In 1995, Bill Clinton was president, Michael Jordan had just returned from his famous foray into baseball and I, a skinny eight year old girl from Kenya had just landed in Nashville, Tennessee. Now, 20 years later, the feeling of leaving my tribal village of 2,000 people, Machakos, and arriving on what seemed like a different planet, remains fresh. I’ll always remember that year.

I couldn’t speak English, but thankfully language barriers don’t take away from our thoughts and experiences.

(story continues below)

Sidebar: “Global UNCG” Showcases Campus Diversity

Today launches the first of a video series entitled “Global UNCG.” Each video features one international student from a different country packaged in a 90-second vignette. With students from 80 different countries, UNCG is one of the most diverse campuses in the UNC system, and in fact rivals many top universities nationally in its diversity.  This series highlights the wide variety of international students enrolled here at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and provides insight into the hopes, dreams and challenges of our international students. The first in the series features Liwen Huange from Tinjian, China.  Liwen is majoring in Entrepreneurship in the Bryan School.  A new “Global UNCG” video will post every two weeks.

View the first video in the series about Liwen Huange from Tinjian, China:

Nancy’s story continued:

Tall buildings were the first things I noticed about America. There had been many tall buildings in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, but in my village the only tall building I had ever seen was the mosque. Downtown Nashville is no New York City, but the idea that people anywhere were capable of constructing such tall buildings shook my foundation.

My first interaction with Americans who weren’t missionaries, or close friends with my father, was a culture shock as well. I couldn’t believe how much Americans hugged. In the village, only parents, mainly mothers because they are often the caretakers, hugged their sons and daughters. I remember thinking how awkward it was that strangers in America would come up to me and, instead of shaking my hand, embrace me. Sometimes when I stood beside them and talked they would keep their hands on my shoulder or upper back. I felt uncomfortable when men would do this because, in my village, men didn’t often touch children. Twenty years later, despite being acutely aware of Southern hospitality and congregational love, I still shake hands in church.

All that hugging, while a culture shock then, molded my perception of Americans as nice and considerate people, which in turn helped shape my interaction with all people.

Often I hear people in America complain about the school system. I understand some of the reasons why, but coming from my small village on the African plains makes me appreciate schools in America. In Machakos, there were no school buses. I walked, sometimes ran, to school every day on unpaved roads. So you might imagine my surprise at the bus stop with my brothers and sisters the first time I saw a big yellow bus coming to take us to school.

In Machakos, there is no such thing as free education. All students, regardless of financial background, are required to pay tuition to attend any school. Of course now I know American public schools aren’t free either, but, education is available to anyone. I knew that most of my friends and family still living in my village would do almost anything to have access to the quality education I had in America. To this day, I view education as a privilege rather than a right and work hard to excel in school.

My favorite part about American schools was the cafeteria. Two things everyone should try in a school cafeteria: 1) chocolate milk; 2) a chicken sandwich. Tasting ice cream was monumental for me but milk that tasted like chocolate was a world away from the fresh cow milk I knew. Say what you will about school cafeteria food, but for me it created a whole new appreciation for America.

The hardest part of American school for me was learning English. I knew Kamba and Swahilli very well, but I had not the slightest clue how to ask my new teacher if I could go to the bathroom. Kamba is simple to learn because everything is pronounced exactly how it looks. The concept of silent letters still baffles me and made English infinitely harder for me to learn. Why is a letter in a word if it has nothing to do with how the word is said? Knee, island, receipt, wrap, psychology? I still don’t get them.

My difficulty with English meant I was enrolled in an english as a second language (ESL) program. My ESL teacher was phenomenal. She taught me the discipline to keep trying to learn the language. She insisted that I enunciate words correctly instead of allowing me to let them just flow. She knew the language was hard to learn, but she made me understand that study and practice every day made it easier. This has served me well over the past 20 years. It took me two years to learn English fluently, but at the end of my first year in American school I graduated from ESL.

Almost as baffling to me as English was the American political system. In Kenya presidents seemed like gods to me. There was an air of mystery about the president of Kenya, making him seem too powerful, too invincible to live among mere mortals.

Maybe a lack of technology in my village was to blame, but the American idea of a “leader of the free world” who was chosen by the people made me feel much more connected to humanity. I went on to study political science and communication studies during my undergraduate years. This would never have happened had my two worlds never collided.

As I am writing this, I realize that 1995 was the most transformational and uncomfortable time of my life – a strange place with strange people and customs. Yet it was no doubt one of the most exciting years of my life. I have come to realize that had I never been born in Machakos, had I never moved to America, had I never experienced the two contrasting worlds, that I wouldn’t be the person I am today. I wouldn’t appreciate or approach humanity with the grace that these experiences afforded me, and I wouldn’t wonder about your story. We have students from 80 different countries enrolled at UNCG.

This fall, I returned to UNCG to get my master’s in communication studies. I also entered the classroom as a small group instructor for Communication Studies. During the course of these last few months, the University Relations team has been capturing the story of Global UNCG. Global UNCG is a series of short videos about other international students and their journey to America. We are highlighting students that – by way of somewhere else – are part of what makes UNCG unique. The first in the series is about Liwen Huang, from China. Check out her story here.


Story by Nancy Maingi, Intern, University Relations
Photography by Martin W. Kane, University Relations