Saturday, July 31, 2010

Minority (Sean)

Clancy and Valerie have gone off to school for the morning, and the cleaning woman inadvertently locked me in the house, so I’m lounging about, trying to sort out this business of being a white minority. It is hard to separate my skin color from the other reasons why one from the U.S. may be uncomfortable here. Being a minority means a lot of things, and skin color is only one of many aspects in which my minority status is expressed, especially in this country. The language gap is probably the most difficult part of it all, even though I’m becoming fairly decent at understanding Portuguese. It is pretty uncomfortable to hear the word “mulungo” interspersed in (loud), rapid Changana, knowing that the strangers sitting next to you are talking about you. I try to remember that one’s personality doesn’t change depending on the language being spoken: Folks are very friendly in Portuguese, and are probably no different when speaking Changana, even if it is rude to do so when we’re in earshot. In the next town over, which has been historically quite removed from foreigners, I definitely felt stared at and isolated. Clancy mentioned that the folks there have a habit of informing her of exactly where she and the other PCVs have been at every point throughout the day.

At our site, however, I’ve felt surprisingly more comfortable than I expected to. The market is a bustling place, but I seem to be a passing fad. It’s also significant that I’m a tall, white male, which apparently engenders an air of intimidation rather than the vulnerability that a female would experience. As a result, I’m mostly left alone, and Clancy isn’t the target of cat calls when I’m around. On the chapa, no one seems to care about me, I’m just another obstacle to climb over to sit down (or otherwise occupy, creatively, a piece of empty space in the vehicle). At school, the students are mostly respectful, and are either very approachable or very shy. Beneath the loud and dynamic entity that is the classroom atmosphere, I could tell that the students really cared about making a good impression on me and wishing me the best on my visit here. One student raised his hand and stood up to say, “Tell people in America: we may be of different colors, but we are all one man.” I don’t feel like just a celebrity, but also an ambassador by default, and more often than not a catalyst for positive curiosity. I do feel privileged here for sure, and 95% of people here have been wonderful.

I immediately noticed that the PCV girls in this province stick together like sisters, in much the same way that minorities gravitate together in the U.S. I understand much better now why neighborhoods around the world often end up ethnically segregated, since minorities want to be in the company of those who are sharing the same experience. Human nature, really. Being drawn toward the familiar.

All in all, being a minority keeps me on my toes and engaged all day, every moment, but mostly because I know I’m being evaluated constantly. I do feel safe here… not safe like in the U.S., but as safe as a white person can be in third-world Africa.

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