That's what was being whispered all around Elanor and me when we went with our church women's group to go river bathing on March 5th. Sometimes in English, sometimes in Sinhala, but whispered, nonetheless. Once people realized that we were there with a large group of our friends, and that we were not there to gawk at them like some other foreigners who passed by, we were quickly included in the fun and games, and yes, even the bathing. This is the way I like to travel, fitting in as best we can, joining with our friends in their ways of doing things, learning about their culture by taking part in it.
I don't blame them for their hesitation at the beginning. After all, we could just easily have been like most others, there to gaze at the natives like they were some sort of exotic specimens there to be studied. I have seen similar situations countless times.
In Pond Inlet, we went to a feast at the community hall shortly after we arrived. We sat on the floor - like everyone else - with a couple that we knew, and sampled the food and tried to blend in. Two other couples stood on the sidelines, sometimes taking pictures, and making comments such as "I can't believe they're eating that", "That looks disgusting", and "People back home are never going to believe that this is what they eat." Pretty soon, we found that we were the only new 'Southerners' or Kablunaq (literally: bushy eyebrows, in reference to the Scottish sailors who first visited the Inuit in modern times) who were being invited to community feasts. (There were a couple of long-term white residents as well.) Others sometimes showed up if they found out about the feasts, game days, and dances, but someone always made sure that we knew about them. Sometimes we would be listening to the local radio station in Inuktitut, would hear our name mixed in among the announcements, and sure enough, within a few minutes we would have received several phone calls and a knock on the door, telling us of some community event.
This was especially apparent after a confrontation at the local 'mall'. I had gone to the Co-op store to get a few things. A woman approached me and said, "I don't think it's very nice of you to make the teachers do so much work!" Confused, I asked what she was talking about. "Your daughter is at our school and her teacher doesn't have the time to teach our children and then to teach your child everything again in English!" I replied, "Well, actually, the teacher is not teaching everything two times. I told her that we wanted Amber to learn Inuktitut, and to not teach her in English." "You want your daughter to learn Inuktitut?" was the incredulous reply. "Your son has to learn English. Why shouldn't my daughter have to learn Inuktitut?" I countered. By the time we left two years later, Amber could read primary books and write journal entries in Inuktitut, using their syllabic alphabet with thirty-nine characters. We found out later that with the exception of two families that were basically life-long residents and a principal's daughter, every other white child in the community had been home-schooled.
In China, I spent the summer in Beijing. Other members in my group traveled around China when our teaching was finished, spending a day here and a few hours there. I stayed in Beijing. Most people spend four hours going through the Forbidden City on the short tour. I spent thirteen hours there over a two day period, and when some of the workers noticed that I was interested in all the little details, they made sure to point things out to me and explain how things were built. At the Summer Palace when I showed an interest in how the ponds were built and other "non-tourist" items, people refused to believe that I was foreigner and could not speak fluent Mandarin, but could not figure out why I was white instead of 'yellow' (their word, not mine). Then they decided that I must be Russian and insisted on speaking Russian to me. I saw things that literally no other white person had seen, such as a small house museum in honour of a famous Chinese writer. In fifty years, I was the only non-Chinese who had visited. I know this because the curator checked the log book while I was inside, a logbook going back to the opening day, and in which every person who had ever visited had signed in with their full name and address. When an old woman that I knew found out the types of places I was seeing and the types of things that I was doing, she and a local teacher we both knew arranged to have me move to a different hotel. Four stars just off Tiananmen Square was not too shabby, especially when it ended up costing me nothing. The hotel was owned by a man whom the teacher had taught English classes to, and when he found out that I was interested in learning about 'real' China and not just 'tourist' China, he refused payment.
When we went to Muthurajawela, we saw a different type of foreigner, the kind that tries to get every last penny out of a people who are already poor. The entry fee at the marsh was about 1000 rupees per person, but about half that amount for children. (It works out to about $7.50 each for a two hour tour, with personal guide, boatman, the boat, and gas. Similar excursions back home typically begin at $50 per person.) When another couple heard that Elanor was getting the child discount, the husband quickly quipped, "Hey, my two kids are children too! They should get the discount, too!" and his two children chimed in. I am sure he was joking, but when you don't speak English well and are used to being taken advantage of, it creates awkward situations, especially when the 'children' in question are obviously in their late teens. It's a difficult situation for people to be in. Do they treat it as a joke? Maybe he's not joking. Do they give the customer the benefit of the doubt? What if he then tells everyone and they demand discounts? Do they say no and perhaps lose that business? Do they say yes and then take a loss for that tour in order to keep the customer happy? Did they actually understand what was said, given that English is a third language for most people?
