As an intern, I am always “volunteering” to do things at the embassy.
It’s amazing what I volunteer to do around here. I jump on tasks ranging from conducting meetings with groups of Cameroonians and French people, interrogating Cameroonian priests who have personal letters from President Obama and Jesus asking them to come to the U.S. to managing the cafeteria. I’m also up for sorting inventory and pouring 1,000 glasses of champagne. Most of the time, I don’t even remember saying yes to this stuff…or being asked.
One day last week, though, I got an email entitled “speaking opportunity” in which the request for my help was actually phrased as…a question! My immediate answer was yes (and would have been even if this had been a paper shredding opportunity– an intern never says no!). For this outing, I would create and deliver a presentation on U.S. National emblems to English-language learners in the Embassy-funded English Acess Microscholarship program. (It’s sort of like the Dickinson internship grants…if you’re convincing enough, you’ll get some money to learn stuff.)
The idea was to give a 90-minute presentation in the form of an interactive lesson that would help the students, aged 15-19, improve thier English and understand more about American culture and heritage.
I showed up at the Yaounde Pilot Linguistic Center Tuesday morning, armed with flag printouts, worksheets, my scribbled notes, and a humungous goodie bag. The topic of the lesson was to be U.S. Emblems: The Flag, the Anthem and the Motto. My plan was to ask the students about their own national emblems and what they signified to Cameroonians. Then, I would compare that to Americans’ conception of national emblems and the ideals they represented to us. (Hey, I’m a philosophy major–you’ve gotta start with a solid philosophical foundation!) Then, I had a brief presentation on each emblem along with a related activity.
The whole thing, thanks to the engagement of the thirty students, was a hit. They were packed into the airless classroom in typical Cameroonian style, but there was no commotion. They sat up straight in their chairs, eyes fixed on me, and as I had at the Dickinson welcome orientation, I felt that they were relying on me for so much more than an English lesson.
Explaining U.S. Flag evolution
The winning activites were the anthem-related activity and the closing game. The last thing I told them in my shpeel about the national anthem was that it was famously difficult to sing because of the range required, not to mention that many Americans didn’t know the correct words. Then, I handed out the lyrics of the anthem–but with some of the words missing. We listened to it being sung and tried to fill in the blanks correctly. I brought myself a cheat sheet just in case: This was not the moment to mix up “night” and “fight!”
To finish up, I read the class trivia questions that could be answered only if they had paid close attention to the lesson. The first person to raise their hand got a go. If they answered correctly, they were tossed a prize out of the prize bag. Easy questions like, “How many stars are there on the American flag?” got an Embassy pen. A tiny girl wrapped in a green foulard answered the trickiest question correctly after six incorrect responses (How is the flag disposed of when it’s too old to be flown?) in a whispered voice. She got a huge foldout map of the U.S.
I had asked my questions. Now, it was their turn. I told them they could ask anything they wanted, eyeing two boys in the front row firmly–not ANYthing, mind you! Surely, nearly every teenager sitting in front of me dreamed of going to the U.S. They were learning American English becasue they wanted to know what it was like to speak the language of Obama. They wanted to understand those films they saw on TV. They wanted to live, one day, all the things they heard about the U.S.: The sports players and movie starts, the fast food and the big cities, the cowboys, the schools, and the freedom. They wanted to live the American dream. And right now, they wanted to know:
How old are you?
Where are you from?
Are you a diplomat?
What are universities in the U.S. like?
Are there lots of foreigners in the U.S?
What do you eat in the U.S.?
Do you like Cameroon?
And then the best, and maybe the hardest one:
Do black people experience racism in the U.S.?
I had to say yes. Of course I had to say yes. I tried to explain that like in any country, the U.S. is home to people all along the spectrum of racism: there are people who are incredibly open-minded and accepting, and people who are thoughtless and close-minded. I tried to explain that she, if she came to the U.S., would be a part of my country’s diversity, just the way that a person from China was, a person from Mexico was, or I was. And, like all people do, she would experience different levels of understanding from different people. I explained that while under the law, racism is abhorred, the reality is still evolving to meet that ideal. Here’s the American dream, tempered by reality.
My unfortunate reality was that I experienced more discrimination in the U.S. because of my geographical background, religious beliefs and intellectual culture than I ever did in Cameroon because of the color of my skin. For me, the American dream was not to be treated equally as those around me, but to have the right and the power to change that when I was older.
I was honest about tough issues like racism with those thirty hopeful students because that’s what they will encounter when they go to the U.S., along with McDonald’s and basketball games. But that’s the thing about ideals: they’re just as important as a reality check. It’s important to have something to strive for when you’re muddling through what can sometimes be agonizing, less-than-ideal life. So I hope that, for these thirty people dreaming the American dream, the flag will wave for them the same way it has for me.