A Lesson in Geography and Modesty

September 19, 2012

By Andrea Goto      Photography by Chia Chong

We sit down together and Merveille politely crosses her legs away from me and waits for me to say something. No, “Hi, how are you.” No, “Nice weather we’re having.” Merveille is a busy woman. She’s serious about her work as a home healthcare professional, her medical studies and her time, which makes sense when she talks about her past.

Merveille was 17 when she left her parents and her home in the Congo to study in the United States (or rather Texas—there is a difference, you know). She’s one of eight children, two of whom remain at home, but even they are enrolled in boarding school. The other five are scattered around the world from South Africa to Thailand. But coming to the States, Merveille ran into two distinct problems: she didn’t speak English and she didn’t like to hug—both of which can give you some trouble in Texas.

“The man from the university who came to pick me up at the airport hugged me and it was terrifying! I thought, ‘What’s wrong with you?’” As she says this, her mouth easily widens into a broad smile, raising her apple cheeks to the sky. I start to feel more at ease.

I want to ask Merveille more about the Congo, but my geography is profoundly limited. So I take an indirect tell-me-more-about-your-childhood approach. I want to hear about spear hunting and snakes the size of cedars, but instead Merveille describes a place that sounds surprisingly like any moderately sized European city.

Before I can embarrass myself with a more direct question about hyenas, Merveille begins to bubble with laughter as she retells a story about a friend’s family she visited in Oregon. The friend’s grandfather asked the questions I’m embarrassed to say I wanted answers to. “He asked if I had to get used to wearing clothes,” she says incredulously. “I just played along and said, ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s terrible! I just want to take them off!’” He also asked her if there were lions in her backyard. From her laughter, I’m assuming there weren’t.

“That’s so crazy!” I say, and quickly scratch out “lions” and “animal pelts” from my list of questions.

As we continue to talk, Merveille grows more animated. Her voice gets louder and her laugh stronger. Her accent rolls like a river and I desperately want to dip my toes in it. She only retreats when I ask her about her fiancé. Pulling her hands to her face in embarrassment she describes her fiancé as “funny.” I know there’s more to the story, but the story belongs to her, not a stranger like me.

Speaking with Merveille about her culture, home and travels, I realize that the most interesting people—the most worldly—are also the most unassuming. People like Merveille live quiet, unpretentious and yet extraordinary lives.

Note: Merveille was kind enough to model for our week of Mandarin Orange inspiration. She never thought she would have to iron her own dress, but she told us she was happy to eat all the Mandarin Oranges during the photo shoot. We thank you Merveille, for your patience and your appetite during the shoot. We also congratulate you on your recent engagement!

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