Lately I've been thinking a lot about nouns for identity and constant "otherness."
In China, I lived 7 years being called, 老外 "foreigner" everywhere I went in public. It translates literally to "old outside" and can be described as derogatory or polite, depending on who you are talking to. Children point at foreigners and say it, it is written on Starbucks coffee cups instead of your name, and is the basic describer for all non-yellow people.
Here in Rwanda I am now, "muzungu" or "white person." My otherness is still being labeled and called to me on the streets, but instead of being identified by my obvious geographical otherness, I am being marked by color.
This has caused some difficulty for my usual response. In China the conversations would go like this...
them, pointing: "foreigner!"
me, pointing: (looking shocked) "Chinese person!"
But here...that trick doesn't work when being labeled by color.
I hear it everywhere. "Muzungu Kalibu!" "White person, welcome!" is hollered in fruit stands and market stalls. However, here it seems to be said less often than "foreigner" in China, and is said with less negative stigma. I don't feel like I am an animal in a zoo, as I often did in Asia. In Rwanda it is often sweet, said in a softer tone and usually sans fingers pointing.
It's something really to ponder deeply. How are we called and how do we call others. It matters. Just as our response matters.
Yesterday I was walking down a busy road in search of an ATM. I was concentrating on not slipping on the red dirt and not getting side swiped by a moto so I wasn't really paying attention to the hoards of people walking along the side of the road. So I was taken by surprise when a small school boy chirped while passing by me, "Hello, white man." In english. Very matter of fact and sweet.
My heart leapt with laughter and I was so surprised that I just kept walking and replied in my most surprised and amused voice.
"Hello, white man."
"Hello, African child."
Oh man, this place is great. I laughed in my head all night about that interaction. The streak of otherness continues. But in a whole new context.
walk slow. xoxo.