*This article was written by Alexandra Helfgott, Class of 2019, for an English assignment where the prompt was to interview an immigrant. She chose Honors College Faculty Fellow, Lancie Affonso, who teaches in the Department of Computer Science, the Department of Management and Entrepreneurship, and the Department of Supply Chain Management and Information Systems. Additionally, Lancie Affonso is the professor and mentor for the Honors College E-LLC.
We’re sitting in Professor Lancie Affonso’s office waiting for my computer to load when he offhandedly jokes about singing a song in Swahili. Relaxed and sitting back in his chair with his shoes off, my Entrepreneurship professor has retained the jovial and exuberant attitude more frequently associated with teenagers than professors, a distinguishing factor that engages his students both in and out of class. After viewing a photograph of Professor Affonso from over 18 years ago, very little about his appearance has changed. In fact, it seems that he hasn’t aged at all. Standing at average height with jet black hair, this Honors College alumnus born and raised in Tanzania, is well known for his eccentric teaching style, passion for the subjects he teaches, and sincere desire for his students to succeed.
Though Professor Affonso was not the first person in his family to visit the United States, he was the first to emigrate, a process that he describes as, “interesting and initially somewhat intimidating,” yet “straightforward once [he] got into college and proved that [he] had the finances to pay for it.” Interestingly enough, Professor Affonso never intended to permanently remain in the United States. In fact, he didn’t even plan to attend college in the United States. Having been accepted to the highly selective university in Tanzania to study civil engineering, Professor Affonso’s further education was delayed as a result of university students going on strike. Anxiously waiting for the strike to dissipate, he spent a year and a half serving in the military on a peace keeping force in Mozambique, where he experienced the devastation of war firsthand. During this time, Professor Affonso embarked on his first entrepreneurial venture, establishing a toy making firm, starting with less than one penny. It was only after being prompted by Fulbright researchers that he decided to apply to colleges in the United States. Having been accepted to several colleges across the United States, including MIT, Professor Affonso, not entirely sure of where any of the colleges were located, faced the difficult decision of choosing where to attend. When it came time for his final selection, he and an American friend drew lines on the world map from Tanzania to the United States. His friend offered sage advice, “[In] this area [there] is snow. [In] this area [there] is no snow. Because you’re from Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, this is a go and this is a no go,” thus explaining how Professor Affonso ended up in Charleston. Having no prior visuals of Charleston, since the internet was nonexistent at this time, his first introduction to Charleston was from a National Geographic magazine published in 1986, titled “From Savannah to the Lowcountry.” To this day, Professor Affonso easily recalls the vivid images, describing a swamp and the iconic antebellum houses located on the Battery.
English as a Second Language
When asked about his English proficiency prior to arriving in the United States, Professor Affonso admits that he frequently skipped English classes in Tanzania, preferring to go fishing instead. He further explains, saying that “I was semi proficient at speaking in English. I was better at it than my classmates, which didn’t mean much. I thought ‘I know English, why should I bother to read and write it? I will never need to use it.” As he shares his first experience at Burger King – an experience that left him disappointed and confused, I realize some of the quirks and nuances in American culture that serve as confusion for many tourists and immigrants. In Professor Affonso’s experience, for example, the hamburger displayed on the menu was significantly larger than the hamburger he bought, a trademark of American marketing techniques. In addition, he was charged more than the price on the menu, a common occurrence in the United States also referred to as taxation.
The College of Charleston
Professor Affonso and his parents made several sacrifices for him to attend the College of Charleston. He explains that even after receiving the Presidential scholarship, which fully covered his tuition, his mother, an employee at the American Embassy, sacrificed four years of her earnings in order to cover expenses. Throughout his four years at the College of Charleston, Professor Affonso worked any and every job he could, working five to six jobs totaling more than 40 hours per week, an experience that he describes as great. Although he had never seen a computer prior to arriving in Charleston, Professor Affonso’s tenacity and dedication were demonstrated through one of his many jobs during his freshman year, working in the computer lab of the library, though he didn’t initially know how to turn on a computer, let alone use one.
Prejudice, Culture, and the American Dream
To my question about being faced with prejudice, Professor Affonso remains positive, saying that people haven’t been overtly prejudiced and adding that, “maybe I just ignore it [prejudice].” For the few instances he faced prejudice, he explains that it occurred more commonly in college, saying that, “it wasn’t overt, it wasn’t dangerous, it wasn’t targeting, it was just kids being drunk.”
The ideals of American culture have played a strong influence in Professor Affonso’s decision to permanently remain in the United States. He appreciates the optimistic, idealistic, and positive attitudes typical of most Americans. It appears that the optimistic American attitude has rubbed off on Professor Affonso as he jokingly reminds me that, “the glass is always full…no matter if it’s half full of milk, it’s always full of air.” The freedom experienced by Americans and their ability to go anywhere without being questioned are two fundamental values highly appreciated by Professor Affonso.
As we begin discussing aspects from American culture that aren’t as highly valued, Professor Affonso immediately brings up American football describing the sport as, “80,000 people in the stands watching 20 overworked people on the ground and nobody is even kicking the ball.” After this brief comical interlude, he becomes more serious, discussing selfish and materialistic nature of associated with the United States, bringing up the ubiquitous and “constant need to possess more without thinking about if it’s actually needed.” He highlights the lack of distinction between want and need, a phenomenon not helped by American marketing strategies. He continues, noting the heavier emphasis on consumerism and less of an emphasis on the environmental consequences faced by the planet. Though Professor Affonso professes that he was always environmentally conscious, he admits that he didn’t become a tree hugger until his daughters were born.
