Sitting in Complexity

            I left the convent walls for my daily walk along the dirt road to the market.  As I followed the tire tracks and Chaco prints on the ground, I realized I was close to the part of the market where I usually have a mental battle about whether I should buy or resist a fried dough ball. To the locals, they’re called scones.

             Before I was forced to make my decision, I was greeted with a casual “Ni Hao” by a passing Zambian.

            This was the first of several Ni Hao greetings. Within the past week and a half, I have also been asked many times where I was from because I didn’t exactly look like the others in my group. In Dipalata, I felt too uncomfortable to walk alone on the path from the clinic to the church hall because of the whispers. I heard the “China girl” and “from China”. The feeling of being singled out as an outcast overwhelmed me to the extent that I waited until Maurie caught up to me on the path so that I had someone to walk alongside.           

            I am writing this blog while sitting in complexity, but also my bed that is surrounded by my trusty mosquito net.  In the United States, racism is unfortunately more common than we would like to think. If I were greeted with a Ni Hao in passing, I would interpret it as overt racism. Here in Zambezi, however, I feel frustrated and confused as to if I would even use the word racist to describe my experiences. I haven’t seen one other Asian during my stay here, and I fear that this is the reason for the assumptions made on my identity. I feel further frustration and confusion because how do I deal with these assumptions if I have not even figured out how I identify myself on a internal level? For a while now, I have struggled between feeling very American and not feeling American at all. When I was asked where I was from, the answer I gave was United States, because that is where I am from. I can be American and not white. When I am back home though, sometimes it feels as if American isn’t a label I can use for myself.                             

            During one of our reflections, we watched a TedTalk video by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called The Danger of a Single Story. Her ideas align with the way I think about assumptions, in that assuming can easily prevent one from understanding others. This is because you are almost blinded to other parts that are integral to a person’s story. The assumption about me being Chinese can block a person from learning about my Thai, Filipino, and American background. Many Zambians have also assumed the extent of our wealth and intention and have asked us to provide them with money.  I would be lying, however, if I said that I never made assumptions before coming here. I never thought that the gender roles would be so distinct and deeply engraved in the culture here in Zambezi. If I held on to this assumption, I may have thought less about the many girls I ‘ve seen caring for their babies while I saw zero men present to help. While reflecting, the best way to prevent assumptions from being a danger is to ask questions and acknowledge that I may not know every detail.


               In the words of Spencer Weiskopf, “Today has been very balanced. There’s been lots of joy and engagement, laughing and excitement, and at the same time there’s been a lot of frustration and some doubt and pain. Overall, relatively balanced.” I want to give a shout out to Spencer for his amazing words as it perfectly describes my entire experience here in Zambezi. Some of the joyous moments I have had have been inside the classroom where I’ve gotten to know the details of many of the computer students. I enjoy listening to how they may have been Miss Zambezi in the past, wake up at 4 or 5 hours to start baking for the best bakery in the market, or being told the schedule for Zam City FC games. One of my favorite moments are spent in the back of the LandCruiser with 4 to 7 other Zags as we blast music, trying to survive every bump and ditch we come across. Luckily, we have our MVP Janeen to count on (today she drove us out of the bush and successfully made it without stalling our not-so-trusty LandCruiser). It may seem as if I mention these moments with you to lighten up the mood of the overall post, but I don’t want to brush off my feelings of frustration and confusion. I appreciate Spencer’s use of the word balance because he acknowledged there may be a complexity behind every experience. As I reflect, I believe it’s okay to remain within this complexity and to be confused on how to go forth. Although very different to others’ experiences here, it is one I felt obliged to share because it is my truth.  

Many thanks for reading,

Sammi Rustia

P.S. Congratulations Lena on graduating from high school, I’m so proud of you! I also want to wish you an early Happy Birthday <3

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5 Responses to Sitting in Complexity

  1. Margarett Qaqish says:

    Sammi, thank you for your honesty. I felt so similar during my time in Zambezi last summer and felt conflicted on my label as an American as well. Thanks for your post and authenticity, I am glad you are leaning into the uncomfort!

    RACHEL!! My comment on your post didn’t go through and I never noticed. But WOW I am so glad you are stepping out of your comfort zone and learning so much there. It brings me so much joy hearing that you are exploring past those convent walls. The Zambezi Sunset over the river is an image I’ll never forget, thank you for reminding me of it. I am so glad I met you on the Women’s Retreat not so long ago. You have brought me so much joy and I cannot wait to hear more stories from your time!

