Being a Chameleon

Dinkaland never ceases to amaze me. Just when I thought I had heard all kinds of marriage proposals there are, Dinka men always manage to come up with something that leaves me dumbfounded for one second and laughing my head off the next. For the benefit of those who aren’t familiar with the term “Dinka,” it refers to a tribe in South Sudan, famous for their height—women here stand at an average of 5’9”, and the men, well, they’re giants.
David and the Goliaths

Anyway, we did a three-day workshop last week that was basically all-male, because women aren’t allowed by their husbands to attend such things as it means they would have to stay in hotels. And in the Dinka culture, a woman is not supposed to be sleeping in hotels, unless she is of loose morals, which is unheard of as far as they are concerned.

So at the end of the workshop, as I was handing out the certificates, one of the participants took my hand—which I initially thought was for a handshake—looked into my eyes, and said, “Madam, I want to marry you.” The room became real quiet, and everybody was looking at me, waiting for my reply, as if they were all going to walk me down the aisle if I said yes. And I smiled my usual smile and said, “I’m sorry, but I already have a husband.” But he said, “I don’t care. You can still have your husband, while being married to me. I have 70 cows now, and I can buy some more, if you want.” So I told him that in the Philippines we only get married to one person. There’s not even divorce. That killed it all, and my ex-fiance went back to his seat.
I noticed some commotion a few minutes later, some kind of buzzing sound like that of bees, and the buzzing came closer and closer, then stopped. When I looked up from whatever I was doing, I saw the grinning faces of around five or six Dinkas towering over me.
“Madam, can we ask you what your tribe is?” the “shortest” guy started, maybe because they thought I won’t hear anything if the tallest guy spoke.
“Tribe? I’m sorry we don’t refer to tribes in my country.”
“You are from Israel, yeah? Because you are a Philippian.”
I guess I haven’t been reading the Bible that much, because it took me quite some time to digest what they were talking about. Philippian, Israel. Makes sense.
But that wasn’t really the first time people have mistaken my nationality. When I was in Ethiopia, they thought I was an Ethiopian with fairer skin, and they would treat me like an Ethiopian (read: no special privileges given only to foreigners) until they hear my Amharic which is as good as a four-year-old’s. Some Africans think I am from Madagascar or from Zanzibar or from Uganda. When I was backpacking in South East Asia, the locals thought I was Thai, Cambodian, Malaysian—never Filipino. Some of my American acquaintances thought I was from Los Angeles, California, because of my accent. When I was in Nepal, I was, of course, mistaken for a Nepali until I started wearing more “revealing” clothes (i.e. sleeveless dresses), which Nepali women would never wear in public.
Can I pass for a Nepali?

Being a chameleon is good in some ways. I am able to mingle hassle-free with the locals. I sometimes get pretty good discounts in tourist spots, as long as I don’t open my mouth. I don’t get to pay inflated tourist fares when using public transport.

But the downsides are many. Being a chameleon makes me see how cultures can discriminate their own people.
One time in Ethiopia, I took a domestic flight from Addis Ababa to my small town in the northern part of the country, and just as I took my front-row window seat, the flight stewardess motioned for me to stand up. She didn’t even say a word! She just waved her hand as if conducting an orchestra. I pretended as if I didn’t see her, so she came stomping towards where I was and tapped my shoulder and told me, in Amharic, to vacate my seat. I asked her “lemin” (why), and she blurted about the seat being reserved for someone else, and motioned towards a white tourist standing impatiently behind her. When I ran out of Amharic words, I started talking to her in English, insisting I was sticking to the seat number that was written on my boarding pass, and my oh my did her expression change as fast as lightning—from grumpy to sweet. She apologized profusely that at one point I thought she was going to go down on her knees. Pathetic really.
In Nepal, as I’ve already said earlier, the locals thought I was Nepali, so whenever they saw me walking with my boyfriend (who is African), they looked at me as if I’m some kind of prostitute. Which reminds me of the time we went to eat at a tourist restaurant. The waiter initially spoke to me in Nepali, but since I didn’t know a single word, my boyfriend, who knows the language very well, took over the conversation. The waiter was, of course, very smitten by the Nepali-speaking African, and ignored me for the rest of the time we were there. Whenever I made an additional order, he wouldn’t even look at me, and when I handed him the payment for the bill, he snatched the money from my hand without saying a single word. It confused me at that time. But now that I think about it, I think he thought I was a Nepali girl who was trying too hard to speak in English because I was with a foreigner, and that repulsed him, the same way it repulsed many other men, who gave me the same kind of look and then burst out into fits of laughter. Why and what they were laughing about, I wouldn’t even want to know. 

I actually took this photo while they were staring at me and my boyfriend, and snickering. I wonder what’s funny.

I can go on and on about similar experiences, but maybe I should reserve that for another time. For now, I am satisfied that although I am the odd one out here in Bor (the only Filipino, a woman at that), I am treated the same way a respectable Dinka is treated.

4 Comment

  1. It's amazing how much life varies from place to place. I tend to see us as all essentially the same, which I believe we are–at the core. Yet all of the external stuff–traditions, beliefs, views of the world and people–these things are so different from place to place.

    I'm glad you chose this blog to add to The Writers' Post this week!

  2. Sounds like a wonderful opportunity! You must have made quite an impression, marriage proposal and all. Thanks for sharing.

    Joyce
    http://joycelansky.blogspot.com

  3. What wonderful experiences. Glad I found your blog via The Writer's Post.

  4. Jenn says: Reply

    Oh wow!! These experiences are so unique and something I haven't really experienced since I never leave home. I love that you share these with us–because it adds such flavor to how we see the world. Living it through your words of course!! Thanks for sharing 😉 Jenn.

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