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“Does it rain in the US?” My host mom asked me one day.

Before this remark feeds into your stereotype of uneducated Africans, let me clarify that my host mom is well-versed in French and is among the team of more informed women who are tasked to share knowledge with others.

Whether it was a genuine inquisition or merely an effort to converse with me, her question made me think: who are we in their eyes?

Are we tourists, guests, rich people, Europeans, a bunch of nice people, or fools who clumsily try to live like them?

I’ve been called “anasari”, which means “Europeans” in Kabyé, almost every day (even though I am Chinese); kids here loves to rub my skin onto theirs or bury their faces in my arm as if stealing my “whiteness”; I’ve been asked by several people to gift them my straight black hair when I leave; several people were surprised that “white people” also cultivate… All these behaviours would have been immediately dismissed as racist in the context of US. But here, they seem to entail something more intricate about their idea of race, and their conception of us.

To many, we are benevolent donors; to some, we are mere representatives of the exploitative West. But to all, we are new and exotic friends. Yet as time passes, I increasingly sense that we are, most essentially, entertaining strangers.

Strangers, a neutral term, indicating differences, because let’s face it, we are not able to completely “engage”. We are strangers whose mere presence is a form of entertainment, for those kids along the road running up to us shouting “anasari!” Here, we are appreciated for being different. However, we are also strangers who are willing to try to live like, and live with, them. We bring the biggest joy to them when they see us trying, no matter how badly the result turned out, just like how Edwin got nicknamed “the champion” even though he didn’t come in first for cultivation competition. My host mom was thrilled to see me working alongside her in the fields, even though she had to redo my first couple of lanes. As long as we try, we win, because we succeeded in doing what we are best equipped to do — to entertain.

That realization changed my world. Instead of meticulously planning out the syllabus for Chinese class, I spent most of my time brainstorming how to make the class fun; instead of buying candies for the children, I invested in card games and origami tutorials as a pleasant surprise; instead of savouring my free time to read, I went to cook with the women and girls; instead of “imparting” knowledge of the US in the name of cultural exchange, I mostly listened to what Kabyés have to say about their culture, expressing great interest.

It took a long while for me to let go of my “noble quest” to engage and accept my role as an “entertaining stranger” in the community. But adopting that mentality made me so much more at home here.