    I hope Dipalata was wonderful. I am glad you all are enjoying those car rides. Sending lots of love!


  2. Kelen says:

    Hey Sammi,
    Thank you so much for being open to share of your experience, especially as it is so unique to you. It takes an additional aspect of courage and assuredness to be so open about a challenge that quite literally no one around you can empathize fully with – so thank you for writing from your heart and allowing readers like me into what has shaped a large part of your experience thus far. In my own way I remember feeling confined into a certain role/persona until I really connected with the Zambians I was around – I hope that through those computer class students have made you feel alive in your own way. I don’t remember scones or baking, but those ZamCity FC games were ALWAYS a topic of conversation – Debby is quite the coach. I’m thinking of that super cramped computer room and fighting for chairs with the Business/Leadership Team and am smiling so big. Seize the balance and imbalance of all in front of you. Also that pic is SO CUTE.

    Greetings Chloe. I went to breakfast w your mom yesterday and it was super awesome! I hope you’ve been having cool dreams but not scary ones. I also hope you’ve been able to share them w someone. I’m eating an orange GoMacro bar right now to be in solidarity w you. Go do something crazy, I’m praying for you, peace

    Hello Fr. Baraza, 4 priests were at my house this weekend including Ben Brae and so I just wanted to write and say that I hope you are doing well and that you don’t feel like you’re on a work trip. Stay wise and cool

    Hello Jeff Dodd

    Mwane mwane mwane,

  3. Kurt Guenther says:

    This is a great reflection and I thank you for sharing. The idea of a single story disintegrates when you immerse yourself into a place that people back home can so easily just call “Africa”….but we know there is a different story for each country, each city in that country, and every person in that specific city or town.

    It has now been 8 years since I spent the summer in Zambezi, which is crazy to imagine. I wonder how Zambezi has changed since our time there. JANEEN, I just saw that you are on the trip this year – that is so great to see! My memories of Zambezi are still as fresh as they were when I stepped off the plane years ago. My time in Zambezi was my first real experience “teaching” and it is so cool to look back at that time as I have just finished another year teaching 7th and 8th grade math at a school here in Phoenix. I send my love and prayers to you all. I still find myself telling stories of my time in Zambezi with friends and roommates from time to time, and it usually starts with “the time I killed a chicken” (sorry to the vegans). Please savor your time there and soak it in. Allow the experience to transform your heart, eyes, and soul. It is so real and rich, you will never regret your time there. Mwane,

    Kurt Guenther
    Zambezi 2011

  4. Hikaru says:

    Dear Sammi,

    Thank you for your honesty and your vulnerability. So many feelings and memories rushed through me as I read your post. I, too, remember being called “China” particularly by the kiddos and men. Every time that happened, I would respond back with “I’m Japanese” in hopes that the Zambians would understand that I’m not Chinese, I’m Japanese. Eventually, it just became chatter I’d hear walking around but the people I developed relationships with, knew I wasn’t “China”. Honestly, it sucked feeling like they had put a label on me before I could express myself but I didn’t know how I could change that. I can’t put words to how I feel about this because I have lots of mixed emotions and thoughts but, what puts me at a pause is that we may be one of the handful Asian people the Zambezi community ever meets. And darn it, if I am a representation of what they think of when they think Asian (or China), I sure hope they think of us as kind, generous, and warm people. I remember making jokes with a Zambian, some young-adult immature humor, and in that moment when we laughed together, it hit me that despite our physical differences, we share humor – we could laugh together. That’s when I realized that it didn’t matter if I was Asian or White or Zambian, that at our core, we are human and able to make connections.
    Sammi – I am sending you well wishes. I remember learning something about how there were many Chinese workers who came to work on the roads in Zambezi and the area so that’s why people associate Asians with, “China”. You are glowing in the photo above and I hope you continue to shine your light.
    A hug to you from a fellow misconstrued “China girl”.


  5. Scott Weiskopf says:

    Thank you for sharing your truth with us. Being vulnerable is part of being a great teammate and great leader. Real trust can only be built if people are willing to be vulnerable. I’ve lived with that Spencer character his whole life, and it brings me great joy that he was able to help you by bringing perspective. Triangulating on who you really are often comes with experiencing things that are both joyous and disappointing, carefree and challenging, successful and failed. But it will make you confident and centered in the long run. Keep supporting each other and keep learning.
    Spencer’s dad
    P.S. Spence I miss you and hope you are spreading love and making genuine connections with the people and culture. Looking forward to the stories. Mom, Harris, and I are thinking about you and your classmates every day

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