Sunday, September 28, 2008

"Going Native"

This essay was originally published in 2006 at the now-defunct InverseOnline, a website dedicated to all things South American.

Barranquilla, Colombia:

“Where you from?” the driver asks in Spanish after a few minutes in the air-conditioned cab. He had picked me up on the corner near my apartment, sweating under the morning sun in my khakis and button-down dress shirt with the sleeves rolled-up to the elbow. He was running me to the university, but it wasn’t that fact, or even my appearance that tipped him off to my foreignness. In fact, it’s never my appearance.

“Take a guess,” I say, playing this game for the zillionth time.

“I don’t know. Aruba, maybe? Curaçao?” The nearby Dutch Caribbean has been the most common guess since I moved here to Barranquilla, trumping even perennial favorite, Brazil.

“No, neither.”

“I don’t know then,” he concedes.

“San Andrés,” I lie.

“Ah, okay.” And this satisfies him.

San Andrés is one of two small islands off the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, but officially belonging to Colombia. It has a history typical of the area—strategically located during colonization and therefore christened repeatedly under shifting European banners, including Spain, England, and the Netherlands. The English maintained dominance for a while in the early 1600s and the language stuck among the few colonists and their many African slaves. Spain regained control and later, the islands became an administrative department of Colombia.

Everyone here knows that though sanandresanos are Colombian citizens, most speak English and a West Indian patois spiced with Anglicized Spanishisms, which explains my trouble with masculine and feminine articles and other lapses in grammar. It also keeps the cab fare from increasing, since I’m still considered a “poor” Colombian and, thus, not a “rich” gringo.

“So do you study at the university?”

“Yes,” I lie again. “Business administration.”

“Nice,” he says.

That explains my khakis and button-down. It also keeps the cab fare from increasing, since I’m still considered a “struggling” student and, thus, not a “well-heeled” professor. English professor, to be exact.

To be honest about my job or my nationality would have been an invitation for an endless slew of questions: How do you like Colombia? How about the women? How about the weather? How about President Bush? How’d you end up in Colombia? But the women, they’re hot, right?

He says something else that I can’t make out exactly, but by the tone and his face, it sounds like a joke, so I nod and smile. I hope he just turns up the radio and quits talking, as I’m not in the mood for further interrogation. He does and the recycled salsa saves me for a while. I’m only functional, not fluent in Spanish, and my listening ability is much worse than my ability to construct sentences and articulate myself—it comes and goes in waves.* Half the time, I can ask a question with complete accuracy and not understand a word of the response. It doesn’t help that I’m a good mimic with a great accent. It also doesn’t help that, thanks to my own ethnic hybridity, I happen to look Colombian. Or Brazilian. Or Aruban.

Or maybe it does.

My white co-workers at the university often get quoted higher everything. Higher cab fares. Higher prices for that hammock or hat. It pisses off my friend and colleague, Kelly, from rural Ohio. “We’re not all rich,” she often says. Sometimes, after pizza and a movie at my apartment, she gets me to hail her a cab so I can negotiate the cheapest fare. With short sentences in a commanding voice, I can be as native as anyone else, and I still have to laugh at the idea of me hailing a white woman a cab. In New York, it had usually been the reverse.

I don’t often hang out with my co-workers, not least of which because I really don’t drink and, despite having a population of almost two million, there isn’t much more to do when you’re living in Barranquilla. But it’s also the idea of being singled out as one of “them.” One of the gringos. One of those norteamericanos who comes down to the tropics to drop large quantities of dollars indulging in large quantities of alcohol and sex. A perpetual spring breaker in a Hawaiian shirt with sunburned skin and rhythm-less hips. Not that my co-workers are like that, but it is the prevailing perception, and not without good reason. I get to overhear people talking about “those gringos” when they don’t know I came with “those gringos.” Then there are the looks I get from Colombian women when they see me walking innocently with Kelly. Or from Colombian men when they see me speaking fluent English. It’s humorous and sad at the same time, that I’m seen as a social climber. A gringo-lover. Sometimes, on road trips, the police look suspiciously at my foreign resident ID. Much more suspiciously than they inspect Kelly’s.

