I am not sure at which stage of life it became shameful to be a beginner. We were born beginners at crawling. We spat up our creamed food, leaving our mark on the walls. Beginners at talking, reading, learning. Embracers of firsts.
Then at some point, some firsts developed a speed of their own. The first girl to have kissed a boy in her middle school class. First boy to fall in love. First to know what heartbreak is. First smoker, first to marry, first to be divorced. First to know grief, first to know wealth. We choose our firsts — or stumble into them, or life puts them in our paths. We lay claim to the life experience of knowing; we become experts of grief, specialists of love, chain smokers. We leave beginners behind.
When I arrived in Khartoum, I never would have imagined that it would bring the perfect muffin into my life. I had picked muffins to be my “Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like“, thus fixating over the just-right overflowing and crusty muffin top from Beer Sheva to Bogota. Of all the comforts of a life away from conflict areas, I had chosen to miss muffins.
The Ozone bakery in Khartoum is a living example of Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like, complete with gleaming UN SUVs in its well-guarded parking lot and my TOMS-clad professional peers trading stories of vicarious trauma in the same tone that they recount last night’s party at the embassy. I stood in line on my first day in Sudan with the kind of guilt that overcomes one when she wishes her heart were courageous enough not to flee to the kind of place that sells carrot cake and milkshakes.
“You must be new here,” said the American in front of me in line.
“I am indeed. Brand new. I have been here for 12 hours.”
His eyes grow a little. “First time here?”
“Duuuuuude! Shit, man. First time in Africa? First UN job? First war zone?” I can feel his indignation.
“Not quite, but I am a beginner to this.”
“Well, I’ve been doing this for decades! Or so it feels anyway hahahaha!” He is no older than 27. “I even sleep through the gunshots now. Nothing fazes me, man… This one time…”
I tune out at “this one time…” I know how these stories end, for I am no beginner to the market for conflict workers’ storytelling of everything they have survived. We trade in trauma. Have you had malaria? Whoever you are speaking to has had it at least six times more than you. She nearly died more than you. Have you been on one of those flights that end on not-a-runway after a journey through the skies that makes you wish for an office job for the rest of your life? Whoever you are conversing with has survived eight helicopter crashes and a Lost-like stint in the jungle. Where he got bouts 14, 15, and 16 of malaria. It is an arms race of tragedy, as though surviving it validates our life choices. As though it stamps our passports with a badge of coolness.
There is something callous about competing with one another on the basis of who is more scarred, with an equally callous lack of acknowledgment that if we are sitting here, equipped with muffins and milkshakes, telling these stories, then we have had far more comfortable choices in life than the populations we sought to serve. We got on the plane, we left. We lived.
“And yeah, I swear, the guy looked like Joseph Kony. It wasn’t Kony of course, hahahaha. I mean, I think. But what a night! Ages ago…” This One Time Guy has come to the end of his story. “So, um, seriously, where did you go before this? You said you have been to Africa before.”
I tell him, and I follow it up with “but I have never quite worked on a project like this or with a community like this one.” I am not sure why emphasizing the novelty was so important to me, other than knowing that there is truth to vulnerability.
He reassures me, tells me more stories of experience, orders another milkshake. I am the only beginner at the table and my admission of it makes me an amateur in the eyes of the more experienced who keep arriving to join us and ooh and aah over the new girl. That night I wrote in my notebook:
I am feeling very small.
Beginner’s mind can be beautiful.
This One Time Guy.
Best muffin of the past four years.
My latest bank statement tells the story of many muffins. 13 to be exact, in under one month. Muffins have become the taste of new beginnings for me. Biting into them, I can isolate the taste of shame that comes with arriving brand new to something others have already mastered. I feel a little like I am in the oversized chair at kindergarten, the child left behind. That is what Elementary Arabic feels like.
We are all new to this graduate program, but we are not children any more, not new to spit-up and crawling, not applauded for piecing sounds together to make a word. There are Advanced and Experts. I have grown wary of specialists in the past year; the more I learn, the more I uncover the limits of my own knowledge. It would be out of step for the titles to keep narrowing as the universe of concepts I have yet to make sense of continues to expand.
I am not here because I know already. I am learning to talk again, in other languages, other lexicons. I am learning to play in the playground again, with other kids eating mud next to me. We are tending to our grazed knees, jealous of the kids who can do it all without even getting sand in their shoes. I am here to be humbled and daunted, to have my mind stretched and my heart spinned. I am here to play, play like a beginner.