Cinco de Mayo—portraits of experiences in New York City and Tanzania

Recently, I created a Facebook event: Cinco de Mayo (i.e. an excuse to drink more tequila!). The photo is a bit misleading: cupcakes with a mustached-sombrero.

“Let’s order those from the bakery!” my roommate (and co-worker) commented.

“Great idea!” I reply, surprised that the bakery here—in East Africa, in a town of 100K—can actually craft such intricate work. I’ve been surprised before—my expectations or assumptions mirrored in some ironic way.

It turns out that she was being sarcastic: “I was kidding—there are no bakeries here.”

“But there are—“ The week before, one of the primary students at our school had an elaborate birthday cake delivered, complete with a farmhouse, horses, trees.

“Oh! I just thought: wow, you’re really into this.”

“Haha. I am.” And I’m not sure why. I’m not usually a party-thrower. I’m not even Mexican. Of the invited guests, only about six are North Americans who would even know what Cinco de Mayo is.

Perhaps I’m compensating. In the past, I’ve always used Cinco de Mayo to celebrate my birthday, which comes two days later. I’m not the type to throw a party for myself, in celebration of getting older. For years, Cinco de Mayo offered enough debauchery for an entire week. I’d then prefer a quiet night in or a small dinner with my family and friends.

Perhaps with the community of expats here who’ve found their respective niches, I have trouble defining where I belong. In fact, ever since high school, I’ve floated around groups in various cities, not really having a solid, cohesive group to run to. Perhaps, it’s just my personality—if you’re familiar with Myers-Briggs, I’m an INFJ with some E or P tendencies, so I usually don’t seek company or much attention anyway, although I don’t shy away from it when available.

More likely, it’s the lack of common interests, in terms of identity. We always gravitate toward familiarity—so perhaps nationality will bring them together, or gender, or line of work, or marital status, or drinking habits, or spiritual beliefs.

As the only openly queer person here, as far as I know, I sometimes feel like a lone ranger without a Tonto. In the past, of course, not all of my friends were queer, but our mutual struggles in living with this marked identity helped bring us together. Perhaps with them, I could feel more myself—not judged for my preference  in lovers, not a deviant of some sort.

New York City gave me ample opportunities to float amongst these groups—and find both connection and support through the countless hours we’d spend, just sitting in dim-lit bars and balconies overlooking rivers and parks. Some became my soulfriends, whom I can freely bombard with my failures and progress, even now through Skype.

Last year’s Cinco de Mayo, which I titled, “Three parties in Brooklyn, during which a Mexican eagle danced in his underwear and the supermoon disappeared from the sky” is vastly different than this week’s.

It began with a rooftop party in Williamsburg, complete with a live dj, photographer, and “stockers”—or people who walk around with snacks—pomegranate-sprinkled guacamole, tostadas. It wasn’t fancy. You had to pay for your drinks. But the music, the crowd was typical, beautiful Brooklyn.

One stop away on the L was the next party—closer to Bushwick. Also rooftop but more intimate, at a friend’s place, complete with a short-haired tan Chihuahua. I don’t remember much but lots of asses being smacked and grinded on, as only close friends can get away with.

And the third was at another friend’s Brooklyn high-rise—let’s just say, doorman, elevators the size of my first apartment (a slight hyperbole), and embroidered towels. The jalapeno-infused cocktails were quite a treat. And the balcony, from which the supermoon should have been visible, was the place of many aimless conversations, the traffic below creating a beautiful lull.

“I think you should go—“ to Africa, a friend’s mother suggested.  I had just met her—Taiwanese, tall, and as intimidating of a person as her daughter had painted—except friendlier. “You don’t need the Fellowship.” I was deciding between a 3-year New York Teaching City Fellowship in Science or an internship at an international development organization in Rwanda—for only a small stipend, because it was a start-up. Even those with graduate degrees in international development—and the CEO—did not receive a salary. It was such a risk. Conflicting wants rendered me confused for several months.

Eventually, I would decide on a third option: teaching secondary English and literature at international school in Tanzania. For me, it would be an opportunity for adventure, stability, and more time to write—a confluence of wants.

In my eight months here, I’ve tried to find a balance between solitude—working, writing—and being social. I tended to lean more toward the former, not by choice, but by necessity. I underestimated the workload that I currently have—and I’m way behind schedule on my writing projects.

When I do socialize—it’s multipurpose: there’s cooking or exercise/outdoor activities involved. Unfortunately, this falls under the “floating” category again, and the expat groups appreciate or need regularity. I wonder at times what I’m losing out on—even if I’m friendly with most, I’m not “close” to any groups in particular. Although I’m not “lonely” per se—introverts value solitude and the imposed busyness can prevent me from dwelling on not being able to “just have coffee or dinner”—the type of culture here in the middle of Africa does not support such aloofness. That means, I need to put in more effort.

So, no sombrero-decorated cupcakes aside, it’s one effort I’m putting toward “not floating,” despite my natural tendency to hover somewhere between the elements of air and earth*.

*Twelfth Night, Shakespeare

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