Blog post: Oops! Don’t get me wrong!

Blog post by BSP Fellow Violet Acumo.

Photo of Violet Acumo.
Violet Acumo, MSU public policy graduate student and BSP Fellow. Photo courtesy of the MSU Research Consortium on Gender-based Violence.

“Well done.” Silence.

“Well done.” More silence.

“Surely, he must be hard of hearing,” I thought to myself.  “Well done!” I raised my voice this time. “I heard you alright the first time, and you will get your meat well done. You do not have to be rude!” said the gentleman that was manning the barbecue. Stunned and completely taken aback, I simply stared wide eyed and mouth agog at him.

I arrived in the state of New Hampshire during my maiden trip to the United States in June 2016, for the Mandela Washington Fellowship. As part of the American experience, we were invited to a barbecue. As I approached the grill, I decided that I would express my gratitude to the gentleman manning it, as my native customs of decorum demanded of me, before I asked for anything from him. Later, as I narrated my strange experience to my host, I was informed, to my utter shock, that I was instead telling Tom (as we shall henceforth christen him), to roast my beef for a more extended time till it turned dark brown! As it turned out, my attempt at politeness had ended in blatant offensiveness. This was my first encounter with English as spoken in America, versus English as we know it, in European colonized countries in Africa.

Fast forward to Michigan State University. Spartan Country looked stunning in the Fall. I looked around, and smiled to myself as I took in all the beautiful Fall colors around me. Clutching my bus pass in my right hand, I anxiously awaited at the designated bus stop in Spartan Village for the first time, for bus 39, as I mentally rehearsed all the steps I had been told I needed to successfully ride the CATA bus, a practice that would later become a daily ritual. As the bus approached, for a fidgety moment I wondered if I should raise my hand to hail it, as we did back home in Uganda, however, I was promptly interrupted by that stern voice inside my head (Acumo as we shall call her henceforth), which curtly instructed me NOT to act like a villager (country girl, as the Americans would say).

“What would a “seasoned” American at the bus stop act like?” I asked.

“Probably cool, calm and collected, (and pray the bus stops on its own).”  I rolled my eyes and heeded her advice.

Yes, the bus stopped.

Yes, on its own.

“See, I told you so.” Acumo smirked.

“Shut up,” I retorted, as I proceeded to fumble about the correct way to swipe my bus pass without looking like the villager I had been instructed not to look like (eye roll). The driver noticed my discomfort and kindly offered the correct instructions. I then took my seat and continued my journey to find my classroom.

As the days went by, I decided that I needed to make new friends if I was going to have a successful social life in Spartan Country. So, one day as I got on to the bus, I sat next to a stylishly dressed student.  “She really looks well put together,” I thought to myself in appreciation. I decided that I would make my appreciation known to her.

“Beware of the personal bubble you were warned about at the embassy,” Acumo cautioned.

Immediately, my thoughts rushed back to the three pages of the “THOU SHALT NOTS” of living in America, that I was handed at the pre-departure ceremony at the American Embassy in Kampala. I dismissed my thoughts, turned and smiled shyly and said, “Hello”

She smiled back, “Hi.”

“That’s a great start!” Acumo encouragingly told me.

“Nice weather today.” I continued

“Oh yeah! I totally agree! It’s so nice outside today!” She warmed up to me.

Fully emboldened, I declared my thoughts. “You are so smart!”

“Excuse me?” She asked me with a look on her face that said she was still making up her mind about whether to get offended, or pretend she hadn’t heard what I had just said to her.

“I said you are so smart!” I repeated uncertainly.

That is when she decided she was offended. She gave me one disgusted look and clammed up for the rest of the ride. Uncertain of what my new crime was, I continued my private back and forth with Acumo who was now cringing and rolling her eyes incessantly, about the boomerang.

“Yes,” continued Acumo “you are too different. It will never work.” I didn’t respond because I was miserably trying to cross the road to get to class. Later, I learned that in America, telling someone they were smart meant they were intelligent, and telling them they looked nice meant you appreciated their outfit. It then dawned on me why that student got offended. I then firmly made up my mind that I was not making any American friends because, I simply did not understand them. 

One day as I read my emails, I noticed one from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. To this day, I do not know how I got onto that mailing list in the first place because I belonged to a different department. The email was advertising the Bailey Scholars’ Program. Curious, I followed the link and read on.

“Do you want to embarrass yourself further?” Acumo offered, peering over the email with me. “Imagine the scene you would make, and this time in a public space!” I closed that email and promptly forgot about it. Three weeks later, after affirming myself, I reopened the email and read through the instructions that the link led to, determined to write that application.

“They will never consider you,” she told me.

“But they mentioned diversity,” I reminded her.

“I told you already, you are too different.” She replied.

“The better!” I yelled back in exasperation.

Determined, I wrote my application, but after I was done, I cowered.

When I finally gathered the courage to fail forward, I realized the deadline was upon me. I promptly wrote to Dustin, the Academic Advisor, who so graciously replied my email. To be honest, his email was so gracious, that that was the push I needed to submit my application. I nervously counted the days, as I waited to hear back from the Bailey Scholar’s Program. Finally, I got an email asking me to pick an interview date. Excited and terrified, I did. When the day came, I put on my bravest face and a smile, told Acumo to keep her mouth firmly shut or I would strangle her, and breezed into the interview room. I must have gone on autopilot because the interview was a blur. However, I was confident I had given it my best, and told them my heart. A fortnight later, I received an email from the BSP telling me that I had been accepted as Graduate Fellow! Elated, I danced around my room for joy.

When I finally met the BSP community, guys, I was floored! These people made the words “diversity,” “community” and “acceptance” come alive! Then I met Jeno, the Program Director, and everything I had been brought up to believe a director should be flew out the window. This was the version I aspired to be. She gave the term “leadership” a whole new meaning! (But that is a story for another day). I had finally found a place where my “being different” was accepted, appreciated and celebrated. A place I was comfortable enough to ask questions, to learn, and to grow. I had finally found my family in America! Suddenly, the winter didn’t seem so cold any more, and the rest as they say, is history! I had finally arrived home.

~Violet Acumo

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