To the Girl in O’Hare

Two months ago I stood small in O’Hare International Airport. In a layover on my way to San Francisco, I had a sandwich and congratulated myself on surviving my first plane ride. I had unceremoniously began my year of firsts: just two months shy of graduating from my small high school in my small town, I had gotten on my first plane to meet strangers who would send me out of the country for the first time. I looked at an airport map and traced gates with my finger as my stomach leapt into my throat; I can’t do this, I thought. What if I get there, what if I get halfway across the world, and in my third month realize I’m not happy?

This morning, as I wake up in my third month, these thoughts resurface. Yesterday I went to Touba, Senegal’s holy city with my language tutor. It was hot. The day was long and full with stares from other people – not uncommon – but the “toubab” calls and snickering seemed to be more prevalent. I was exhausted. While waiting for a bus back to Khombole I watched the sun set over the grand mosque and groaned over the fact that we would be traveling at night. At night everything in Senegal seems more stimulating; it feels busier and louder and makes me want to hide in my bed. An overcrowded bus pulled up, and I climbed in like a popped balloon as the word “toubab” followed me. Sitting down knee to knee with my tutor and my headscarf sticking to my neck, I rested my head against the window sweaty, confused and nauseated. I was on the verge of tears as my tutor held a conversation with the boy across from us. “How old are you?” he asked. After watching an uncomfortable exchange, my tutor turned to me: “He doesn’t know”.

“He doesn’t know how old he is?” I clarified.

Mamadou shook his head.

I leaned against the window and closed my eyes choking back either tears or vomit. I can’t remember. I was unhappy. I was so unhappy I couldn’t hold my head. Senegal was an uncomfortable, strange, lonely place and I was unhappy.

“I just want to be home,” I said to Mamadou. He smiled, asking which home I meant. Khombole, I meant, and he smiled bigger, because I guess somewhere along the way Khombole became home. No longer “home”, or home, but home. Just home. Home where the sand runs through your shoes and it’s hot and everyone talks about it – and you understand because your Wolof is improving. Home to my mom and I’s favorite soap opera, and her head thrown back in laughter when it ends with a cliffhanger. Home to my baby sister laying on my dad’s stomach after ceebu jen left over from lunch. Home to the door that only opens on the third try, and the wooden stools with the spider webs. Just home. 

I started smiling too. Not because I was happy. Instead because I understood that the past three months weren’t for nothing. In those long days I had created something meaningful: something that calls me back on a hot bus at 10pm. I had created meaning, I thought; or rather, other people snuck in and created it for me. I realized then that one day this bus ride may work its way into something meaningful too. This year will surprise me even after it’s over, I thought, and I was flooded with gratitude.

So to the small girl in O’Hare a few months ago: of course you can’t do it. You have no idea what you’re doing. This place will blister you, you will be raw and undone and you won’t be happy. The growing pains will hurt. Of course you can’t do it – but if you don’t get on the plane you’ll never become someone who can. So finish your sandwich and walk bravely through the gate. Get ready to meet the person you are becoming. In her third month she’s already worlds ahead of you; having fallen in love with the thrill of firsts, she has grit that comes from a place you haven’t discovered yet. The place you’ll discover some distant day when you realize there’s more to life than being happy.