03 November 2013

Judging the Elephants in the Bus

DavidSedaris is an American humorist whose essays are regularly read on NPR and collected in books such as Me Talk Pretty One Day.  One of my favorite stories he tells details a run in with some tourists that he has on the Métro while living in Paris.

The couple loudly scrutinized his appearance and accused him of being a pickpocket . . . while he stood next to them!  He explains that they clearly assumed he was French and therefore did not speak English; he details his judgement of them as obnoxious and ignorant travelers.

And today, I felt a lot like him.

I left Niger this morning to attend a conference for doctors, nurses and therapists who dabble in burn care across the African continent.  While it took me all day to get here, I haven't actually left west Africa, but with the plethora of green grass, the absence of camels and donkeys, and the massive coastline of eternal ocean I feel like Galmi is in an entirely different solar system from this Eden I am visiting!

When I was a kid, the grown-ups would build a fake airplane in our church's fellowship hall and we'd all 'board' and watch a film strip about the 'country' we were just about to 'visit' and when we 'disembarked' we would pseudo-experience the exotic cultures and climates of places like India, China and Staten Island.

That's what today felt like . . . only for real!  Everything was brown, dusty and resembling the backdrop of book of Deuteronomy when I climbed in . . . and green, lush and modern when I came out on the other side!

Working in Galmi I sometimes forget that I'm white and almost everyone around me isn't.  Attention is only drawn to my skin when my friends are teasing me for being so pale . . . or kids from the village cry when they see me . . . or when I haggle the price I want at the market and the vendor admits defeat with a hearty 'You may be white on the outside, but your a Bahausa on the inside!'

But throw yourself into a sea of west Africans in the regional airport hub, and suddenly 'polkadot' takes on a whole new meaning!

As I sat in the departures terminal (one big room with five 'gates') I tried to people watch.  But it's hard to do when everyone you look at has already been watching you!

When sitting in crowds of people like this one, I love to play 'Guess Where' . . . you know, when you examine someones shoes and bag and mannerisms and try to guess where in the world they're from.   And judging from the looks I was receiving, west Africans love to play that game too . . . or else they were just humming 'one of these things is not like the others!'

That is until another white person showed up!

And that's when it started.

In the essay that details his train ride as the evil French pickpocket, DavidSedaris writes:
"People are often frightened of Parisians, but an American in Paris will find no harsher critic than another American."
I know it's awful, but I have to say it out loud . . . it's not just Paris . . . it's West Africa too!

As I sat waiting for my delayed flight, I was chatting with a Benioise granny on her way to Senegal.  Suddenly I was distracted by a towering man who was dressed as if he was ready to run a trail in the Ozarks and a feisty woman a fraction of his height whose entire outfit came from the pages of last summer's LLBean catalog.  The two buzzed about the terminal, circling to sniff out empty seats.

'HERE'S ONE!!' the man shouted from the far corner of the large waiting area.  She twisted an about-face and hollered to a bald man who had just cleared security, 'MIKE!!  OVER THERE!  WE'VE FOUND A SEAT OVER THERE!'

The hundreds of cramped passengers who were busy laying-over turned in unison with Mike to see where his tall friend had managed to find him a place to take a load off.

A little further in his story, Mr. Sedaris pens:
"It's something I hadn't noticed until leaving home, but we [Americans] are a loud people.  The trumpeting elephants of the human race."
His words echoed in my ears as I empathized with Mike, who had stood there frozen as his two traveling companions managed to be heard over the roar of the mob without the use of a megaphone.

And while I sat snug in my seat criticizing such obnoxious people . . . I felt a slight conviction that my attitude towards them was wrong.  I was judging people I knew nothing about and had allowed myself to look down on them simply because they were loud . . . and because I could identify from their clothes, shoes, bags and accents that they were clearly from the Continental United States, and I was embarrassed to carry the same passport.

I said a silent prayer of repentance for my hateful attitude and tried to ignore them so that it wouldn't happen again.

Well, it worked . . . at least until we all boarded the little bus that would shuttle us across the tarmac to our double-propped bombardier.

I was already in the bus when LittleMissFiesty and the TallMan got in . . . Mike had some how managed to lag a little behind.  I tried, hard, not to pass judgement that his was a strategic move, but didn't succeed.  I was just starting to feel bad about it too, when I heard her say 'Look at that white girl, what do you think she's doing here?'

They were talking about me!  And not even with an I'm-attempting-to-whisper-so-maybe-you-can't-hear-me voice!

As the tall one looked my way, I thought about answering them with 'You do know that English is spoken all over the world, even in West Africa, right???' . . . but I decided it was the wrong reaction.

Instead, I pretended like I didn't hear them and reminded myself that any one who knows me, even a little, would probably be more than happy to quickly point out how loud my inner Native New Yorker tends to be.

Pot, meet Kettle.


Robin said...

Hahahahahahaha you loud New Yawkah you!!!! oxoxoxoxo

Colin Warren said...

another wonderful post Deborah, resonated with me - Australians can also be loud & we're often quick to judge those who may not be as cultural sensitive as we think we are. We (Wendy & I) have been enjoying reading your blog and should've dropped you a note saying hello much earlier. Looking forward to meeting you in Galmi when we visit with Matt in mid December...

Deb. said...

I get it from my muthuh. :)

Deb. said...

Thank you Mr. Warren. Matt has mentioned that you and your wife frequent the blog. Glad you've enjoyed it. Looking forward to having you both visit this corner of the globe . . . hope it's not too cold in December!

Robin said...

dat's a gud ting! oxoxoxo muthuh

Bethany said...

I remember when you used to read me parts of that book many moons ago. =) and I STILL love your stories!! Keep them coming, friend. =) love you and miss you!