Friday, June 25, 2010

double take

Another confession: One of my greatest pleasures is nearly causing traffic accidents by being places no young white woman is expected to be while doing things no young white woman is expected to be doing.

This afternoon as I was driving the farm Kawasaki (like an ATV) out to the field to do my harvesting I noticed a man driving by on the road lean his head out of his window and turn to look not once, not twice, but three times. It was the same look I got in Wal-Mart (yes, Wal-Mart, because sissy rainboots from Target just weren't going to do) when the woman at the check-out asked me why I needed big black rubber boots and I answered that I was a farm worker (for the record, I have since worn a big hole in aforementioned black boots). It was the same look I got in Cambodia when spotted squatting in the shade under my house hand-washing my clothes every Sunday afternoon. A number of chickens, dogs, and small children narrowly escaped injury under the moto wheels of the people who turned to stare. It's the same look I get any time I walk along the road in Nairobi (white women are, after all, expected to travel in the safety of their Land Rovers).

But the secret sense of pride I'm used to feeling is a little more mixed now. I'm starting to recognize that it's only because I'm so well-off that I can choose to live in places or do work that those who live/work there might not choose if given the option. I can dabble in life in a Cambodian slum (with the safety of the world's best med-evac insurance should I contract a life-threatening illness that my hosts deal with all the time), hang out in a garden in Kibera for an afternoon (and afterwards head to a US-style coffeeshop for a snack and a latte), or spend a year harvesting vegetables (with my longest day of field work being 8:30-5:00, unlike the 10 hours a day, 6 days a week worked by the immigrant strawberry pickers in the next field).

It takes a little of the thrill out of hearing guera (Spanish slang for blonde girl), barang (Khmer, meaning French person - three guesses who colonized Cambodia), or mzungu (Swahili for white person, with etymological roots in "dizzy" and "aimless wanderer") to think about it that way.