July 4th of this year, my heart wasn't set to the red, white and blue...but it was looking to a flag made solely of red and white. My first international trip to Europe finally came on Independence Day, and it was to POLAND! Granted, Poland is not the first place that people think to vacation when they set their sights on Europe, but it was a business trip for an exceptional cause. I went as an assistant to my mother and a speaker in my own right for Breaking Walls Program. This is a wonderful program that gets teens from around the world (South Africa, New York, Michigan, Poland, Spain, Germany, and Palestine) to come together and create change through activism within the arts. For the first week, the Artists get different writing prompts that help them to create many different pieces focusing on hard hitting subjects. The second week, the Ambassadors of the program work together to take two writing pieces from each of the 30+ Artists to create a seamless script that showcases all of the Artists. On the very last day, the Artists perform a full theatrical production that was wholly created from their original authentic voices. All in all, it was an amazing trip, and here are some things that I learned...
10 Things I Learned from My 10-Day Trip in Poland
1. You never know what's on the other side of your obedience
The initial way that I got the opportunity to go to Poland was through a complete "fluke". My mother was named the 2017 Global Health Ambassador for the Breaking Walls Program, so she was set to go on the trip. As part of her duty, she had a speech to make on behalf of the program in March, but unfortunately she wasn't able to go due to health challenges with my grandmother. This is where I came in. Since everything happened so quickly, she asked me on the day of the speech if I could step in for her. I reluctantly said yes, although I was quite nervous since the people would be expecting her and I felt they would "just" be getting me. Then God encouraged my heart, letting me know I could simply be myself. I was enough. With that, I said what she wanted me to say and added my own flair with doing spoken word poetry. Without that experience, I probably would not have been able to go. You never know what opportunities your "yes" will bring you to.
2. No matter how far you go, you can't run from your difficulties
Who would have known that on the day that I arrived to Poland, President Trump would arrive too? I didn't know until I mentioned my concern for the heightened police presence where we were trying to catch the tram (which never came because it was blocked off by his security). In essence, our short trip to pick up groceries turned into a 4hr journey because of the blockades. Regardless, it made me think about how far from home I felt, yet something that I thought I was getting away from, came right to the exact street that I was on, unbeknownst to me. This is a lesson for life in general. There is no physical location where your problems don't exist. Don't run from them. Face them.
3. Be thankful
I don't know if there is anything like traveling and meeting people from all over the world. It certainly has a way of opening you up to seeing new things, and it can especially open you up to see your own privilege, particularly as an American citizen. I heard so many harrowing tales from so many. The things that are unthinkable for me are the things that are normal for many others. Be thankful for what you have and give it away to those who have nothing.
4. You're not necessarily right. They're not necessarily wrong. We're all just...different
This is me eating a cold soup made out of beets. It wasn't (too) bad. It (certainly) wasn't good. It was just different. I felt that way much of the time interacting with others. Some people said things that shocked me, like "Who is Baltimore?" when there was a conversation of the city in Maryland. I was surprised they didn't know where Baltimore was, or even that Baltimore was a city at all, but I suppose if you live in South Africa, that kind of information isn't very pertinent. I'm not right for knowing where the city is, just as they're not wrong for not knowing. We both simply lead different lives in such different contexts that it is completely normal to view the world in different ways.
One thing that I was very aware of was how privileged the English language was. For the most part, English was not many of the Artists first language, but since the program is an English one, all were expected to have some level of proficiency enough to be able to write and perform. My heart smiled to hear so many different mother tongues in one setting; so it grieved me when some said that their biggest goal in life is to learn English fluently and even get down an American accent just to be accepted, just to get the good jobs in their home countries. I hated that there is such a hierarchy to say that one language, the most integral part of one's culture, is better than another's; but I was also aware of how much I benefit from this hierarchy. Even in flying back home with a pit stop at the Paris airport, there was a rude American berating an airport worker saying, "This is an international airport! You need to speak ENGLISH! Do you know how to speak English?" She was in France, telling a French man that he was wrong for speaking French! I was so appalled that I almost jumped in, until he stepped up for himself and asked her in French if she knew how to speak French. She said no. Then he said, "Puedes hablar en Español?" asking if she knew how to speak Spanish. She said no. This went on for nearly five other languages. Then he said in English, "As you said, this is an International airport, and I have just spoken at least 7 languages while you continue to speak only one. Maybe it is you who needs to realize where you are and learn to speak another language."
5. Sit down. Be humble
As an artist myself, I am so used to being on stages, yet as mentioned before, I didn't come into the program as an artist. I came to assist my mother and within that I was able to speak my poetry and share my testimony about breaking free from depression and suicide, but for the most part, I played the background. It was interesting being on the other side of the stage and in the audience, but there is always a time to let others shine, and shine they did (refer to the link in the intro paragraph entitle "full theatrical performance").
