Personal Journey: Abroad, learning where she's from

View from a hill in Rwanda - where the writer got a unique perspective of Philadelphia.
View from a hill in Rwanda - where the writer got a unique perspective of Philadelphia. (MEGAN KENNA)
Posted: June 08, 2014

Five years ago, I moved abroad to begin my graduate studies in the international city of Brussels, Belgium. Though I had traveled before, I always did so surrounded by close friends, staying in hostels full of Americans, people familiar with the East Coast. But in 2009, I made my home in a foreign country and entered a world of expatriates. Along with the challenges presented by language barriers and cultural confusion came one unexpected quirk - having to explain my hometown.

The business of choice in Brussels is politics - European Union politics. Perhaps as a result of this international and political environment, where networking is a way of life, all conversations seem to follow a standard format. First people ask your name, quickly following with "What do you do?" Thanks to my accent, I usually give myself away as an American. Then it's on to the question of where I am from. What is an American doing in the capital of the European Union? This is where it gets fun.

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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