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Through the eyes of an African in Maine

(Page 2 of 2)

As Kim claims pizza as his favorite food and joins his first baseball team, I forget that he's from a dusty village where people farm corn, hope for rain, and still give the elders goats for their brides. Elephants and leopards roam the land that's being overtaken by people.

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Kim doesn't eat to eat; he eats if he's hungry, a concept my family hasn't known since the generation of the Great Depression. Once, draining vegetables, I noticed Kim watching the liquid run down the drain. I knew he was watching me throw away food his family would eat, food I have no use for because I have so much.

"What do you like best?" I ask often.


"What's most surprising?"

"I am not harassed. In my place, a new student is harassed." He thought, too, being black, the whites would harass him.

I feel I need to explain that the customs here aren't the same as a Kenyan village where a newcomer from a great distance can't keep up with the invitations to homes and the questions of interest.

I ask him if he's heard of slavery; when he says no, I tell him about it.

I watch him puzzle over the cheerleaders. Kim comes from a village where all women wear dresses that modestly cover their knees. Yet, a Kenyan bathing outside doesn't hurriedly cover up if surprised by a visitor, as we would. Rural Kenyans disapprove of sexually displaying one's body but feel comfortable with natural nakedness, the opposite of us. I wonder what Kim thinks of girls here with their bellies exposed and I wonder what he thinks of couples in the high school hallways kissing. Kissing and touching between the sexes, married or single, is not public in Kenya, and is often an indication of prostitution. In some tribes, no one kisses at all.

Most high schools in Kenya are boarding schools for either boys or girls. Boys parade about with their male friends, holding hands, arms draped across each other's shoulders in easy camaraderie, and girls with girls, but never the two sexes together. On Sunday after church, a boy and a girl will perhaps talk and walk together.

What Kim says he misses are his friends and a new language the young people in Kenya are creating, a hip rendition of combined tribal languages.

"Take pictures to show your friends back home," I say.

"I know what they would like very much to see," he says. "School buses."

Kim is most of all observant, and although possessing an openheartedness most Americans lose after Grade 3, he's definitely 17 - definitely wanting, however low key he is about it - to fit in with his peers. After one basketball game, he realized kids don't sit with their parents and moved from my side to the fringes of the other students.

No one would know he's from an African village. Even I forget as he comes home, listens to pop music, and wants to watch videos even though it's sunny outside.

But as he stays with us, I feel I'm the one learning. At unpredictable times, I briefly but searingly witness my lifestyle more clearly, from the extravagance of Christmas to a canister of glitter. As I watch Kim experience how we live, work, treat strangers and property, talk and listen, I glimpse American culture and people, as if I, too, have never it before. Having Kim live with us, I catch sharper views - some positive, some disconcerting - of my community and society. I'm the one who's learning, from watching Kim - with his gentle and ready smile, his customs and culture - making his way in this foreign land.