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In those early days, before having learned English I still remember reciting “High Flight,” muting certain vowel sounds and strangling some of the consonants. Regardless of my jumbled recitation and a compromised rendition of such a beautiful poem, its patriotic inspiration resonated within, every time I had the chance to prove out loud that I’d committed it to memory. Most of my difficulties were in relation to the language barrier with which no distinction was made between English speaking and non-English speaking cadets. In the early days when someone would shout an order to me that I did not understand, it began to be the rumor that I was making a mockery of those in command by pretending to misunderstand what it was I was being instructed to do. This made it particularly difficult because I was seen as a rebel from the very beginning and would be given double the challenge just to knock me down off the high horse on which everyone presumed I was superiorly perched. Because I was already naturally conditioned to physically withstand major bodily stress, having rarely taken the taxi in Cameroon, always walking everywhere I went and never having had the tools to make manual labor easier, I was able to survive the intense physical training that the first few months would entail. I always tried to overcompensate in the area of physical performance, out of a sincere effort to make up for my academic and social inferiority that stemmed from an over pronounced language deficiency.
It was easy for me to play the tough guy when it came down to the battle of physical stamina, but because of my cultural point of reference that drew a hard line between my perception of what was going on and the reality of what was actually taking place, I was often made the fool and allowed myself to be the therapeutic punch line of a lot of mealtime jokes. Most of the jokes were harmless twists that fellow cadets would put on the English language, in order to have a little fun at my short-term expense. Other embarrassing moments were self-inflicted at my own misunderstanding of the fine cultural nuances that make certain things good on one side of the world but bad in the new world upon which I’d set foot.
There were two instances in which I was misled regarding the way I should refer to someone. One incident left me flushed and readily confused as I stood in front of my heated commander to whom I’d just addressed as “Dude.” My roommate had convinced me that the ultimate sign of respect when responding to a commanding officer would be to snap to attention, while saluting and saying, “Yes Dude!”
And one other instance in which I fell for calling someone very loudly by an inappropriate name, was during a gathering of the entire wing where we were all to be seated by groups with our own flight in the auditorium. There was a female cadet who was across the way a bit, searching for our group. I wanted to let her know where we were seated and as I began to try and get her attention, a fellow cadet said,
“In America, the proper way to get a girl’s attention in a crowd is to call her bitch.”
“So in other words, just wave your hand her way and say, “Hey bitch. Come here.”
Not being on guard at this particular moment, and the cadet having given me the advice with no hint of foul play whatsoever, I referred to the girl as he had instructed me to do so and yelled to her from a distance. A quick negative reaction from her and a roll of laughter from everyone around me, made me realize I’d have to screen my responses before automatically assuming I’d been given good linguistic advice.
A major instance in which a cultural difference was at fault for an innocent compliment coming across as a grave insult was when I caught up with a girl during my free time, to inform her that she was “pretty big,” in effort to show my interest in her. I still had not made the distinction that in America, it isn’t cool for a female to be slightly overweight, much less, in African terms, healthily plump. At the point of her shock and dismay, I was still too clueless to rectify the mistake immediately and by the time I understood the true implications of such a twisted African ‘compliment,’ she was completely unwilling to hear me out, much less look my way for further degradation and humiliation. Funny how by the time I realized having a little something to hold onto wasn’t necessarily a favorable feminine trait in American pop culture, it had already begun to influence my own decisions in regard to how my new academy peers would perceive my taste in women, therefore my ultimate social agility as a man.
These were the small lessons I’d learned as the latter comic relief to what were the more stressful moments of transformation at the academy. The finite realization that some things were out of my control, took the pressure down a notch and put my ultimate objective in perspective—to graduate before getting kicked out, to be a part of the smaller percentage of success.