On occasion, I hang out with my friend René, a Canadian who teaches at a local bilingual high school. His father is originally from the Congo, and René tells me in his French-accented English how in certain restaurants and nightclubs, employees come up and ask him to leave. That is, until they hear his French-accented Spanish and realize he’s foreign and therefore obviously loaded. We understand each other because, while in Colombia we occupy two different places on the Latin American racial spectrum and are therefore treated differently, we’re both from North America and subsequently both subject to the same “random” searches at Customs and Immigration once back at “home.”

I think of calling René about a doing a trip somewhere off-limits to foreigners in the interior of the country when the driver asks me at which entrance gate I want to be dropped-off. I tell him the back gate, partly because it minimizes the walk to my office, but also because it’s where a couple of the security guards I’m friendly with are posted. I’m actually friendly with all the guards, hard workers from the south side of the city who are doing good to have landed this particular gig. They’re a mixture of young and old, all but one are men. And all, given a different set of historical circumstances, could have been me, guarding an ivory tower of academia that they’ll never be a part of. Maybe that’s why they greet me with firm handshakes and smiles and shoulder pats, the more familiar—Eric and Rubén at the back gate—playfully saluting me with great flourish: “Oh, Professor Ernst Koeningsburg.”

I’ve exchanged cell numbers with a couple of them, the ones around my age who always invite me down south to eat at their house some lazy Sunday afternoon. At the time, I have every intention of calling them. But a tiresome schedule and my own laziness usually trump those planned encounters; visiting a place and working there are two completely different animals. Yet when I see them on campus, we have our brief conversations like a couple of neighbors, or cousins, maybe. And I think that, in some respect, they’re proud of me. They see a little bit of themselves, as if given a different set of historical circumstances, they could have been me, a college professor, teaching my native language in a foreign land.

And so I pull up to the back gate at a private university with only a handful of students darker than I, giving the driver a blue five-thousand peso note, knowing I could have argued the price down a thousand, but not wanting to haggle over the equivalent of not even fifty cents.

“Okay, thanks friend,” he says as I exit. “Good luck!”

“Thanks. You too,” I say and close the door, smiling in anticipation of this morning’s non-Spanish-sounding baptism.

“¿Qué tal, Eric?”


©2006, EW2


*My Spanish is actually much better now.

8 comments:

Erin said...

Ha, forgot about you having to hail cabs for Kelly. Her Spanish has gotten better, too, and now she can say she's salvadoreña and they fall for it. But that still doesn't stop them from asking her for a date or to marry them and forget about that silly salvadoran husband.

Paul said...

I am a black Englishman, living and working in Bogotá and although I can empathise with some of what you say, my attitude to my blackness could not be more different. For example, I only ever regard myself as British and never really consider my colour, I just assume I will be charged more because I'm a European. I never really consider when I respond to a question about my nationality by saying “soy ingles” - I'm English, that it will cause much surprise and it doesn't, at least none that I can detect. Furthermore, the thought that hailing a taxi on a London street would be easier if I asked a white female companion to do it would be easier, seems preposterous to me. Maybe this says a great deal about the difference between African Americans and black British. To me I'm just British nothing more, nothing less and I hardly consider whether my skin colour makes a difference. Anyway, I really enjoyed reading about your experiences and comparing them to my own, it has given me a lot to think about.

kwerekwere said...

i'll probably make a post about it later, but, you know, sometimes having the language "right" can be detrimental.

outside of the rep dom, people think my accent is either puerto rican or dominican, inside the rep dom, people think it's haitian. despite being, you know, fat -- i have to make the decision as to whether to be a "poor" haitian or a "rich" person from the mainland.

i almost always choose the poor one, because people won't think to try to rob me, like they did in namibia last week, when i was assumed to be a "rich" angolan. the irony of being robbed in namibia -- a country whose nationals don't even need visas to go to the uk or canada -- by people who thought i was from angola, whose citizens need visas to go almost everywhere but mozambique... is one of the things which cracks me up.

thursday morning, after i finish the mountain of work i have piling up, i'll make a post about all of this, and also my immediate reaction to what i read in the comment above. hit me up on yahoo and remind me; c'è una possibilità che possa dimenticare....

kwerekwere said...

paul, as someone who's has lived in the uk for 4 years and has popped in and out of the uk for weeks and/or months at a time for most of the last 30... i find your response to be spectacularly full of fail.

so full of fail that, in fact, i've written about it on both of my blogs.

