Colliding Worlds – PART I: Community & Commemoration

Worlds tend to collide in the most interesting ways.

Saturday, May 14, 3:00 AM – I am downtown in the Loop and just about to take the Red line home when I receive a phone call from my friend.

What? Wait – wait a second, I’m getting off the train. Excuse me. Sorry. Just a sec, it’s really loud.”

I push my way back onto the platform just as the doors close and I watch my train barrel past me. This had better be good.

Hey. Hey B, you still there? What’s up?”

My friend is calling from Indiana and she invites me to spend the weekend. Apparently, some of her relatives have just flown in from Rwanda – among them, an aunt who was particularly kind and hospitable to me on both my past trips there.

The train leaves at 8:30 tomorrow morning?” I glance at my watch. 3:05 AM. “Yeah, yeah. I’ll be there. I’ll let you know when I get on the train. Thanks so much. Yeah, I’ll see you tomorrow, B. Bye.”

Five and a half hours later – I get to the station at 8:25 AM and barely make it onto the train just as the doors close and the train starts moving forward. I smile – but the smile is short-lived. The conductor tells me that the train doesn’t stop at South Bend on the weekends. My friend: “What? Are you still on the train? Shit, you have to get off that train!”

One hour later, I am crammed in the back of a small car with three Rwandan boys who do not speak English, and I smile politely at their parents as I balance a skinny vanilla latte on my right knee.

Three awkward carpool hours later, we finally arrive in South Bend, Indiana.

I am so relieved to get out of the car and tell B all about my traveling mishaps. But the moment I step inside the house, I am immediately whisked away to prepare hundreds of party favors; and then someone hands me a Rwandan dress and starts insisting that I change into it. People are running about the house in formal Rwandan garb, speaking in a rapid combination of Kinyarwanda and French.

And B? She is nowhere to be seen.

Then, I am back in a car – and, thank goodness, B is there too! – but we don’t have time to talk, because we need to assemble pictures into frames. We arrive at a church and Rwandan women in flowing robes impatiently usher us into file; they hand B a candle and me a drum.

Music starts playing, and then it dawns on me: I am part of a ceremony.

I follow a procession of Rwandan women single-file into the sanctuary, and set my drum next to B’s candle on a small stand in the center. A priest begins the ceremony with several hymns and Bible readings, followed by communion (which I am not allowed to take because I am not Catholic…). As B translates some of the speeches and prayers for me, I gradually realize the purpose of the ceremony: to commemorate loved ones who passed away during the 1994 genocide.

Even after all the exposure I’ve had to Rwanda’s history and different Rwandan communities, I am still always moved by the sense of strength amidst so much loss. Everyone in the sanctuary has lost somebody – some have even lost their entire families. But still they gather every year to support one another and remember their loved ones.

 The church ceremony concludes with a traditional dance by young Rwandan girls. Then, once again, B and I are whisked away to yet another building and yet another ceremony.

After a small reception, I am given a candle and told to stand behind B and two other girls also bearing candles. One of the coordinators of the events instructs me on how to walk (it’s the wedding procession two-step) and I figure I am simply walking in another procession and placing my candle at the stage. The music starts and the girls in front of me move forward as I mentally practice my steps.

Then, I hear a voice inside say: “And now, young Rwandan girls and boys will come to the stage with candles for a moment of silence.”

Oh boy.

I can feel my cheeks burning as I follow B into the dark auditorium. I see the rows of solemn faces looking up at the stage, and desperately wish that my candle would shine less brightly on my so-obviously-not-Rwandan face.

What are these people going to think when they see me? I wonder. How are they going to react to a random Asian girl on stage – someone who is holding a candle in memory of their loved ones but so clearly has no tie to their experiences, someone who cannot possibly understand their loss?

I reach the stage. 

The music stops and I hold my breath as the room fills with silence.

At first, I keep my eyes closed. I try not to swallow and I focus intently on keeping my candle steady.

But then, I venture a peek.

In the darkness, I see a sea of uplifted faces, faces connected to invisible bodies that sway to the same pulse. Rolling tears and joined hands harmonize with the movement, and in the silence, I hear a sweet, sweet emerging melody. The gentle hum of the community saturates the silence and as it overflows, I feel its embrace. All of the history, all of the pain, all of the loss, all of the tragedy wraps around me – it overwhelms me and I feel my heart collapsing beneath its weight.

But then somewhere in the room, a child laughs.

The community chuckles at the sound, and all of a sudden, I feel a quiet warmth and I hear the ascending notes of hope and comfort and healing. The community reaches for me; it lifts me up to a new tune, a new melody that rises from the depths and kisses the sun-drenched cheeks of its new generation. We are here for you. We love you. We won’t ever let this happen to you. Never again.

The music returns, and the lights return to the auditorium.

As I follow B and the other girls off of the stage, I feel an odd sensation of peace and calm and – disconnect?

The community around me carries a strength and glue I have never experienced. I think of my estrangement from my own Taiwanese roots. What does it take to create a community like this? What are the necessary building blocks, the unifying experiences that bind people together so tightly and so desperately?

And where do I fit in?

That is the question perpetually on my mind these days. I am back in Rwanda once again and I want to make a difference. What are the skills and resources that I bring to the table? What can I contribute? What can I share?

I am so grateful for all the opportunities this community has already given me.

But now, it is time for me to find my place within it and discover what I can give back  in return.