I’ve always enjoyed observing people and culture. Wherever I live and wherever I travel, I seek to watch, listen, ask, notice, and take in the way people live, interact, eat, barter, fight, love, work, and play. I try my best to “blend in” by the way I dress and the speed at which I walk and talk (who am I kidding? I will always be a fast-talking American!), and truly enjoy being able to take in my surroundings as an unobtrusive presence. This has enabled me to observe and absorb, to enjoy many a culture without dealing with the really positively or the really negatively charged associations that my Americanness or whiteness or womanness could carry in certain cultures.
Every ounce of this is unquestionably out of the question as a white person in Nigeria. Particularly in Ife, where there are approximately zero white people. Side bar- when I was first here and mused aloud that it was odd being the only white person around, the people I was with turned to me and in all seriousness said, “Oh no no, you’re not the only white person, there are plenty of white people. Many students from Japan and China. You’ll see.” Ok, I stand corrected. End side bar. Here, for the first time in my life- at least on a day-to-day basis and for a prolonged period of time- I have gone from the observer to the observed. I have gone from neutral to completely charged, and it is literally impossible for me to be an unobtrusive bystander anywhere I go.
And it is very, very strange.
I knew this would happen. But there was no possible way to know how it would affect me. I thought about it, talked about it, prayed about it. Would I be totally fine with it? Would I have a sense of humor about it? Would it make me self-conscious? Would it make me want to cry? Or scream? Or retreat? Knowing myself, all were possible, and all were plausible.
The fact is, after being here two months, the answer is all of the above. Today, when the 78th college boy undressed me with his eyes while I walked around campus, I wanted to cry. A few days ago, when a guy asked for my “personal assistance” on his application for a research position in the department where I’m working (read: getting him the job) I wanted to scream. Last week when a security guard hollered out “Queen of America! Get me a visa to your country!” I laughed out loud in front of him. Some days I’m totally fine with being stared at everywhere I go. Some days I’m self-conscious and want to retreat to the privacy of my house. Most days I’m happy to meet new people and genuinely appreciate when strangers come up to talk to me. Some days I am skeptical of everyone’s intentions and genuinely want to walk across the room to inform strangers that it’s unethical (and rude!) to take a person’s picture without asking first.
I’m not saying any or all of these are right responses or even the best ones. I’m not defending or justifying these reactions. I’m saying, for better or worse, this is what it’s looked like (for me) to go from observer to observed.
I think what is hardest for me is not being able to simply sit somewhere and watch what’s going on. Not being able to sit on a park bench or at a coffee shop (not that there are either of those in Ife) and just observe people simply living life. Not being able to walk into a new situation or place and “scope it out” to learn what to do, where to go, or who to talk to. The moment I enter a store, restaurant, bus, classroom, or party, everyone turns to observe me simply living life and to scope me out. And they continue to do so as long as I am there. Unless it’s a three-hour church service- by then people are tired of everything, including the new white lady.
I by no means say this to brag or boast, and it is also by no means an exaggeration or me being melodramatic. It is simply my daily experience. I’m sorting through it and dealing with it day to day, praying for the grace and wisdom to have a sense of humor about it all and to find my identity and comfort in Jesus. Some days I live this out well, other days less so. Regardless, each day is a new day and with it new mercies and new opportunities to grow and learn. While I don’t get to choose to be an observer rather than the observed, I do get to choose whether or not to be loving and patient, joyful and kind. I pray God will grant me contentment with the choices I do have and the grace choose well.