We see it in the stores, too. We are used to getting charged the tourist price, although some of my regular places now charge me less. At one vegetable stand that I frequent, I used to get charged 100 rupees (76 cents) for a particular vegetable, still only a fraction of what I would pay back home. Then I was charged 50 rupees (38 cents). Two days ago I was charged 30 rupees (23 cents). Another day I bought two dresses - one for Elanor and one for me - for 2400 rupees ($18.18). I knew I was getting charged more, but back home this would have cost me $40 for Elanor's dress alone. At the same time, another couple in the store were haggling over the price of the two dresses they were buying. I stood there at the counter as I listened to them haggle back and forth, trying to get every last rupee they could out of this shop owner. Their dresses started at 2400 rupees, too, and they managed to get it down to 2200. I could have done the same, but honestly, the $1.51 I would have saved was not worth it.
People notice things like this. As we were leaving the store, the woman stopped me and said, "You didn't bargain." I said, "Did you give me a fair price?" "Oh, yes," she replied, "I give you morning price. Morning price always cheaper. I no make enough money, evening price is higher." I smiled and told her we would be back when we were ready to buy more. She then went over to the cabinet full of purses that Elanor had been eyeing the entire time we were there, pulled out a few and asked Elanor which one was her favourite. When Elanor told her, she presented it to her. I took out my wallet again, and was quickly told by both her and her husband that it was a gift, and that when we come back, we would get the morning price or better even if it was evening.
When we went to the natural area in Kandi, Steve was signing us in at the entry gate and paying the entry fee. He began speaking to the woman in Sinhala and mentioned that we were here for several months. After conversing for several minutes on a variety of subjects including what he was doing in Sri Lanka, she asked him what kind of visa we had. When she found out that we had resident visas, our fee dropped from 600 rupees ($4.55) per person to just 30 rupees (23 cents) each.
A third type of foreigner that we have seen is the type that smacks of the old colonial attitude. When our order came during breakfast in Kandi, the bread was not toasted. We just assumed that there was a miscommunication with the waiter or a misprint in the menu and didn't think anything of it. As we were eating, an older man sat nearby. The waiter approached him and the man started talking. He didn't want anything on the menu, he just wanted toast, orange juice and coffee. The waiter looked unsure and asked again what he wanted, as he pointed to the menu. The man repeated himself, then added, "Is that slow enough for you? Do you understand?" (Remember that while many people here speak English, many do not. That is why in restaurants with menus, you order by pointing at the number next to what you want to order. That way there is no confusion.) The waiter again pointed to the menu, which, incidentally, has a note on the top that tells patrons to "Please order two hours early to avoid disappointment". The man very loudly said, "Get me a manager immediately. Do you understand? I want to talk to your manager immediately, and he better be able to speak English!" The poor waiter ran from the room.
A few minutes later, the manager came in and asked what the problem was. "Your waiter does not speak English. That is the problem. I told him that I just want toast, orange juice and coffee for my breakfast, and he cannot understand that." The manager replied, "No problem, sir. I will bring you some bread..." "Toast," the man interrupted, "I. Want. Toast." "There is a problem, sir. I cannot bring you some toast. Our toaster broke this morning. But I can bring you some nice fresh bread." "Well that doesn't help, does it? Having a broken toaster is not very useful, is it?" "I am very sorry, sir, it just broke this morning." "Can you get a new one?" Silence. After all, it was 7:30 in the morning. "Well?" "I will get you some toast, sir." "That wasn't so hard, then, was it?" was the response.
The kind of foreigner you are while traveling can have a big impact on the way that people treat you. Steve and I have both seen this during our travels separately, and now, together. For both of us, it has led to some amazing experiences as people share their lives with us. For Steve, it has meant being welcomed into homes wherever he has traveled. The last time he was in Sri Lanka, it meant becoming welcomed into a Tamil fishing community as well as his church community. This time, he is garnering respect among the gypsies of Sri Lanka. He met with a family last Friday and Saturday. They were very reluctant at first, and told the tuktuk driver that they couldn't help because they don't speak English. "No problem!" the driver replied. "He speaks Sinhala!" They quickly welcomed Steve into their home, and after a discussion about what his project here actually entails, they are eager to help him because he wants to actually learn about their language and culture. So eager, in fact, that early Sunday morning the father called Steve to find out when he was coming back and to make sure that Steve knew that they want to help him, and that Elanor and I are welcome too.
Looks like Elanor is in for yet another huge culture shock.
We can't wait.