a domesticated girl, that’s all you ask of me

Victoria Tran-Trinh - Senegal


December 6, 2009

Before I left Boston, my mother warned me not to argue with people if I disagreed with their cultural beliefs. It’s better to bite my tongue, she said, to avoid creating problems for myself. Before in-country arrival, GCY gave us instructions to steer clear of discussing controversial topics with our host families and newfound friends. I understand this. I may be a girl of strong convictions, but I would like to think that when GCY chose me, they saw some semblance of cultural sensitivity. I know how to pick my battles, and I know that as a Founding Fellow, I shouldn’t really pick any at all.

Nevertheless, keeping my opinions to myself is becoming difficult, especially with my host father constantly telling me “we’re your family now, I’m your father now, you should behave as if this were your house in America!” Well, if my real dad and I were sitting on the couch, watching TV, and he loudly announced “I’m thirsty!” I would probably say something along the lines of “oh.” I would not take that as a cue to run to the kitchen, pour him a glass of water, hand it to him while dropping a curtsy, stand there waiting for him to finish, and take the glass back to the kitchen. I have a lot of respect my father, and as a normally nice person, I would gladly get him a drink if he asked for one. But saying “I’m thirsty” is not akin to asking for a drink, especially not asking with a please.

(There is no word for “please” in Wolof, but there certainly is in French, which we use. I guess once you get used to talking without it, it would be hard to integrate it into your everyday speech.)

Perhaps the single aspect of Senegalese life that has challenged my tongue-holding the most are these societal gender roles. I am of the mindset that if I cook for my boyfriend, he should do the dishes, and vice versa. This is not so in Senegal. There have been many occasions where I’m forced to do something solely because I am female. At first, I just went along with it, thinking I’d get used to it as time went on. However, the opposite seems to be happening. As I get more comfortable with my family, the more I want to protest. But I obviously won’t. I know what to do now and perform all my duties without voicing my thoughts out loud. I know it’s not that Senegalese men think women are lesser or inferior, it’s just that this is the way they’re used to functioning. Maybe when my language skills and level of comfort within my family are both higher, I can start asking questions that will facilitate an non-judgmental discussion. Until then, I guess you can just call me housewife.

Victoria Tran-Trinh