Monday, October 22, 2012

Asia dear, is that you?

I have spent the past few months in south east Asia, most of it in Singapore, and some travelling to a couple of neighboring countries. For most part I have not had time much time for reflection, so things happen, but don't get much digested.

Before I came here, I distinctly recall thinking that when I finished school, I wouldn't mind working in Asia if a good opportunity were to come by. Now I am beginning to reconsider, which is a good thing, because this was exactly the purpose of spending some time living in Asia.

Being an African in south East Asia is a funny experience. When I said that I am reconsidering living here you're probably thinking that this is unpleasant. It's not. It's just weird. I can't imagine what it was like for Obama to live here in the 70s, because people here, from adults to children, are fascinated by African looks. I generalize as 'African', but in fact I'm not sure they fully realize that I am African  as the few times when I interacted with gawkers, they seemed to think that I'm Indian (my perpetual hat wearing hasn't helped the confusion). So basically people here are fascinated by any person who doesn't have their facial features and is (often times) darker. This is much like the way Ethiopian kids chase around white people in Ethiopia yelling, "Ferenj, ferenj!" Fortunately here they stare, or at most ask to have pictures taken on their mobile phones (thank god Ethio kids don't have smart phones ... yet!), but haven't so far resorted to yelling names of any sort.

My hair, when exposed, is an object of great curiosity. I have experienced what I have been calling "being petted" on a few occasions, i.e. person reaches out and touches my hair. I know this bothers people, but for most part I do not mind. It's just that sometimes it is very hard to explain to them, when they don't speak English (or Amharic!) and I don't speak the relevant local language, that my hair is curly because I haven't subjected it to any treatment, not the other way round.

There was also the experience of my unidentified Asian adoptive mom, who advised me to sit out of direct exposure to the sun. When I declined and remained seated in my lazy, sunny space, she explained her concern, pointing to my skin, "but you getttin' so dark!?" Yes, Asian-mom, but you see, I was born that way!

I find that growing up in a place like Ethiopia, and having spent too much time in a disinfected sub-continent like the US, I have become too sterile to embrace what my peers consider as normal living experience in Asia. If a restaurant is not spic and span clean, I am reluctant to eat anything that comes out of it that isn't cooked super-dead and sizzling hot upon serving. I want any diseases that can be eliminated by heat to be done so. I also avoid meals that cannot be prepared on the fly, for the same reason I'd rather have shiro or tibs when dining outside in Ethiopia, rather than my regular favorites like gomensiga or doro wot. Habesha dining basics: storage breeds problems! Curiously I have noticed that on the majority Europeans and Americans don't have similar reservations. Ah, the joy of growing up trusting!

I also cannot blindly taste random concoctions of food (so far dining tables where I have been present have hosted snakes, frogs and miscellaneous mysterious sea creatures described as "fish-la!") without first asking for detailed explanation of each ingredient (a severe challenge, given language barriers). As a result, I always tend to order the simplest dishes on hand, like veggie fried rice. Bo-ring! The one time I naively tasted an unidentified innocuous seeming drink, it turned out to be something called "bird's nest", which is basically the wash up of birds' mucus that comes out of a birds' nest. It's supposedly a Chinese delicacy (soup, drink). Seriously, people? Yebuwambwa wuha min godelew?

Finally, there was my experience at one of the region's airports that frazzled me a bit. My Nigerian friend had refused to come along on this trip proclaiming, "Are you kidding me? Those people will arrest me if I was found anywhere in a 100km radius of a drug bust." Of course, I had laughed off the humorous hyperbole, until I tried to skip along the express line of folks who didn't have checked in baggage at a south east Asian airport. Not so fast, Ethiopian. I was stopped by six or so "customs" agents, all men, some of whom happened to be armed and proceeded to frisk through my luggage, item by item. The more talkative one among them asked where I as from, and when I told him he responded, with a smile, "Aytobia! Not many Aytobians coming here! So long as you don't have the drugs, you welcome in my country!". I had heard what he said the first time, but reflexively ended up asking, "What?" Their attention to detail was quite impressive, as they examined each stitch of my hiking boots to make sure that I wasn't hiding drugs in the soles. I was even convinced that I left all my undergarmets behind, as I never saw any coming out for examination during this process (apparently the customs officers are shy, lol).

Anyway, apparently westerners think we're going to seek asylum, while easterners think we're drug dealers.

Still, la vie est belle! Isn't that something?

p.s. This post came after I randomly bumped into this article by an American guy in India. Some of what he says in there had me laughing, though I doubt he was trying to be funny: