My response is always the same, "Oh, I'm from Philadelphia." The reactions are the entertaining part: "Philadelphia! I love Rocky!" or "I learned English watching The Fresh Prince!" or "Does everyone have AIDS there?" or "Is it Always Sunny?" - and the wild card, "Oh like the cheese!" (the Philadelphia brand cream cheese, which actually has its roots in New York).
I've now been traveling for 10 years, through 41 countries and counting. I've recently relocated to Rwanda for a field experience with a non-governmental organization working on rural community projects. Here, the question of where I am from is usually answered with a broader reply of "America." Just as to my friends and family at home, "Africa" is my current home.
Though pop culture is undoubtedly global, if I do become more specific and mention Philadelphia while in East Africa, I do not get amusing follow-up comments about famous Philadelphia-based movies or TV shows. Instead, I usually get concerned questions about the winter weather. When I described snowfall in winter, my Rwandan coworker asked me, "So what do the homeless people do when it is cold?"
Though I had traveled 7,000 miles to help develop this beautiful country, one Rwandan in a very simple way challenged my perception that the only people in need are far from home. The true city of Philadelphia - not the one known to Europeans and portrayed in movies or TV - is a city of people. Some are rich, some are poor - all have human needs. Most Rwandans, despite never having visited the U.S. and never having seen snow, understand this human aspect and basic challenge. It turns out that asking what it means to be from Philadelphia has now actually become a lesson in humility.
Megan Kenna writes from Ruhengeri, Musanze district, Rwanda.
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