Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Celebrity of Being a Volunteer

Narration of an escape:
They swarmed like bees; giggling bees with opposable thumbs; shouting and jostling for a place to grab, they ran alongside her frantic escape-pedaling. For the first time in Ghana, the volunteer truly feared ... for her bike.

I don't know if I mentioned this, but I'm kind of a big deal. A star, in fact. The bright, shiny kind - exploding from light years away and directing your attention, always, to its existence in the sky.

Take it how you want (a metaphor for my whiteness, perhaps?) but the above description is exactly how I feel all the time. A bright spot attracting attention; an electronic sandwich board welded to my chest: "OUTSIDER," it blinks. "DOES NOT HARK FROM THIS LAND!" (Naturally, my sign board only speaks in Old English.) The battery never runs down, it's novelty never wears off, and for the life of me I can't pry it away. I'd be no less ostentatious if I stole the chief's horse, glued a uni-horn to it's head, and taught it to shoot laser-beams from it's eyeballs (and that's just when I'm minding my own business).
... Of course, If I managed to do all that I'd probably deserve the attention, but it's an overwhelming thought, no?

Unfortunately, I don't have the skill-set to bestow laser-beam eyes (YET), but I am foreign and, usually, that's enough. More important than being 'foreign,' however, is the fact that I'm white. Where I live this is not only obvious, but blindingly significant. After a lifetime of chasing uniqueness and going against the grain, I have the daily urge to sink into the loving embrace of blissful anonymity. It's an urge that comes with the realization that a parade of children wherever I go will kind of always be ... conspicuous, you know?

On Whiteness:
Sometimes it's embarrassing (when everyone watching and greeting sees me trip over air and fall on my ass); sometimes it's awkward (when I try to pretend I don't notice the stranger next to me taking my picture on his/her phone); sometimes it's humbling (when I'm escorted to a location because the person I asked directions from wants to ensure my safety); sometimes it's the exact experience one would expect when being reduced to a color (when I'm talked about in a language it's assumed I don't understand as if I am invisible  - even though I do, and I'm not; when I'm pointed and laughed at like a circus attraction for no obvious reason; when I'm targeted as nothing more than a bank account, a marriage visa, or a status object).

This is the average day in my life; surreal interactions ranging from innocent (children yelling, sometimes from miles away, "SOLAMIA!! SOLAMIIII-YA!!!! BAH-BAYEEEEEEE!") to intrusive (random man stops my on my bicycle to insist I take him as a lover because he's always wanted to "take a white for a wife"). In fact, my skin color is so exulted (I wish this weren't the correct adjective, trust me, but it is) that not only am I sought after, but constantly on display. I couldn't blend in if I tried.

It's slightly jarring (sometimes amusing) and has forced my understanding of what Peace Corps called a 24/7/365 kind of job. I now empathize with celebrities; I regularly feel like Bono (though I'm pretty sure this is the only place someone like Bono feels 'normal' for the same reasons I don't). And it's probably the difference between visiting a place and living there. As life regains a sense of normalcy for me, I remain an object of curiosity for everyone else. What used to be endearing when the job was new is now a constant reminder that I'm still seen as an outsider in a country I now call home: I figure they should be bored by now; they figure white people are always from somewhere else, somewhere better. Ghana could never be my 'home' - it's where black people live (several people have explained this to me), which is why my novelty actually makes sense. Someone, laughing at the child parade, once said, "If you lived here one hundred years, you'd still be different because you'd still be white, Emma," and I can't really argue with his logic.

This doesn't mean that I don't have friends or that they don't want me to stay, it just means that no matter how long I stay, I will always be the focus of most interactions. (It is a strange, alternate reality to fall into; coming from a land that sees pointing out differences as politically incorrect - you can imagine most of us react negatively to the connotation of 'being white.' It's truth notwithstanding, it's considered insulting.) My skin is both a curse and a blessing; the catalyst for many experiences, to be sure. To have one's race pointed out constantly (as in, "White girl, come here," or "Hey! White!") isn't something our generation is used to. We see it as demeaning and find it difficult to come to terms with. I swear it's the 'cure-all' to racial slurs and stereotypes. It would do wonders for the average racist, finally understanding what it's like to be the 'blunt end,' so to speak. Perhaps we could eradicate all hatred through simple experience (I told you I'd save the world when I joined the Peace Corps).

In the very least, I've got some great stories (and a new perspective). When I finally get to tell my grandchildren that I was famous one day, it won't be due to senility or jest. It'll be because, "Damn it, I taught the chief's horse to shoot lasers from it's eyeballs! I did! I'm not lying!"