I like to pretend I’m a world traveler. I will even go as far as listing “traveling” as one of my hobbies in a bio or two. In reality, my life as a traveler has only just begun – I’ve only been to three countries other than my own, and one trip was to Mexico for spring break and not exactly what I would classify as a “cultural experience.” My two mentionable trips, however, haven’t been to your traditional “travel destinations” – Zambia and Vietnam are both developing nations. Although I’ve only been in Zambia for two days, I am already seeing many similarities between the African country and Vietnam.
The traffic. I thought rush hour in Chicago was scary, but this makes windy city traffic look like a walk through Millennium Park. In Vietnam, it was motorbikes darting in and out of each other, with no apparent traffic pattern in site. In Zambia, it’s cars and buses, with little regard to people and bikers, much less other cars.
The “traditional dish.” If foreign students came to America and wanted to eat “traditional American food,” I would apprehensively direct them to the nearest pizza place or hotdog and burger joint. In both Nha Trang, Vietnam and Lusaka, Zambia, the students proudly proclaim that their “traditional” dish is pho or nshimi (respectively). One is a soup-like dish with all the sauces, spices and vegetables you can fit and the other is made out of corn meal, eaten with your hands and dipped into sauce or soup. Although I ate nshimi for the first time today, I hear that I will be experiencing it again…. And again and again.
The minority feeling. One of the most eye-opening things about studying abroad is instantly becoming a minority in the city in which you are staying. I felt this full force two separate times today. This morning, several Zambian students walked the 18 of us around the campus. As soon as we stepped foot in the courtyard of the male dorms – dubbed “The Ruins” – we were instant celebrities. Students were hanging out of their windows, whistling, shouting, blowing horns and taking pictures. As soon as we had gotten over that experience, we were in the limelight again at the Lusaka market.
The small world feeling. Logistics, skin color, dialect, background, environment and all else aside, people are basically the same. Yesterday, we played soccer with a group of local students. Besides the fact that even the kids who “weren’t into foot ball” could have wiped the floor with us if they pleased, the students reminded me of my friends and roommates back home. One girl told me about how her father was trying to grasp the fact that she was mature and would soon be moving out while two other students argued over music artists. I’m not sure what I expected, but I didn’t expect to relate instantly and on such basic levels.
The appreciation. In Vietnam – and now in Zambia – I was fortunate enough to spend time with local students and see where they live, study, eat and work. The conditions are not ideal to say the least. Nonetheless, they are so incredibly appreciative of the fact that they are getting the opportunity to learn. When you see a tiny dorm room with eight people crammed in or a rat-invested market “food court,” your problems start to look like a tiny blip on the radar.