Fulbright is many, many things wrapped up in one. Like a Christmas hamper. But unlike a Christmas hamper, the package of Fulbright is not a mix of edibles and perishables. No. Fulbright is a package of life. Of truths. Of important things. Of things that count. Of things that stay with you forever.
This is the beginning of your Fulbright story. Your Summer Orientation programme at Arizona State University (ASU).
Orientation at ASU is you meeting a very great set of facilitators. These people who do not just serve you with their hearts but go a step further to cover you even when you don’t see that your chests are bare to the cold. Of course, there is no cold in Arizona at this time, but I’m sure you get the point. These people who know your strange names even though they have the excuse of not being able to cram 50 names in five days and even though you would have perfectly understood such an excuse- it probably wouldn’t have occurred to you as an excuse. It would have been a reasonable reason. (Well, you could say the name tag did help, yeah?)
Orientation at ASU is the right way to get to the U.S. – the place I propose should be nicknamed (or maybe renamed) Soft Landing. Because here, everybody is nobody. Here, people come and say hello to you and start a conversation. Here, people are interested in you. Unlike the airport where you were largely ignored and you repeatedly reminded yourself that it’s because these Americans are individualistic- racism has got nothing to do with it. Here, everybody is a potential friend. Because, you see, everybody here potentially needs a friend. So, it is all win win here.
Orientation at ASU is where walls are brought down, where the bright sun of Tempe melts your defences like ice in heat (gradually yet surely), where there are no cringes, no apprehensions, no jitters, where scales of prejudice drop off your eyes and your senses are swept clean of cobwebs of stereotype, where you tell your truth (pretty much as everyone else) and you are not apologetic about it. Orientation at ASU is where you are yourself. Because since you all have begun to breathe the air in this place, nobody feels ashamed of who they are or where they come from. And nobody feels unduly proud either.
Here, you are happy to be seen. You have outgrown (the way you outgrow old clothes) your mind sickness of hiding yourself when you once believed you weren’t anything, you didn’t carry anything worth seeing. Now, you are comfortable to be different. Because you have been taught here that different is not bad; it is just different.
This is where you talk of how homosexuality is a crime in your country. A crime rewarded with 14 years in jail. Or in extra-judicial cases, mob lynching. And your German friend gasps! It is here you talk of what you feel about homosexuality without cringing, without being apologetic, with a critical mind, with that confused mind you have always carried about the subject. A confused, but sincere mind. Because here, people say what they really mean. And they do mean what they say.
It is here you are told that “a marriage breaks up every second in Germany” and you are not being handed this profound piece of information with any airs- not pride, not shame. Just a deadpan declarative stare into your eyes.
Orientation at ASU is where your German friend says “Hitler is like the most horrible thing in the history of anything”. And they would go on to say that the Pope says stupid things. Such as “parents should hit kids when they misbehave”. And your Tanzanian friend would point out how that “in Africa, there is no grounding, no detention. Only the whip”. And you would rationalize the Pope’s position with the “spare the rod and spoil the child” biblical advice. And your German friend would go: “that is the problem with the Bible. It’s surprising that some people feel that a book written thousands of years ago will still be entirely relevant today”. And they would add, “children used to get hit in Germany. But that was over a hundred years ago.” And a thought would fleet through your mind: “oh, we are a hundred years behind you guys, then.” And you would feel neither sorry nor offended about such an offensively sorry thought.
This is where you learn that Germany is largely not given to religion, that in a town of about 20,000 people, there are only two churches (one Catholic and one Protestant) and on Sundays, the number you’ll find in church averages twenty people. This is where you talk about how that in your own city of residence, there is a church at every five-minute walking distance. And very commonly, about three or four churches inside one building. This is where you say “we are very religious. Too religious. Very religious and very corrupt” without feeling like you are disparaging your own people, or even yourself. Because here, the truth is a meal dished in full measures. Hot and cold/hot or cold, as need be.
Orientation at ASU is where your Kenyan friend begins to say so many familiar and strange things. How that dowries are measured in cows. How she’s 26 but can’t tell her mother about her boyfriend (fiancee, actually. She wears an engagement ring). How that some people in her country avoid the dead whereas some people sleep in the same room as the dead. How that a man beats his wife to really demonstrate his love for her. Of course, with everybody (especially the Europeans) rolling their eyes two times over.
Orientation at ASU is where you and a group including a Brazilian, a Tanzanian, a Chinese, a Korean and a Moroccan sit at breakfast to talk about your colonialism stories. It is here one person perceptively notes: this is what happens at a table where there are no Europeans: we talk about exploitation. It is at this table, too, that a lot of your group admitted that exploitation perhaps destroyed a good foundation for your nations, but that the problems each of your countries now faces border largely on political corruption. It is here, also, that you hear your Brazilian friend talk about Yemoja. And you are intrigued. And you two have to exchange pictorial depictions of Yemoja, to see the similarities and differences in each of your Yemojas.
Here, you and your new friends tell your stories, you share your lives with one another the way you have come to see tattoos worn in America: freely and proudly.
Orientation at ASU is about your Turkish roommate constantly admiring your body, and wondering how you could keep so fit without working out. (You would laugh at the irony, because where you come from, you are just an ill-fed scrawny dude). It is about you calling your Chinese friends JJC (and of course explaining the idea of Johnny Just Come to them) for paying on a light rail in Tempe only to realize that not everybody on board paid. It is about you repeatedly teasing your Indian friends with a song you picked up from one of the numerous Indian films that are very famous in your country. It is being overwhelmed and weak with gratitude to your Argentine friend who would stop her own work just to help you out. It is about you assuring your Finnish friend that you could never survive the -20 degrees temperature she said they sometimes have in Finland. It is about you getting a Turkish coin, a Turkish pin which you are told works against jealousy and an Egyptian portrait of a historic Pharaoh as memorabilia.
Orientation at ASU is five days bonding 50 people together so much so that, in your heart, you are telling a five-days-ago stranger that you will really miss them. And you really mean it. It is people who walked in five days ago being cautious not to make their bodies touch one another now exchanging hugs and kisses as they bid one another farewell. (Damn all the lessons about body contact and sexual harassment in the U.S). And everybody finding solace in and eagerly looking forward to December. To Washington DC. And everybody running to Facebook to send and receive friend requests.
Orientation at ASU is many little things coming together to form a huge part of your life. Many little people coming together to shape and reshape the way you see the world. It is pockets of memories that, you are sure, will reset the engine of your aspirations and recouple your mechanism for dreaming.
Orientation at ASU is many deep things that cannot be said all at once. It is about you finding yourself in this cosmic labyrinth (even though you never realized you were lost inside something so big, much less needing to be found); it is about you steadying yourself in the middle of an existential vertigo; it is you emerging. Bright and full. Full and bright. Whole.