, are of varying levels of proficiency. And apart from English (which is my first language), I would say that I am not really fluent in any of the languages that I know so far. These include Kutchi, Hindi/Urdu, Arabic, French and Kiswahili. (Currently in progress: Japanese, Korean, Norwegian and Spanish).
I sometimes use these languages in different contexts to relate better to the people I’m talking to. That’s a good thing I suppose because nothing gets to people more than someone talking to them in their own language. This works well enough when it comes to the foreign languages I know. Even if you’re terrible at it, people are always grateful and sometimes pleasantly surprised that you’re learning their language.
What really gets to me however, is when I find myself using or not using Kiswahili in my own city and country.
Terribly unfortunately, I never learnt Kiswahili throughout high-school. I switched to French at some point when we had to pick between them. I really loved learning French then. I loved singing in French. I even took Higher Level French (IB Diploma Programme) and did my Extended Essay in French (research paper in senior year).
At this point in my life, after not using French for years and also realizing that I want to work in Kenya and on the continent in the long-term, I really regret that decision. If only my Kiswahili was better, perhaps I could transcend my skin colour and fit in. Be accepted in my own national community. Perhaps that would help prove my authenticity as a Kenyan. What else am I supposed to do? Tape my National ID to my forehead?
This summer, during my internship in Nairobi, we were going to different informal settlements. And I kept on getting called “mzungu” (which means “foreigner”). It pissed me off to no end. Especially when it came from adults (Kids are just too cute to be mad at).
Of course I understand the historical and socio-cultural implications of why this is a thing. Furthermore, I get that Asians in Kenya have not, generally speaking, been the most inclusive as a bloc (if you can even call them that). However, despite knowing all of these things at an academic level, it does not take away from the fact that it really hurts to not fit into any particular group or community. Especially, when it’s one you really want to belong to and contribute your life’s work to. (Note: This 44th tribe stuff is not helping and leaves so many issues unaddressed).
I get annoyed sometimes when I’m out with friends who are foreigners and people will assume that I am too because I’m lighter-skinned. But then, with a weird twist, they realize I’m from Mombasa when I speak Kiswahili (with complete disbelief I must add). Then, there’s this strange moment where I am half-accepted because I’m clearly not a foreign as the “mzungus” I’m with.
What a twisted reality.
It’s a constant battle and I get so tired of it sometimes. But I know that it’s a battle I must keep fighting because, in the end, this is the only home I know. And it’s a place I love with all my heart, even when it rejects me and my hyphenated identity.
For now, I’ll continue to be the cultural chameleon that I am and hope that I can leave the world a better place because of it.