Fly Brother said...

Erin - I hope at least Kelly's not still having taxi issues. ;-)

Paul - Wow...sounds like Britain has the whole skin color issue all figured out. Too bad I was born in a country where the mayor of the largest city indeed had to pass an ordinance making it illegal for taxi drivers to bypass a legitimate black male passenger after it happened to actor Danny Glover - the BBC even covered it:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/515530.stm

You're right - there is a great deal of difference between blacks in the States and in Britain, and since I'm not from Britain, I'll just have to take you at your word about it being a colorblind society.

Kwere - Seems like you have an alternate take on Paul's colorblind British society.

Tolantino said...

Fly Bro,

Your experiences as a black/afro-american in colombia are very interesting. Even here in india, i find myself having to lie about my nationlity for various reasons:

1.) Everyone know nigerians have a very colorful reputation the world over

2.) Everytime i say to someone I am nigerian, i can just sense something about them changing.. i still cant put a finger on it..

but i bet my last dollar it has something to do with all the very colorful things that Nigerians have been known to do the world over.

So, whenever i get the 'where you from' question, i say something like.."bourkina fasso" or "Botswana" or "Grenada" or "Trinidad and Tobago" I say this because i know that the person asking me has a zero chance of knowing these places and then the joke is on them.. hehehe.. Its bad enough being in a country that is crazy about skin color. Being white here is everything.. all the people you see on TV adverts or shows are White indians.. this is a big irony considering that there are millions of indians who are blacker than me.. nuff said

Your blog keeps getting more and more interesting. keep on writing..

Fly Girl said...

Fly Bro, I can't believe you haven't introduced youself, Fly people have to support each other! I only found you because I saw a link to my blog from yours. Your blog is wonderful and I'll be adding it to my faves. I totally recogonize your experience in Columbia. I've just come back from Brazil and I avoided all the tourist hassles because they all thought I was Bahian. Garcia Marquez in one of my favorite writers and his negrito references hipped me to the South American color scale nuances a long time ago. It was everywhere, from the way docents tell Brazilian history to the confused looks I got in high end Rio restaurants with my Italian guide. I didn't experience anything overt in Brazil but in my journeys through Latin America, Costa Rica was probably the most blatant. My Spanish is functional too and locals assumed I was a Costa Rican from the small black population on the country's Caribbean coast. When I went into a nice San Jose restaraunt, I caught "the look" from a waitress. The look is recognized by black people from Chicago to South Africa as the precursor to racial funny business. The waitress ignored me for five minutes. The place was filled with white Americans and white locals, I was the brownest thing in there next to the breat crusts. Just as I was about to say or do something (no plexiglass around to shield her)the owner rushed over to show me a table. She stumbled over herself to make up for the snub and I know that if I appeared more American (I can't wear "typical" American attire like t-shirts, khakis, baggy shirts and Tevas, I just can't.) it probably wouldn't have happened. It's the closest that I've ever experienced to U.S. style racism outside of the U.S.(Although as a frequent London visitor I have to say that I have glimpsed it, if not experienced it in other countries. I think that Paul lives somewhere too close to a Tube station and the noise and activity throws off his senses.)

Jessica said...

I found this blog by chance through another blog and just wanted to say I found this entry really interesting (and well written). I must say first off that I don't live in South America and I'm not African American, but shades of what you are speaking about rung true for me, just as being an ex-pat. My life has definitely become more of being on the watch for getting taken advantage of, maybe because I'm foreign, maybe because I'm a woman? I have an advantage in speaking the language quite well, but you do get a shift in attitude or a slight change in demeanor from people that is slightly perceptible, but definitely palpable. Don't get me wrong, I think I have it pretty easy, as Americans are quite accepted in Italy, but sometimes it feels as a novelty more than anything and certainly I fight hard to distinguish myself from being mistaken for a tourist or a kid on study abroad. Anyway, thanks for the post and I will continue to follow.