Being a black, African woman studying in USA

Have you ever wondered what it would be like studying in another country? I am so proud of my sister for making her goal of studying abroad a reality! In this blog post, Chiratidzo answers questions about the highs, the lows and the funny about being a black, African woman studying in USA. Enjoy!

Where are you from and where do you study? 

I am originally from Zimbabwe and have been living in South Africa for most of my life. I am studying in Chicago in the United States of America.

How was the application process? Any lessons learnt for others who may want to study in USA? 

The application process was quite smooth. There is one central website called Common App where you can search for universities, and submit all of your applications. I suggest that if you want to apply to study in USA, start your application before the 3rd term of matric because you are going to require help, and letters of recommendation from your teachers.

How did you find settling in and making friends?

The help of the orientation leaders allowed me to get used to using public transportation and finding my way around.It was very hard to make friends at first. I got along with my roommates, but we were not close enough that I could call them my friends. After about a month in first year, one girl in my women’s activism class said in our class discussion that she was having trouble finding friends and often eats alone. To my surprise, most of the class said that they were experiencing the same thing. From that day, I started spending time with the people from that class and that’s how I was able to find my close friends.

Has language been a barrier? 

There has not been so much of a language barrier as there has been a barrier through my use of slang and colloquialism. It was only once I started studying in the USA that I realized just how many slang words I use such as “eish,” “hectic” and “yoh.” Also, I realized just how much I use the word “shame,” in the South African sense, to mean things like “cute,” “poor thing” or “I feel bad for you.” In USA, “shame” is only used to mean a feeling of humiliation or distress. Other words that I use frequently which aren’t commonly used here are “hectic” and “nana.”

I did not even realize that I was using these words so frequently in my first few weeks in the US until one of my friends finally said, “You say that a lot. What does it mean?” I have found some difficulty in showing sympathy or expressing certain feelings because I usually do it using these South African words. There have even been instances where my entire reaction to something has consisted of these words such as, “Eish, shame, nana. That’s hectic.” This leaves the Americans that I’m speaking to left completely confused.

I have also had to adjust to using American spelling in my classes and referring to items using American terms. This includes saying “ketchup” instead of “tomato sauce,” “trash can” instead of “bin” and “air” instead of “aircon.”

And what about understanding accents – how has that been?

In my first month in Chicago, I would have difficulty understanding some Americans’ accents – especially when they spoke quickly. This was most apparent when speaking with a group of people. A lot of the time I would sit in silence because I wasn’t able to keep up with their accents, the speed of their talking, and multiple people speaking at the same time.

Have you had any culture shock experiences? 

In America, ‘coloured’ is a derogatory term to refer to African Americans. I was not aware of this. There was an instance where I was describing one of my friends from South Africa and I said, “They are coloured.” Then the person I was talking to told me that I shouldn’t use that word when in America because it’s really bad here.

What’s your favourite thing about studying abroad? 

My favourite thing about studying abroad is getting to meet different people and learning about things that I may not have if I had studied in my home country. It’s so interesting to see how similar and how different people and situations are here in the USA compared to South Africa

How do you handle homesickness? 

I make a lot of calls home to my family and friends.

Have you adjusted to the weather?

When I first came to Chicago, it was autumn. The weather at that time was easy to deal with; nothing I hadn’t experienced before. People kept warning me about winter. The said that you have to wear multiple layers everyday to get through the cold. I didn’t think much of this because layering is something I had been doing for Johannesburg winters. I was in for a big surprise.

The combination of the cold, wind and snow is something I had never experienced. During my first winter in Chicago, there was a polar vortex so temperatures were reaching unusual lows. I experienced being in temperatures as low as -29 degrees Celsius. Classes even had to be cancelled on some of the colder days.

I have learnt that the only way to make it in this weather is by wearing stockings, pants, socks, a shirt, a jersey, a big hooded jacket AND gloves. Oh and always carry a beanie because sometimes the wind gets so strong that a jacket hoodie won’t stay up to cover your head.

Snow in Chicago

Any general comments about being a black female African in USA? 

When I attended the international orientation for all international first years at my university, I was the only black person there. You can imagine my shock, especially since I was used to living in a country where black people are the majority.

Something that I have noticed in my classes (especially my business classes) is the lack of females (particularly black females). I am not sure if this is due to the fact that black people are the minority in this country, whether business is not a field of study for (black) females, or whether it is just the specific classes that I am in that are like this.

I feel that since I am a female, black African, some people expect me to get involved with a black student union, an African student union or take classes that study my classification. Things that some people have said to me in my first time meeting them are that I should take a class about black women’s lives class, or African Americans.

What aspects of Africa or South Africa are people curious about?

Since it is not frequent that they come across someone like me, some Americans ask me about South African’s opinions on the representation of Africa in movies like ‘Black Panther,’ or South African’s opinions on African Americans going to Africa to learn the culture. Since I am their only source of information about life in South Africa, I am expected to speak on behalf of the whole country. There is no way that I would be able to state an opinion of an entire nation. I put a lot of pressure on myself at times because it can feel like while I’m here I am representing my country so I mustn’t represent it badly; I may be the only person some people here will encounter from South Africa

Have you had time to explore? If so, what were the highlights?

One of my highlights has been going to Millennium Park in downtown Chicago. There I got to take pictures with Cloud Gate, famously known as “The Bean.”

Chiratidzo at Cloud Gate “The Bean”

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I would love to hear about your experiences too. Have you studied outside of your home country before? Do you hope to study abroad one day?

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