Almost three months ago, I stepped off a plane in Dakar, a city I didn’t know much about, in a country that I didn’t know much about. I spent a week doing a seminar at the Tostan Training Center in Thiès, speaking English, using the Wi-Fi, eating westernized food, and then suddenly, that bubble was popped.
I loaded my luggage onto the top of a bus and hopped in. I was half sleeping, half looking out the window at the roads and buildings when James, my team leader, told me we had arrived. “It’s just behind that red door.”
The next few minutes passed by in a fast flurry. My luggage was carried inside, I got a new name (Astou), I was given a tour of the house, I was given a painting, we took some pictures, I was given the Wi-Fi password, I was introduced to countless people who lived in the compound, I gave my family my gifts which I explained in broken Frolof, and I was basically inducted into the Fofana family.
At first, it seemed strange and surreal, as if I had been transported to Oz… Where am I? Who are these people? This isn’t Palo Alto??? But slowly, I’m settling in and things are falling into a rhythm. A rhythm that I’ve started to get used to and I’ve learned to love. A rhythm that will be stuck in my head and hard to let go of at the end of this year. This has become my new reality: waking up every morning in my new room, playing with the little kids, eating lunch with my family around a big shared bowl, watching TV after dinner until someone starts falling asleep.
Outside of my house, I’ve established a routine, too. On Mondays and Thursdays, I walk down the long road by my house to my apprenticeship Kër Yaay, an association that works to ameliorate living conditions through women’s empowerment, education, environmental awareness, etc. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, I take a taxi to Lycée de Medina Fall, a high school way on the outskirts of the city, where I help teach English. On Fridays and Saturdays, I take Wolof and French classes with my wonderful teacher, Pierre, and on Sundays, I sleep in and chill with my family.
It’s as though I have a new life altogether: a different name, a different home, different jobs, different people I see, different languages coming out of my mouth. If I wanted to, I could forget about Shannon Yang, about Palo Alto and Gunn High School. I could forget about my friends back home and about English and Chinese…
But I don’t want to forget. I’m living the best of both worlds right now, learning about a new culture while not forgetting my own. This month of November, and especially on Thanksgiving Day, I’ve had the chance to reflect on what I’m grateful for. And it’s not that I changed families or moved homes. I’ve gone from having just one family and one home to having two.
A friend messaged me recently and asked me where I was. I was in my bedroom, so I replied, “home.” He later got really confused because he thought I meant that I was back in California when I was really just here in Senegal the whole time. Well, I’m in Senegal and this is my home. I instinctively answer “Waaw” instead of “Yes.” When people ask me where I live, I give them the name of my street corner here in Thiès. And most importantly, I can come back after a long day, open the red gate to my compound, plop my stuff down and lie on my bed, and with a sigh of relief, I can tell myself “you’re home.”