Me, my child-loving and (what I’m assuming to be) friendly face, approaching one of my neighbors, hoping for at least a smile in response. (The neighbor in this situation is a baby girl who was born only a couple of months before I arrived last September.)
Her response to my approach?
Instant tears and an attempt to literally melt into her mother.
Ugh. This situation happens on an almost-daily basis. I have made it my personal goal this year to get this adorable little girl to smile at me and not want to hide when I approach.
I have literally known her for a very large majority of her life. I have been doing my best to fit in here and really become a part of this community. Why doesn’t she like me? Why can’t I just fit in?
Wait a minute - is the goal really to “fit in”?
I don’t think so. When anyone in the ELCA talks about global mission, they talk about accompaniment. To put it in layman’s terms, this means that ELCA missionaries are sent to live amongst their communities, share in their joy and grief, and develop a situation of mutual learning and understanding. Nowhere in the YAGM handbook does it say, “Go to your community. Next, learn everything you can about the people and culture. Finally, proceed to drop everything about yourself in order to fit in.”
Fitting can be so desirable because developing relationships with people who have similar dreams, desires, and characteristics is easy. We find comfort in knowing that we are understood by our peers. In all seriousness, fitting in can be pretty darn cool and incredibly comfortable.
To be honest, though, fitting in just isn’t in the cards for me this year. I must remember that I am a white, American, middle-class, 23 year-old woman. I cannot let go of these characteristics, no matter how annoying or “in the way” they might seem at times. I will never truly fit in here.
Despite the tough feelings that go along with not fitting in, I feel proud and empowered to be who I am and who God meant me to be. I know that while there are SO MANY things I can learn from my South African brothers and sisters, there are also many things that they can learn from me. We must walk through these day-to-day challenges and successes together, regardless of our backgrounds. *cough, cough, accompaniment, cough, cough*
So, even though my neighbor girl may never smile at me, or at least look at me with any look other than pure terror, or even though I may never actually fit in, the people here in Soweto, as well as around the world, are there to see me for who I am, just as I am there to see them for who they are.
Really, fitting in is overrated, anyway.
*Originally written in early April. UPDATE – She has smiled at me, but she still gets scared to death when I try to hold her. Baby steps, I guess..