Wednesday, 29 October 2008

On being white - part 1

I have been reflecting, rather seriously sometimes, on my experience of being in a racial minority group. We are white fish in a brown bowl, a walking freak show, objects of curiosity, a temporary distraction for crying babies, things to be gazed on, pointed at and whispered about from a safe distance. Even after a year in this little town of Auki, I can’t walk down our own road without attracting many stares. A stroll through the main street practically halts business and stops trucks. It is rare for people to be unpleasant in any way, rather most offer a smile, a raise of the eyebrows or a “morning”. Rarer still, though, is the prospect of anyone actually speaking more than a few words to me.

I walk through the hospital in the mornings, passing the outpatients department on my way to my own, and keep my head down as I hurry past, to avoid the stares, smirks and even outright gaping. Of late, it has meant I have not seen some friends who have been waiting there, but I am encouraged that they have been brave enough to attract my attention, even though by communicating with me, my peculiarity and “whiteness” envelops them too. For me, it means someone shares in my experience of being ogled, at least for a little while.

On any of the wards, I snatch the attention of at least ninety percent of the occupants. Silence often falls across the dingy concrete room as I slink behind the nurses’ desk to read a patient’s case notes. I sit down to treat a patient, and one or two onlookers will move to a neighbouring empty bed to observe my movements a little more closely, whispering knowingly to each other, “oh, exercise”. On the paediatrics ward, my presence alone will make some small children burst into tears, never having seen a European before.

I swing from being amused by my effect on people to being mildly annoyed. Sometimes, when a child calls out “bye bye white man” (the “bye bye” was picked up from the American Peace Corps, in Pijin it designates future tense, so doesn’t make sense on its own, and we are called “man” regardless of sex), I will mimic their tone and call out “hello black man” in Kwara’ae, the local language. Some of the older kids and the adults pick up on the irony, and we have a good laugh. Many don’t realise, and go on pointing and staring, “oooh, white man”.
One friend suggests that the reason locals distance themselves from we whites is that they don’t expect to be able to communicate. I think this is true for many people; recently I was speaking with a local motel owner who looked at me completely blankly even though I spoke to him in Pijin (spoken by most Solomon Islanders). He initially spoke to me in English, but I replied in Pijin, which usually elicits a surprised smile and an “oh, you know Pijin” response, and then the conversation segues into Pijin and flows more freely. This time, the Pijin didn’t work. My local friend repeated what I’d said, then translated it into Kwara’ae, to which the man was able to reply. It frustrated me that I was unable to participate in the conversation even in one of the man’s own languages, but I couldn’t help but smile at the way my white skin somehow created a language barrier where there was not one.

As I write this, I start to remember a few pleasant encounters we have had lately: a neighbour who lives down the road met us and spoke to us for the first time at the market last weekend (she knew who we were, we’d never seen her before!), a new friend called me at home for the first time wanting to give me some bananas, and a lovely girl working in a store shyly spoke with us last week, identifying herself as a relative of our landlord and has since greeted us with smiles and conversation. It won’t change the gasps and wide eyes when I go into town, but it’s comforting to know some Solomon Islanders are brave enough to reach across the colour spectrum to be our friends.


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