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Across an ocean from home The Story of Cheryl Bowman

Story by Jonathan Munroe, art by Celia Bergman, photos by Kylan Lane

Tucked back in the world language hallway, Cheryl Bowman, German teacher, calls her mother. It is 6:40 a.m. here in Kirkwood, but back in George, South Africa it is 1:40 p.m. Separated by this time zone barrier and 8,753 miles, this is one of the few opportunities that Bowman has to call her mother. At the end of her 20-minute international call, Bowman says goodbye to her mom.

“I tell her to say ‘hi’ to everyone back home, and she tells me that she loves me,” Bowman said. “Then we hang up.”

This daily conversation across the Atlantic has been happening since Bowman moved to America in 2005. She spent her whole life in South Africa until she decided that she wanted to experience another way of life.

“I was in college and confused about what I could do with a major in German and French, so I went to my professor and asked her what I should do with my life,” Bowman said. “She said that I should travel and I will find my purpose.”

Since she had already traveled to Europe in 2001 as an exchange student and she did not want to learn another language, Bowman chose to study abroad in America for a semester in 2004. Bowman wound up in Eastern Pennsylvania from August to December.

“America sounded like this beacon of hope and opportunity, and everything would be wonderful,” Bowman said. “America is more developed compared to South Africa and opportunities here are much more available.”

After returning from a semester abroad in America, Bowman decided that she needed to stay in America. In 2005, at the age of 21, she traveled back across the ocean. It was not until she was accepted for a master’s degree scholarship at the University of Missouri that she found her calling to be a teacher. For part of her scholarship, she was required to be a teacher’s assistant for a German class at the University for a certain amount of hours.

“The students had to write reflections and many of the students said that German was their favorite subject,” Bowman said. “They wrote about how much they liked me as a teacher, and I thought to myself that I could do this with my life.”

Cheryl Bowman, German teacher

This past summer, Bowman had the chance to travel back to South Africa for the first time since 2012. Bowman finds these trips back home help her find her true nationality.

“I feel like my identity [as an American] is fluid now,” Bowman said. “It’s a good thing but a bad thing. When I go back home I feel like I am home but two or three days later I’ll realize how things my family do are wierd. I’m used to the American way now. I feel very conflicted because I don’t feel 100 percent one [nationality]. I’m never really home.”

Bowman feels guilty depriving her son, Conrad, of contact with his grandparents across the Atlantic. Conrad, 6, sees his grandparents through the eyes of an American, not as a South African. He sees people who speak a weird language and eat weird food.

“When I went to visit my parents in 2012, my mother had cancer and was going through therapy,” said Bowman. “She was holding my hand and she said to me, ‘Try to be a good mother to Conrad.’ I didn’t realize that I was robbing my parents of seeing me and their grandchild grow up. He’s not connected with that side of the family and he doesn’t have any cultural connection with them. I am constantly guilt ridden.”

Bowman’s South African heritage is well known among friends and students. Madeline Gollihur, Bowman’s friend, says that Bowman’s natural habits can be seen in her everyday life.

“The way she interacts with people is very South African,” Gollihur said. “She is very hospitable. She will feed you and care of your every need. She will defend her country until the day she dies. It is imbedded in her.”

Larry Anderson, German teacher, works alongside Bowman everyday in the world language department. He can also see Bowman’s South African traditions in her daily life throughout conversations and her teaching habits.

“Bowman had the chance to live in Germany for a while and grew up in a country that is not our own,” Anderson said. “She sees our world through different eyes with a different perspective. That flavors the way she teaches and thinks.”

Even though she has a 22 hour plane ride separating her from her family, Bowman keeps true to her national identity. No matter where she is or what she is doing, she always makes that call at 6:40 a.m. to talk to her mother. For those 20 minutes in the morning, South Africa isn’t so far away.

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