"ARBEIT MACHT FREI" is what this gate says, German for "Work makes one free". This is the entrance gate to Auschwitz, the infamous concentration camp. My mother and I had the opportunity to experience this place where unspeakable tragedies occurred. I cannot even begin to express to you the feelings that I felt while walking the grounds, even getting as personal as walking into the old gas chambers and crematoria. It's amazing what hate can do. Yet more amazing still, is what love can do. Remembering is a form of love. I could hardly believe that the concentration camp grounds that we walked at Auschwitz and Birkenau were both made into state museums just two and a half years after liberation with the first tour guides being the survivors themselves! In fact, while we were there, they were celebrating the 70th anniversary of the museum. For this reason, many of the original buildings still stand. It was enlightening to see that an entire country could realize its sins and choose to publicly repent of them by forever keeping the proof in order to never transgress in that way again. It made me think about how we still have so far to go in my own country.
7. Diversity is necessary
Poland is an extremely homogeneously Anglo-Saxon country, so as a big group of many shades, we drew quite a few stares. We even drew people coming up to us to ask, "Why are you here"; some were genuinely curious and others asked the question with venom on their tongues. In one instance, we were on our way to tour the old Warsaw Jewish ghetto. When we got to the subway platform, there were men who were there to check people's tickets at random, and they just so happened to "randomly" choose many of the black and brown people in our group, some of whom came to find they had lost their wallets and subsequently their tickets. Such a fiasco ensued with these men yelling at our young teens and intimidating them in Polish, even threatening to take them to jail if they could not pay these fines that they came up with for their lost tickets. It took one of the teens from the Poland delegation, a short but fiery young 17 year old girl, to fight on behalf of all of us by yelling at these men in Polish demanding that they be fair with all of us because we were with her. Eventually we were allowed onto the subway, but not without many tears shed by the targeted teens. The Polish girl who stood up for us all said that that had never happened before and that she's never had to pay a fine for losing her ticket in times past. When she asked me why I thought it happened then, it broke my heart that I, as her "first black acquaintance", had to tell her about the harsh realities of racial discrimination.
8. It's always a good time to be a light
In the first week, we went to a hospice center to do community service with children. Two small groups of Artists were allowed to go visit young children dying of cancer in their homes. The rest of us stayed in the hospice center and had a day of fun activity with a club that focused on the siblings of the children dying of cancer. I thought that this was very genius because so often the parents' attention goes solely to the child who is sick and the siblings feel neglected. With this club, the hospice center tries to aid in helping the siblings with the transition they will soon undergo. We were all able to make small pictures of what we thought was a visual representation of friendship and from there, we put it on a large banner for the club to keep. Sometimes, it's the little things that go a long way. Shine the light of love and kindness wherever you go and it won't go unnoticed.
9. Pause and rest
The total travel time on the ground and in the air was about 12 hours both ways. Many people complain about long travel days, but I love them, especially long plane rides. I love them because I like to see what people do on long plane rides. Some sleep. Others read. Some listen to music or watch movies while others catch up on work. Regardless, I feel like long plane rides are those times where you have limited options on what you can do. You are literally stuck for (in our case) ten hours, so you may as well do something relaxing. I tend to think that the things that people do on long plane rides are the things that they always really want to do in their normal lives but the feel they don't have time for it. I wish people felt the freedom to rest without feeling guilt and shame everyday. We were created for rest, it's not a weakness. If we all rested like we should, I think that many of our lives would be filled with the activities that we do on long plane rides.
10. You can have what you say
Anyone who knows me, knows that I love to journal. I'm currently writing in a journal that my old college roommate, Nia, got for me while she was in Thailand. Whenever someone gifts me with a journal, I always take a picture of the journal and text it to the person who gave it to me along with a nice thank you text to let them know that I am about to put their gift to good use. The day that I sent Nia such a text, thanking her for my first journal from overseas, she texted me back saying, "May this be a prophetic marker that soon you will be known internationally". I took her message to heart, especially because these are things that I've always spoken over myself. I've always said that my dream is to travel around the world for my gift of the arts in its various forms. Well, just a month and a half after writing Nia's bold decree over my life into the journal that she gave me, I truly did go overseas for my first international speaking opportunity! I can truthfully say that through meeting people from the seven different delegations, there are people from all over the world who have heard my original writings. I had to pause and think to myself that I can no longer say that traveling the world for my gifts
is my dreams. It has now become my present reality. I'm grateful for that.
These are just a few things that I learned. Maybe you learned something too? If so, write it down in the comments section, I'd love to hear from you. Stay tuned for my blog post next month, because come tomorrow, I begin my first day at the University of Michigan as an Admissions Recruiter!