Monday, November 2, 2009

While You Were Sleeping, I Became Big and White

I grew up in a small, quite town in the Northern part of the Philippines. As with many other small Filipino towns at the time, we had our share of white do-gooders - missionaries and Peace Corp Volunteers (and maybe a few CIA agents but we'll never know, will we?) . They had names like Bill, George, or Carol. .

They certainly stood out, these tall pale people. The men wore their crew cuts and short sleeved white shirts like a uniform. The women had short hair, unvarnished nails and faces devoid of cosmetics.

But, whatever they may have lacked in vanity, they certainly made up in zeal. They weren’t shy, that’s for sure. God or Uncle Sam (or maybe even both, you never k now with those Two) had brought them to the Philippine to save the Filipinos from themselves and by God (or by Uncle Sam), they would!

They approached people on the street asking for directions using the local dialect. They knocked on doors to sell bibles. They cried out to God with a megaphone in the middle of the town plaza. They spoke up in town hall meetings to share their expert opinion

When they walked by, a few kids would come up to them and greet them with “Hi Joe!” eager to practice their English or bask in the reflected glory of the local celebrities.

I would run away. It’s not that I was shy or scared. Okay, maybe I may have been a little of both. But we did speak English at home and my parents brought foreign visitors to the house every so often. Looking back now , I realize that – even at that age – it was more about my natural aversion towards people with loud voices who want to tell me what to do (to this day, I have the same reaction towards pushy tele-marketers, aggressive sales men and campaigning politicians ).

Cu to: several years after, a few days ago here in Zambia. The lady who cleans the guest house, where I am staying, was telling me about some Chinese people who had just come to town (a Chinese company had just won the contract to complete the national highway that was going to pass thru our small town of Kalomo).

She said to me, “But they’re not real muzungus, like you”. Taken aback, I asked, “Why, what am I?”. She said, “You’re white”.

I’ve been mulling over the implications of her observation. I already knew that they ‘ve been referring to me as the “Big Man” . Last week, somebody from work was telling me that there were plans to bring the “Big Man” to a field trip to the bush sometime soon. I asked who the Big Man was. It turned out he was talking about me. At the time, I assumed it was in reference to my size (I am taller than most of the Zambian men I’ve met, although – I hasten to add - not necessarily heftier).

My initial reaction was: I don’t want to be “white”. I don’t want to be the “Big Man”. I don’t want to be an object of curiosity. I’ll learn the language. I’ll eat the food. Just let me live quietly amongst you and give me the opportunity to do good work while I’m here.

And while all this whining was going on in my mind, I remembered the pale-faced strangers of my youth. While many will argue about the negative effects of what can be seen as an extended form of colonialism - we also cannot deny that a lot of good work was done. There are dams and bridges and schools and churches that exist to this day because of the efforts and smarts and sacrifices of these missionaries and volunteers. And, surely, their attempts to cross the cultural divide have helped this generation (and the next ones) of Filipinos in having a relatively balanced world-view and in being open to all sorts of new learnings and experiences.

I would like to think that majority of them had come to my country with the best of intentions. They too must have thought that by trying to learn the language and chatting up the locals, they could fit in and make the work they had come to do easier.

But, who were they kidding? They did not fit in. They could not. They were just too different. In trying to belong, they just called more attention to how different they were. We knew they were from far-away places to which they would eventually return

In the same manner, I accept – that my good intentions and best efforts notwithstanding – I will never totally fit in here either. It’s funny -coming here, I told myself I would play it down and be as inconspicuous as possible. But, I realize now that my idea of “inconspicuous” was just so totally wrong, haha. My tattoos and torn jeans and black tee-shirts (with everything from “Pilyo” to “Gurango Software” printed on them) aren’t exactly the norm here.

But, then again, maybe that’s not such a bad thing either . I hope that by getting to know me, people can come to realize that do-gooders come in various forms and sizes and colors. And while my contributions may be limited, I do hope that I am able to start something that can be continued even after I’ve finished my volunteer placement.

People will read or put meaning to what they see, depending on their own particular needs and points-of-view. Some people will see me as a representative of a big international NGO and would ask up-front for a water pump to be brought to their village (within 5 minutes of being introduced) or drop hints about getting a school sponsorship (in the course of what was supposed to be a social conversation).But that’s fine, because other people will see me as a friend or as a co-worker who may have something valuable to contribute.

Like everything else in life, it all balances out. There are opportunities to give and opportunities to receive; opportunities to teach and opportunities to learn.

All is well. And yes, I think I can live with “Big Man”. Maybe I’ll even have it printed on a tee-shirt. But, just because I can’t dance doesn’t mean I’m white. Hmm, that’ll look good on a tee-shirt too, no?.



I spent the night at my friend Ros’ house, another VSO volunteer, who works as a town planner in the next town. She’s from the UK and is retired. She came to Zambia 6 months ahead of me,. She also happens to be my first Quaker friend – so I’m sure we’ll be having a lot of discussions on spirituality and religion over the next months .

We attended the send-off party for Rosanna and Luke, also from the UK, who had just finished their 1 year placement as VSO volunteers for a youth organization focused on HIV/AIDS awareness. Luke and Rosanna are a couple. They both have longish hair and like walking around barefoot in their house and backyard. They’ve taking three months off to travel around Africa before going back home. From the testimonials during the party, both of them obviously did a lot of good for the organization they worked for. I want to be just like them when I grow up.

Anyway, it was a great party. I spied some boys spiking the drinks and there were party games with questions like “Where did you have your first kiss?”. It could have been a party anywhere in the world except for the Zambian hip-hop music and oh boy, those kids sure know how to dance.

Anyhow, the party ended close to midnight and Ros and I decided to walk back to her place, about 1 hour away. It was one of those clear, starry African nights. The temperature had dropped so it was a bit chilly. We didn’t talk much so there was just the sound of our feet touching the soft, sandy ground and crickets doing cricket sounds and dogs barking in the distance (far distance, I don’t like barking dogs). There were no streetlights, but there was the full moon to show the way. There were no street signs either but there were the big, tall trees to serve as our markers. It was great, one of my perfect memories of Africa


i-Observer said...

Great post Tarcs! A very enjoyable read! It's funny how certain things come around in full circles...

Eagerly waiting for your next post!

Nonoy Oplas said...

Yep, great post, big man. Can you also make some political observations there, or it's an implicit No-No in your line of work?

rebornrose said...

your post is beginning to show signs of you fitting in, you have started to flow with rhythm of life there in Zambia. I'm happy for you, Tarcs. I'll always follow your journey there. :)

Ito said...

Hello white big man in Africa. If you are white, what am I? It was such a joy to read your posts. Pretty soon you shall be writing a book I'm sure. And do not worry. You have not been in Kalomo a month so it's ok to feel like you do not belong. Give it a little more time. I think belonging is in the heart and not in any place in particular. It comes when you have come to know and love the people around you and established your connection with them and their lives. Knowing you, it will not take very long. I already see some of it emerging "between the lines". Be safe, be happy. =)