Get Out of my Country!

Yesterday I saw another white person in Mafeteng. I seldom see other white people walking around. It has only been a handful of times in the last couple of months. Usually I’ll see cars zip by with South African plates and white people inside. I know that the Peace Corps has a large contingent of volunteers in Lesotho, so I shouldn’t be that surprised.

This girl that I saw yesterday got me thinking about the way I react to other white people when I am living abroad. Before I get into that I’ll just quickly describe how I met her. I was going into our main supermarket, Shoprite – it is a South African chain. You have to check your bags before you go in, so we bumped into each other at the bag check. I said hello and she sort of looked at me and just walked off. Later that day I was walking down the street and the same girl was walking towards me. I am sure she recognized me as the same white guy that she saw at Shoprite because I am pretty much the only one in Mafeteng. As we approached each other I think I must have appeared like a Basotho person when I am approaching them. I was staring at her waiting for her to make eye contact so that we could greet each other, but as we got closer and closer she would not look up. I must have looked like I was holding my breath, with my face getting redder, and veins popping out of my forehead.

Anyways, her reaction to me reminded me of how I sometimes felt in China as an expat (expatriate) – I don’t think I even knew this term until I started living in China. An expat is a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country and culture other than that of the person's upbringing or legal residence. In China when I would see other white people I would always have this ‘Get Out Of My China’ gut reaction. For some reason, as someone living in the country my immediate reaction was contempt for this person who I assumed was just a tourist. You don’t understand the country, the culture, or the people. Why are you here? It is really a bizarre and embarrassing reaction. It is also selfish because I think when you travel there is this perception that you are having unique experiences and when you see other people possibly having similar experiences it is easy to resent them. I should say that I never acted with resentment or contempt towards people. I am sane enough to recognize my own insane judgments.

I imagine that this girl who brushed me off was having a ‘Get out of my Lesotho’ moment. She is probably a Peace Corps volunteer living in a small village. She came to town to stock up and she saw me. At least this is the story I have made up for her and I have based the rest of my post on this story, so you are just going to have to go with it. It would be a waste of your time to come up with more logical reasons for her behavior. Maybe she is just antisocial. Maybe I scared her because I was staring at her and it looked like I was holding my breath, and getting really stressed out and frustrated. Anyways, back to our Peace Corps volunteer. If it is true that she was having a GOOML moment then I have a couple of problems. The first problem is that the culture we are living in places such an importance on greetings. If she is snubbing me because she thinks I am tourist then I think she has missed something. Most of the Basotho go out of their way to greet visitors. In most other countries I would not get worked up about another person not greeting me, but here it seems heretical.

The other problem I have with her behavior, or at least the behavior I have invented for her, is that I do not feel the same way in Lesotho as I did in China, so there is no reason for her to feel that way. I am living in a community with almost no expats, so I would have thought that I would have even a stronger reaction to seeing other white people, but I don’t. I think it is because I am maturing or more likely it is because I still feel like a tourist in Lesotho. The people in Mafeteng have been very welcoming. Now that I live here, even if only for a short while, they assure me that I am a Makaota. If I were here for one year, two years, or five years, I think I would still feel like a tourist. I am not sure why I feel this way. Maybe in China there was a strong expat community and belonging to a community connected me more to the place. Like I said, the people here are very welcoming and I am not excluded from anything, but I am still isolated because of where I come from and what I have. I feel like a tourist because I have the option to leave if things are too difficult or if I need a break. Maybe for that reason I haven’t developed this weird possessiveness of place and experience.

As an afterthought, I should add that I still get these feelings when I visit Maseru, the capital of Lesotho, so I don’t have to worry about becoming more mature. Maseru is the center for many of the NGOs and foreign organizations and there are many expats. I guess these feelings are not directed at tourists so much as at other expats. Whenever I go to Maseru and see other white people I still get a feeling of contempt - You are just hiding in Maseru, you don’t know the real Lesotho – I should also say that I know how ridiculous these judgments are. What is the real Lesotho? It would be ignorant to try and define this. Maybe I just have some warped sense of competition where I feel superior because I imagine my experience to be more ‘authentic’ or involve more hardship.

May 5, 2010

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