#17 Pretending not to see each other
Expat Aid Workers are a brave and daring bunch. Whether it’s roaming the hilly dirt roads of Guatemala, traversing the dry deserts of Niger, braving the crowded rails in India, or joining a revolution in the streets of El Salvador, Expat Aid Workers feel a certain je ne sais quoi knowing that no one from their home country has ever been adventurous enough to experience these parts of the world in the nomadic, non-touristy way that they do.
Take that little roadside market on the way back into Managua. It’s very likely, in the Expat Aid Worker’s mind, that no other EAW, probably no non-native Nicaraguan, for that matter, has ever bought roasted corn from that lady with the 3 missing teeth near the used t-shirt stall. Yet the Expat Aid Worker has developed a little ritual with her. When the EAW drives by in the late morning on the way out to the field in the agency vehicle, the corn lady recognizes her and waves! On the return trip, they chat in broken Spanish while the driver is stocking up on fruits and vegetables for his wife at the other stalls nearby. The Expat Aid Worker knows she is really blending in at times like that. It’s her territory, you could say.
So it’s no wonder that she’ll look away or stare straight through that American dude that shows up at the little market at the same time. “Oh, your husband?” the corn lady might say. “No no,” the EAW will struggle to explain aloud, “I don’t know him. I’ve never seen him. I don’t know what he might be doing here….” We have nothing to do with one another, nothing at all in common… she will continue in her head… I’m a long-timer. I’ve got field cred. He’s probably a short-term volunteer or a tourist or a consultant, here for a short trip. He probably knows none of your customs. I bet you don’t wave at him when he goes by. He’s likely one of those typical Expat Aid Workers types, tromping around, clueless, feeling uncomfortable and superior to the locals. I’d bet he doesn’t even speak the language or really know any local people except for his driver. I’m the one who’s locally integrated. I’m the one who belongs here, not him!
The corn lady might continue to smile at the EAW and point her chin over at the other Westerner, thinking that the two foreigners will acknowledge each other. Nothing doing. They will studiously ignore one another, much to corn lady’s consternation, or in some cases offer each other a nod and a brief, terse smile and look away, just to make the corn lady happy.
Humph. These other foreigners, trespassing on the EAW’s own individual and patented experience of adventure and local living. Who do they think they are? Why do the locals assume all white people know each other, or might want to greet one another with smiles and handshakes, treat each other to a portion of roasted corn and explain where they are from and what they are doing there at the roadside market? Really. These locals don’t understand EAWs at all.