Sunday, November 20, 2005

Not Exactly CARE International

November 17, 2005, Thursday. 9:07pm.

Saw the good pastor again today, unfortunately. Not only is he always asking me to give him things or to accept Jesus Christ, but I also think he doesn’t actually understand anything I say.

“How are you?” he said.
“How’s the work?”
“How’s the work?”
“Work. How is it?”
“I mean, how’s the work?”
“I said work is nzuri.”
“Ah, good. We shall meet again.”
“That guy acts so drunk sometimes,” Hillary said.

Went to Kisumu a couple days ago and came back completely bitter about everything. First someone tried to pickpocket me. Fortunately pickpockets in Kenya really suck at their job, and I turned around when there was a tug on my backpack that felt like a hoard of rabid monkeys trying to climb inside. It was a close call, though; one compartment was completely unzipped with valuable possessions exposed. This wasn”t even the first incident; someone tried the same rabid monkey technique in Eldoret, also with unsuccessful results.

I stayed with another volunteer (“Pete”) who is your stereotypical New Yorker - high strung, neurotic, impatient and bitter. His bitterness validated my bitterness.

"What’s with all the entitled begging in this country? What’s with all the corruption? What’s with all the harassment?"

He said once he got so frustrated with a man who was harassing him for money that he screamed, “STOP BEGGING! GET A JOB! WHERE’S YOUR WIFE? HOW CAN YOU SIT HERE ALL DAY DOING NOTHING WHEN SHE’S WORKING SO HARD AT HOME??”

I could have picked out all the logical fallacies with my politically correct filter, but instead I just laughed, and for a long time. Yeah, the blame falls on vestiges of white racism and colonial oppression, on corruption, on poverty, on foreign aid agencies. But when you’re walking past a gauntlet of 40-year-old adult men screaming, “Ching chong wang dong,” at you because they think it’s a clever way to demean you and at the same time they think it will make you want to give them money to take you on their bicycle taxi, you don’t really care what kind of compassionate explanation there is for the existence of idiocy in Kenya. Instead it’s hilarious and gratifying to hear stories of people who actually have the presence of mind, in a moment of harassment, to spit back venom.

I think it’s typical for most people, when they first arrive in Kenya, to tiptoe lightly in the name of cultural sensitivity. And I think its normal for most people, when they’ve lived in Kenya for a few months, to say to hell with cultural sensitivity. One reason I like visiting Pete is because his modus operandus is speaking his mind, New York style. He may offend far more Kenyans than I do, but he has probably preserved more of his sanity than I have. It reminds me that you can actually get away with a lot of things that may *seem* culturally insensitive, and that when you think about it more, you realize, oh yeah, it *is* culturally insensitive, but who really cares? Because that 16-year-old street urchin in Nakuru who was gyrating lewdly in front of me while grabbing his crotch and unzipping his pants wasn”t doing it out of cultural sensitivity. So do I feel like a bit of a bully when I threaten to punch him, and he runs away? No. Or when a 26-year-old idler has the misfortune of being the tenth person in the last two minutes to sneer, “Ching chong China,” as I walk through the market, and I scream back, “WHAT THE *%#$ IS YOUR PROBLEM, @&&hole??” do I feel like a jerk when he lowers his head and sulks away because his friends are laughing at him? Not really.

I may be a hypocrite for not letting go of situations where people assume I’m Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean or Jet Li, while having no problems embracing stereotypes that work to my advantage. But I don’t really care. I’ve been told that sometimes when I walk around my village people whisper, “Don’t mess with the China. She can kill you with her karate.” Fine with me.

Or when I was stuck in a town 30 minutes outside my village, waiting for a matatu in the pouring rain, looking like a contestant in a wet t-shirt contest, and one of the road crew struck up a conversation with me in Chinese. After a few minutes he introduced himself, explained that he was with the Chinese company paving the road (duh) and that he was heading to the workers’ camp in my village. He offered me a ride home in their huge orange dump truck. Like an idiot, I actually spent five whole seconds thinking, “How will this make the Kenyans around me feel? They’ll see me as just another rich foreigner who speeds away in a private vehicle while they’re left in the rain. And on top of that, once I get into that Chinese truck, Kenyans will never, ever come to understand that I’m American.”

Then common sense kicked in. I’m cold and wet down to my panties and covered in
mud, and I’m worried that a bunch of people who don’t even know me will
think I’m from China?
WHO CARES? (Although I never reconciled the rich-foreigner-in-a-private-vehicle part of it.) Being mistaken as a Chinese construction worker is a small price to pay to be at home taking a warm bath, putting on dry clothes and drinking tea.

So I clambered up into the cab of the dump truck with five chain-smoking Chinese guys with bad teeth, and their Kenyan driver. It might be the first and last time in my life I’ll ever get to use English, Chinese and Swahili in the same conversation. And for some reason when one of the workers pointed at the Kenyan and said to me in Chinese, “This guy stinks really bad,” it made me a little homesick for San Francisco and all the rude Cantonese women on the MUNI buses.


Anonymous mshairi said...

Hi Justina, I think you should consider joining the Kenya Bloggers Webring - - which is open to Kenyans and anyone writing about Kenya. Therein you may find a little understanding of the Kenyan sense of humour and Kenyans may find it interesting to read about your experiences.

5:49 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home