“Hey you!” The man in the red shirt screamed.
“Excuse me?” I was confused. I was feeling a bit sick and sitting in a waiting room in a doctor’s office.
“Umm, may I help you?”
“Hey you, hey you, hey you…pastor, you told me two weeks ago that I could say ‘hey you’ and you would respond.”
It finally clicked. I had preached at a friend’s church and told the congregation that, though Malawians are big on formal names, they could just call me David, Dave or “Hey You” and I’d answer. So much for living up to my promise.
A good Malawian friend, when first meeting me in September, said I looked exactly like a mutual friend of ours that he had met in July. I laughed a bit and thought, “I’ll take that as a compliment. Tommy is a good looking guy and all, but really we don’t look much alike.”
As I reflected on Amos’s comment, I remembered coming to Malawi for the first time and having a hard time putting names with faces. Maybe it’s just me—but it seems that when you aren’t around people that look like you very often, everyone that looks different looks the same.
The truth is it is a very hard to escape the feeling that we stick out no matter where we go. In church, Hailey and I are the diversity. Even if we try to dress like locals, we don’t really fit in. Of course, unlike some of the villages, there are plenty of other white people in the city. But living in a place where my skin color and type is in the minority has been difficult (and good) for me.
During a game in the last World Baseball Classic a few friends sent a message to a Taiwanese-American friend asking him how he could be at home, pitching, playing the outfield and in the stands all at the same time. It was in good fun, but I’m learning good fun is painful when you are the one who looks different.
We spend a good amount of time with another white American couple. Nathaniel’s work takes him to Liberia. Apparently, in Western Africa the calls aren’t mzungu but a less encrypted and more direct “Hey White Man!” I recently read Neil Pert’s book about his cycling adventures in Cambodia. He writes that it doesn’t matter if you are a white man or woman you are still, “White Man.” Once, after being called white man he yelled back, “I’m more of a pink don’t you think?”
It is tiring hearing the calls of mzungu. In my mind, the term carries all sorts of connotations. I equate mzungu to wealth and the developed world. I think of how people of the West have oppressed Africans for centuries. Insecurities bubble up every time I hear the word. But in their mind it is nothing more than a label. It defines me the same way Malawians are defined as being a part of the chewa or timbuka tribes.
There are times I just want to hide. I dream of assimilating into a crowd at a Padres game or being unrecognizable in a coffee shop. And I know those days will come. But for now, when I walk down the street and hear a mzungu! cry I’m not going to hold back. With big bird ringing in my ears I’m gonna start singing the obvious, “One of these things is not like the other…”