Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Walking Traffic Hazard

In a town of 300,000 locals, I am almost the only white person. We are way off the tourist route, so even if I weren't a foot taller than the local women and blond, I would stick out just by being white (and a totally incompetent cyclist). Everyone stares. Little kids point. People call out as I cycle by, or honk and holler as they overtake me on my bike (which is just plain scary when they are driving a large, loud garbage truck). Yesterday, a guy on a motorbike, with his wife on the back, buzzed by me, yelled hello and waved, at which point his wife started whacking him on the head. A woman cycled past me tonight, looked over, did a double take, and was so startled she swerved into opposite traffic.

Cathy and I were sitting in the local Coop Mart (a very hip place to be and much like a walmart), chatting and eating jellies, and everyone who walked by stared at her as much as me. I am really accustomed to sticking out when i travel, but she blushed elegantly at the attention and asked how it felt to be an obvious minority. I hadn't been thinking about any of this - I have traveled in places where everyone stared because being a white girl made me, by definition, an infidel and a slut. Here, it feels very positive, but it got me thinking about being different, which has been a pervasive theme in my life, but not one i have thought about in a while.

When I was growing up, my parents chanted to me: "Tall is Beautiful!!" - they didn't want me to feel self-conscious and slouch. They knew I was going to get teased - and I did. But their conditioning worked and despite the slings and arrows of adolescence, I ended up six inches taller than the average American woman, and very happy to be different. But I am human... recently, someone I thought cared about me said, "You would be a '10' if you were shorter and had bigger boobs." Whoa! That really hurt my feelings. Not since I was 13 and the boys called me "The Wall" had anyone criticized my height.

Oddly, sticking out as much I do here feels great. If I were shorter and more generic looking, the people who run the market stalls giggle as profusely when I come in. Although Im sure i will run into some negative sentiment at some point, but so far having people gleeully scream "Hello! Hello!" at me from the sidewalks makes me feel like a celebrity (and a traffic hazard).

The bigger concern is that my coworkers, who are Vietnamese American, more or less pass for
locals. My presence outs them as foreigners, and I am not sure thats a good thing, given the sensitive work they are doing.

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