Thursday, June 5, 2014

Being the "Foreigner"

One truth about living in the South, in a capital city with little to no international tourist traffic is the fact that most places I go, I am an oddity, and I’m gawked at by a variety of people.  Mostly it is kids, but there are also adults who stop, look, conjure an English phrase and try it out.  I’m happy to have the same conversation over and over, because they enjoy it, and also a part of my job is public diplomacy, although I hope I'd be nice even if it wasn't in my job description. Once they have decided to engage the stranger, the conversation inevitably goes something like this:

Indian:  Hi!
ME:  Hi!  How are you?
Indian: (giggles) Fine.  How are YOU?
ME:  I’m fine.
Indian:  What’s your good name?
ME:  Connie, What’s yours?
Indian:  Varied response.
Indian:  Coming from?
ME:  I’m from the U.S., the United States.
Indian:  Oh, America! GOOD GOOD GOOD!
ME:  But I live in Vellayambalam, working with the government of Kerala.
Indian:  Wow, great.  Wonderful.  How do you find India?
ME:  It’s wonderful.  The people are very friendly. 
Indian: Ok, Good bye!

 Most of the time I just recite my part of the dialogue and don’t think much about it, but sometimes it gives me pause. On the day of this picture,
I was reclining on a chair at the beach, relaxing and letting the salty breeze blow through my hair.  These 4 young maidens crept up on me and just stood there giggling until I got up and started the dialogue. They were cute, and I’m a sucker for kids so when they wanted pictures I was all smiles.  I wished then they were fluent in English because I wanted to know the purpose of them having a photo taken with a stranger.  Who did they want to show it to?  What story would they tell?  What was I, exactly, to them? In a few years time, when they saw it in an album, surely they, too, would wonder what I was doing in the picture of their outing?
Then a woman, their mom, I believe, asked shyly, gesturing nonverbally, to have her picture taken with me.  I was happy to extend some positive vibes her way, and felt honored to be asked into their pictures. She was pleased as punch and all I had to do was be friendly.  There is something to this smile and don't ask questions diplomacy plan!
I started wondering if we Americans have a similar habit of talking to “the other” when we see them in our country, but I had a hard time imagining a circumstance or conversation that rang true.  Perhaps it’s because we’re not as friendly?  Or more private?  Or we aren’t comfortable striking up a conversation with a stranger even though we might be curious? I know I was a na├»ve kid, curious about anything from another culture growing up in a small-town in the Midwest, but I couldn’t remember such an exchange with someone from another culture.  Perhaps it was because I never saw anyone from another culture, you say?  Could be, or it could be that it wasn’t acceptable to speak with them.  Hard to say… Any thoughts, anyone?

1 comment:

  1. It's nice to be approached by friendly people. The grumpy ones can keep their own company.