Explaining how he once believed in the American Dream, Professor Affonso now finds the notion slightly obnoxious after experiencing it firsthand. He views it as somewhat selfish, explaining that it’s a contest to procure the most lavish material goods and that, “whoever has the biggest toys wins.” He adds, “I don’t recall the last time I saw a U-Haul following a hearse,” and is absolutely correct in highlighting the fact that material goods are useless once we die, a simple fact frequently overlooked by the majority of Americans.
Having lived longer in the United States than in Tanzania, Professor Affonso explains that his cultural norms were shaped by both his American friends and American pop culture during his formative years in college in the United States. He cites television and movies as the primary source through which he learned about pop culture in the United States, saying that “Star Trek was one of [his] first introductions to American pop culture.” Professor Affonso reveals that during commercial breaks, his friends, accustomed to and uninterested in the commercials, would leave the room, while he would intently watch the commercials, trying to learn as much about American culture as he could. The commercials fascinated him as he had never seen anything like them before. He explains that he was sometimes unable to relate to students when they discussed movies because “[he] asked weird questions” that other students were frequently unable to answer. He continues, offering an example, “why do we say, ‘there’s no use in crying over spilled milk?’ Where did that originate?”
He shares the difficulty he’s had in maintaining Tanzanian culture as there is “no large diaspora [of Tanzanians] and that [he] knows of only four other Tanzanians in the area.” Prior to immigrating to the United States, Professor Affonso faced the challenge of defining himself culturally. Originally of Portuguese descent, his great-grandparents lived in Goa and spoke Portuguese and Konkani. His parents lived in Africa and spoke Konkani, Portuguese, and Swahili. When Professor Affonso and his sisters were born, Swahili and English were taught in favor of Kokani and Portuguese. He can’t help but to feel that some cultural heritage was lost through the dropping of the languages. After discussing his struggles with defining a cultural identity, Professor Affonso mentions his daughters. How do they define themselves? American or African? Another layer of complexity is added when Professor Affonso shares that his wife is quite the Francophile, so intrigued by the French language she taught it to her daughters who now speak it fluently.
I had the opportunity to meet with Professor Affonso’s daughters, ages 12 and 9, which added another dimension to his story and overall immigration experience. I begin the conversation asking them if they know an immigrant. They spend a few moments thinking seriously about the question when they suddenly erupt in laughter and his younger daughter replies, “our dad! Our dad is an immigrant.” Having previously visited Tanzania, the girls offer their perspectives on the country and their father’s immigration experience. To my question about how they identify themselves culturally, his daughters explain that they identify themselves as “Eurasians… and Americans, because we were born here.” His younger daughter reveals reveals that she finds it, “cool [that my dad is an immigrant] because he has different stories, feelings, and backgrounds.” Because her father immigrated, his older daughter feels feels that he has a unique perspective because he has experienced different things. She then maturely points out that her father “tries to be simple minded because growing up he didn’t have so much stuff” and his younger daughter adds that, “he didn’t have all of the technology, so he had to learn differently.”
The childhood experienced by Professor Affonso in Tanzania differs greatly from the childhood experienced by his daughters growing up in South Carolina. The lives of his daughters are more guarded and confined and Professor Affonso understands the modern development of the “helicopter parent.” Claiming that he was wild as a kid, Professor Affonso shares that he had much more free time than his daughters do and that he spent much of his time playing outside, which resulted in increased self reliance. Playing outside included going fishing, playing soccer, chasing animals, and playing in the dirt with twigs, all activities that required creativity because he didn’t have toys. Professor Affonso acknowledges that “[his] kids know more in middle school than [he] did in high school.”
For Professor Affonso, the United States served as “the home away from home that became [his] home.” After spending time in the corporate world and consequently leaving it, Professor Affonso states that he fully intended to return to the corporate world, but found himself teaching at the College of Charleston, covering every course in the business, marketing, and management fields.
Throughout his four years as an undergraduate student at the College of Charleston, Professor Affonso only returned to Tanzania after graduation. The culture shock upon returning home was, unsurprisingly, quite huge. Professor Affonso notes that the population of Dar Es Salaam grew significantly larger while he was away and remarked about the increased traffic and poverty. When asked Professor Affonso if he would redo the immigration experience, he responds quickly and affirmatively. Immigrating to the United States provided education and opportunity. He feels that had he remained in Tanzania, he would’ve had significantly less educational opportunities because the university system was heavily career driven and the liberal arts system was nearly nonexistent.
When asked about advice that he would give his younger self, Professor Affonso has several pearls of wisdom for the young and ambitious college freshman from Tanzania about to embark on the journey of a lifetime, advising that you should “pursue your passions relentlessly, learn to say no, and figure out your top three priorities and remain dedicated to them.” As he’s speaking, he pulls out his wallet and a small piece of paper. Listed are various editions of his top priorities. I read an article from 1996 detailing a scholarship for outstanding scholars in the College’s Honors Program. The recipient of the scholarship, Lancie Affonso, offers a refreshing perspective on education, explaining that, “I believe that what you put into your education determines how much you get out of it.” With his cheerful attitude, gracious personality, and wealth of knowledge, Professor Affonso is changing lives, one student at a time. He truly embodies the advice he shared: “Have heart and apply yourself. Believe passionately and then you can lead the American dream to the extent you want to.”