Friday, July 10, 2009

Soy Gringa?

My Guatemalan home, Queztaltenango (AKA Xelaju or just Xela to mot everyone), is second only to Antigua in its number of Spanish language schools. As such, it's easy to find--and in fact difficult to avoid--other foreigners. During the day I see teacher-student pairs wandering the streets on field trips to museums or local markets. In the evenings the gringos flock to the bars and restaurants that promise vegan delights, relatively cheap local beer, and where even the "comdia tipica" is too expensive for the average Quetzalteco.

As per usual when traveling outside the US (or inside the US for that matter), there's something amiss about my inclusion in this grigo subculture. In my mind I'm just as foreign as the rest (if not more so due to my dismal Spanish) but my dark hair and skin raise eyebrows and questions. When I pass white people on the street, they look me up and down, unsure whether it's appropriate to say "hello" or "hola." My clothes scream "America" (today I'm wearing hiking boots and North Face pants and carrying a Nalgene), but something--i.e. my melanin--is off.

The Guatemalans themselves seem to err on the side of "foreigner," perhaps because of my clothing or perhaps because their more well trained eyes know that my dark features are hardly Mayan and unlikely to be Central American. Still, I have been stopped twice on the street for directions (fortunately, my Spanish teacher was with me and stepped in to relieve my deer-in-the-headlights state). At my Spanish school a teacher noted that there is a student here with a Latino last name and inquired if I am her. Americans and Guatemalans alike want to know "Donde eres?" but are unsatisfied with the idea that San Francisco could be the ultimate answer (explaining my Michigan childhood is also insufficient).

Of course this is all a blatant reflection of what it means to be American, and of course this is not new information. At times I sometimes feel lucky that I can theoretically blend in more than your average white girl, that I can theoretically engage more fully in my immersion experience. A woman from Arkansas shared with me her jealously that I can probably walk the streets more safely because "they" are wouldn't see me as a foreign target for crime. (Don't worry, parents. Even if I did agree with her, I'd see that as no reason to let down my guard. I mentally placed her thoughts in the same category as the frequent comment that I'm so lucky I don't have to go tanning). There may be advantages that come from traveling with brown skin in brown-skinned countries, but then someone is disappointed when I can't understand Spanish and can't dance salsa and it's just another reminder that once again I don't fit in in the way it's expected.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Geetha, thanks for you describing your experiences there. I am enjoying this so much!

Aunt Char