…but that don’t bother me.” That’s the position of the star-crossed lover in My Fair Lady, but is that real life?
Yesterday we ventured into the central market to do some shopping for basic necessities. Remember, one-stop shopping doesn’t exist so much here. Rather you go around the market, stall to stall, boutique to boutique seeing who’s got what on that day. Our friends and colleagues, Jim & Sarah, took us around to the vendors they frequent. Experience has taught us that the best prices and least haggling is to be had by re-visiting the same sellers each week. They get constant custom. We get fair prices. And we both get friends out of the deal. Happy days.
Our trip yesterday was different in that we don’t normally parade our four-person circus around crowded marketplaces. Usually just one of us will go, or even better we’ll send a househelp, our strategy while in Yaounde. There we could pay a friend’s househelp a little something something to go to the market for us with a list of what we wanted and without fail she would come out with more for less. Plus, it alleviated what had become a stressor for us. Here though we’re on our own for the moment. (Remind us to do a post about househelps in the future.)
The four of us plus our colleagues attracted quite the attention in the market. That’s to be expected. Remember my last post about the stroller? No stroller this time, but still the co-occurrence of white people with white babies is an attraction not to be missed. What is chiefly bizarre is the way people, mostly young folk, call out. In the capital, it was “blanc” for white. “Les blancs!” It’s more or less a friendly exclamation I guess, even though for one coming from the West, my personal racial sensibilities find it a bit strange and often off-putting. In the States, any overt mention of the color of one’s skin like that in public would be greatly frowned up and soon you’d have the NAACP knocking at your door. In this part of the country, the word that’s usually called out is nasara, “white” in Fulfulde (the language of wider communication which has largely supplanted French in the marketplace in this region). Nasara is now one of three words I know in Fulfulde. The others are thank you and goat. Gotta start somewhere don’t you?
How should we react to these shout outs? The western way would be to take them as rude and growl back or cast a disparaging look. But is that really the effect we want to go for? Not really. We want to show ourselves friendly and approachable. The problem is that it’s so incredibly difficult to change a knee-jerk reaction that’s been conditioned by one’s home culture. For me, the reaction is ire as if I’m undergoing some sort of grave injustice at being called “whitey.” How dare they!
I’m currently testing out ways to respond in a positive way. It’s really so simple that it even sounds silly to describe it. But I’ve started replying “Bonjour” or “Salut” (French for hi). This really catches people off guard as it instantly humanizes the encounter such that the exclaimer (equally conditioned by his culture) feels obligated to respond in kind, “Bonjour. Salut.” Couple that with a reserved smile and I really think you might have a winner. That’s my underwhelming no-brainer rebuttal in a nut-shell.
Now time for a confession. Several months ago while talking about all this with a friend, I proudly pointed out that we whities would never succumb to such a rude gesture. We would never let a sharp exclamation erupt from our mouths as if propelled by some uncontrollable force. To my shame, later that day I blurted out “Chinese!” when we drove past a chinaman walking down the street. What’s that proverb about pride and a fall? Maybe there’s some sort of universal compunction to exclaim the race of an irregular?