Fatick, Senegal – March 2010
One of the most powerful bonds between people is formed when people who feel like outsiders find solace in each other. This is especially fun when there is nothing connecting these people other than the fact that they are outsiders.
While I lived in Fatick, there were fourteen people in the city who were “toubabs,” and eight of them were on our mission team. There were three other Americans in Fatick doing work with the PeaceCorps. There was one Korean girl who worked at the hospital and two Japanese girls who taught at one of the schools. “Toubabs” are people whose light skin obviously differentiates them from the local Senegalese. Any further national divisions were often hilariously wrong. I was usually recognized as being from the United States, but only because I am tall. My housemate Liz, also from the United States, was usually assumed to be from Japan, because she is short and has dark hair. But no matter what, whether from Asia or America, we fourteen were all “toubabs.”
Being outsiders based on the color of our skin (without, I feel compelled to add, any accompanying prejudice or discrimination) meant we sought each other out. This was made especially easy since we were all extremely easy to spot amongst our Senegalese neighbors. I sometimes caught myself gasping, “Toubab!” when I spotted another light-skinned person in public. Dinners with the other Americans were loud, hilarious, and full of oversized complaints about living in a third world country. But it was to the Asian girls that I felt especially drawn, and Yayoi in particular.
Yayoi spoke Japanese and passable French. I spoke English and, well, extremely poor French. Under normal circumstances, we never ought to have become friends.
Sometime during my second month in Senegal, Liz started giving Yayoi French lessons. When she arrived on a moto taxi, she would bang on our gate. I was usually the one to go out, unlatch the lock, and let her in. “Bonjour!” we would chorus at each other. “Ca va? Ca va!” Sometimes I would try out, “Konnichiwa!” or she would say, “Hello!” Having run out of understandable conversation we would smile at each other until Liz came to bridge our language divide.
One week, I had a brilliant idea. I had brought DVDs of Fruits Basket, a Japanese anime TV show, to Senegal with me. When I made Liz watch the first episode with me, she frowned throughout the adorable episode and said, “No,” when it was over. During Yayoi’s lesson with Liz, I hovered in my room, picking up the DVD case and setting it down. When I heard the kitchen chairs sliding away from the table, I grabbed the show and leaped into the room.
“Um, do you want to watch this? Fruits Basket? With me?” I held the case up. Yayoi’s eyes lit up. She answered in Japanese, setting her bag back onto the table and looking at me expectantly.
“Oh, awesome!” I said. I went back to my room for my laptop and set it up on our living room coffee table. Liz rolled her eyes at my invitation to join us, and said, “I’ll bleach the apples instead.” Yayoi sat beside me as I queued up the DVD. At the menu, she reached over me and selected the Languages tab. After clicking a few times, the first episode began. The characters spoke in Japanese with English subtitles playing along the bottom. “You’re so smart!” I exclaimed, and we grinned at each other. Twenty minutes later, I walked her back to our gate so she could return home.
The next week, she appeared at our house with a DVD of her own. “Laputa?” Yayoi asked. I shook my head no, but smiled widely to convey that I had not seen it, but wanted to. By the time she finished her lesson with Liz, I had my computer ready and waiting. She put in Studio Ghibli’s Castle in the Sky, this time in English with Japanese subtitles.
Each week our friendship grew deeper as we watched Japanese TV shows and movies together. We shared snacks and laughter even though we never shared a conversation. Sometimes I would Google Translate a short note into Japanese and painstakingly write out the kanji. She would always laugh when she read it, so I’m sure a lot of the message was lost in translation. Her notes in English were definitely mistranslated and hilarious.
Yayoi returned to Japan in April, one month before I returned to the United States. We hugged goodbye. I tried to convey how much I appreciated her friendship with my face while I rattled off meaningless, “I hope you have a safe flight and a good life in Japan!” in English. She spoke to me in Japanese, and then we both said, “Au revoir” in our shared language of French.
It has been five years since I met Yayoi and nearly that long since we said goodbye. Our friendship, however, is still alive. She sent me a post card when she got married, and when she had her first child. Just last month I received a postcard telling me happy new year from her family of four. In return, I send Facebook messages and emails to make sure she knows I am still happy to call her my friend.
Out of all the people I met in Senegal, I never expected the one I would stay in contact with the longest would be a woman from Japan.