A Mozambique perspective on American culture

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By Tom Holmes

Jenny Chitlango's strong Mozambican identity enables her to "be at home" wherever she happens to be on her life's journey — a journey on which she has lived for long periods of time in three countries and on two continents.

Quoting one of her father's favorite aphorisms, she said, "If you do not know where you come from and who you are, you are never going to truly find your place in the world."

Although she has lived in the U.S. for four years now and before that for many years in the Republic of South Africa, the cultural foundation on which she builds her adult life is back in Mozambique where she was born.

"I take deep pride in the fact that I'm Mozambican," she declared. "I take deep pride in my last name which I kept after getting married. Chitlango means "shield" which the warriors and kings from whom I am descended used to protect themselves in battle. I'm here today by the grace of God but also because I'm a fighter."

A junior at Dominican University studying international business, Chitlango exudes a self-confidence that is palpable. "I carry myself with the pride of knowing who I am," she explained.

After living in the U.S. for four years, she compares herself to African Americans and has concluded that the internalized experience of slavery had a profoundly negative impact on black people here, which is not a part of her psychology or spirituality. Her strong sense of identity and worth enables her to ignore or deflect comments that might qualify as racist.

"If you think of yourself as always being oppressed because of your skin color," she argued, "that's going to affect how you respond to the world. In contrast, I believe I deserve to be here just as much as the next person. Maybe I have turned blinders to it, but I haven't really experienced racism here, or if I have I just say it's their problem. That's between them and God. I carry myself as a child of the king."

It is that strong sense of identity, she believes, that enables her to create a home for herself anywhere she may be living. She makes a distinction between adapting and conforming. 

"I've learned how to adapt to different cultures and still be myself."

"One thing that has given me peace," she said, "is saying to myself, OK this is my new home, but I am still Mozambican." 

Her identity is built on memories as much as on present-day reality. She talks about "reverse culture shock." 

"I was away for a year and a half before I went back home," she recalled, "and the Mozambique I had in my mind was not the Mozambique that existed even after that short a time. Life goes on and people change, and I didn't realize how accustomed I had already gotten to living in the U.S."

But that Mozambique is still real even though it may exist mostly in her mind. "When I have children," she said, "I'm going to teach them my native language, Portuguese. I will teach them to appreciate homemade food with fresh ingredients like we get in the market in Mozambique, to value a sense of community within the extended family and that it is a beautiful thing to take care of your elderly parents." 

Living in three different cultures helped her realize that none of them is flawless and each has its good points.

One of the things she does not like about the Chicago area, she said with a laugh, is the cold weather. She also contrasts the two cultures in terms of how they celebrate Christmas. In Mozambique, she said, Christmas if about the three "Fs": Food, Family, and Fellowship.

Many Mozambican men go away from home for months at a time to work in, for example, South Africa. During their Christmas vacation, they come back home to what amounts to a huge family reunion.

The holiday in this country, on the other hand, has a very materialistic focus. "I don't like the idea of having to give someone a gift. I don't want to feel like I have to go all out giving presents, break the bank in doing so, and forget the real reason for the holiday.

Here people seem to always be busy. "There's so much hustle and bustle," she said. "People are so focused on achieving their goals that they don't have time to genuinely ask how you are."

Another thing that bothers her is what she calls "political correctness," you can't talk respectfully about politics with another person unless the two of you agree on everything.

What she values in American culture are the beliefs, still held by many, that goals can be reached through hard work, that education is important, and that being on time is one of the keys to success.

Her goal after graduation is to work for a company where she can have "an impact on the world," which for her is more important than making a lot of money.

Chitlango and her husband Mason Hunter have lived in Forest Park for just three weeks. She has a green card and is in the process of becoming a U.S. citizen. Other than that, the future is wide open for the young couple in terms of where their life journey will take them.

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