Celebrating Immigrant Heritage Month: the Kenyan and the Kettlecorn

06/16/2016 02:11 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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I walked up the cement sidewalk anticipatory, sweaty-palmed, wide-eyed. It was my first day on the job. But this wasn't just any job: it was my first real doctoring job, and it was at an Ivy League university. It felt like all eyes were on me. Judging my soul. Reading the uncertainty in my eyes. Seeing my inner being and deeming me unworthy. They must know that I'm new here, I thought to myself. Just act normal, don't let them notice you. Be confident! Stand up straight, don't look down. Try to fit in!

As I approached the doors to the hospital, white coat crisp and blemish-less, hair perfectly coiffed and jaw clenched, something caught my eye, or someone. A black, elderly gentleman sat resting on a rusted metal chair next to a large cart that advertised "kettlecorn" and he had his gaze fixed on me. Oh my goodness, he's reading me too, I thought to myself. But then something softened. I realized how tightly pursed my lips had been as they melted into a little smile. And in a flood of emotion, right there on that hot cement sidewalk, I began to process.

Something about the simplicity of this man's demeanor, the unapologetic nature of his gaze free to take up his surroundings as he pleased, the repetitive nature of his work obvious as he sat slumped in a chair that looked like it had seen better days, which he yet seemingly took pride in, owning that sidewalk. It all made me recount my own very humble beginnings. I thought of the number of shoulders I had literally and figuratively stood on to get this point, now standing on this historic cement ground to serve patients and why I'd been allowed to do so.

I thought about my late grandmothers who would sit down conversing with us in our mother's tongue, Kikuyu, a Kenyan dialect. In their little village homes, they would repeat time and again scriptures from the Bible exhorting and blessing us and reminding us how much they'd been praying for us since the last time they saw us. And how they continued to pray for us on end. I thought about the back-breaking work they did as farmers, tilling the land with hoes and other tough manual labor throughout their lives even up until a ripe old age. I thought about my family members in Kenya, so many of whom had not had the chance to attend college, let alone pursue tertiary degrees. I thought about my parents who put us through school typically sacrificing their own happiness and physical well-being, including multiple separations of our immigrant family across US/ Kenya borders so that "the girls could go to school." Tears welled up in my eyes. Oh great, now this man definitely thinks I've gone mad, I thought. I gave him a nod, and a bigger smile, which he returned, then I walked by his little cart and into the hospital feeling centered.

I am an immigrant and during this immigrant heritage month, I am excited to be celebrating my background and the beautiful ways in which it has influenced my reality today. When patients see my last name that sounds nothing like the way it's spelled embroidered above my white coat pocket, it stirs innumerable conversations about Africa. Coming from one of the many cultures that use the term "Baba" for "father" or "grandfather" allows me to speak to my patients with a quiet understanding of what it means to not be able to put their loved one in a nursing home because that would be the equivalent of abandonment in their culture of origin. All in all, over the past several years of treating diverse patients, I've learned that different is good. And that we all have something to learn from one other, with our respective backgrounds, whether we are the doctor with the funny name in the long white coat taking care of patients or the man sitting on the sidewalk selling kettlecorn to his hungry patrons. At a time when hatred seems to be running at an all time high, it is critical that we embrace our individual differences and the ways in which we can grow, learn from and build one other. For those interested, we can all participate in this celebration of one-ness by going to the page at http://welcome.us. I hope to see you there.

Ngaruiya is an academic physician and first-generation Kenyan-American. She was born in Nebraska to Kenyan parents but grew up in Africa for most of her formative years, returning to the U.S. to pursue higher education.