The Politics of Piment (Year One)
In Gabon, “bonsoir” comes earlier than I would have expected. By 5:30pm I’m usually walking back across the street from my office at US Embassy Libreville, an hour and a half of year-round equatorial sunlight still left in the day. But the “soir” has less to do with the position of the sun and more to do with a polite acknowledgment by the security team that I’m coming home at the end of my work day. A year into my contract here and that polite deference has yet to stop feeling strange. As I cross the security checkpoint leaving the compound, any well-wishes directed at me end with “monsieur” or “boss” (I’ve learned over the course of this year just how much French is plagued by anglicisms). The fact that I’m a laughably low military rank compared to the rest of the Department of Defense representation, or that I’m almost a decade younger than almost every other diplomat in the country matters not to them. Their instructions are clear. You stand when an American walks in the room. You greet. You salute. You smile.
There are exceptions. The same security team that works at the embassy compound entrances also watches over the walkway entering my apartment building and that location allows them to be a little more informal with me. I’ve made a concerted effort to learn their names. I’ve learned who has a family and who’s a soccer fan, who plays music and who’s going to ask for a few Central African Francs to pay the overcrowded cab or minibus that can take them home at the end of their 12 hour shift. I’ve also become familiar with the young men from Burkina Faso and Senegal who work the grounds of the residence and who, shortly after greeting me in the evenings, are off to find a quiet corner of the residence for their evening prayers. One of my favorite things about this country is that it’s a pan-Francophone African experience. Your Cameroonian cab driver can take you to a restaurant with a Togolese chef and a walk along the beach can lead you to a Malian woman selling fruits on the sidewalk, while a Moroccan takes pictures of you enjoying fresh coconut water. It’s a crash-course in regional diversity. Even in my limited experience, I’ve started identifying some of the different accents and distinguishing facial features. Class plays a role too. Walking down the street, the sun-baked skin and traditional wear of the migrants form a stark contrast to the loosely-coiled hair and lighter skin of certain sects of the Gabonese upper classes.
Those sweeping generalizations are just small tastes of what Africans go through when they travel, even on The Continent. We’re not taught in “the Western World” just how immense Africa is and how different each of its regions are from each other. News reports tell us often of the ethnic violence between tribes or the jihadism coming down through the Sahel. But less interesting to Western media outlets is the large-scale violence towards Nigerian migrants by black South Africans, who claim their arrival is inflating violent crime and depleting local jobs. I have heard multiple stories of Sub-Saharan Africans traveling to the Maghreb or Madagascar and its neighboring Francophone islands, and being asked if “they’re coming from Africa.” Just in Gabon, I’ve learned that one local tribe is viewed as “white” because they were the first to bear children with the colonists and their collaboration is often cited as creating local slave trade. Throughout the large swath of nearly-unbroken landmass that goes from Algeria down to the Congo that is Francophone Africa, there are generalizations made for every variety of person populating a land supposedly united under a common language. So when I find myself lumped in with everyone else who can trace most of their ancestry from Europe, any resentment I feel is quickly quelled by the realization that it’s just my brief window into a centuries-long history of the global marginalization of a diaspora.
So while my concept of blackness has expanded in detail and definition for me, never has my own whiteness been clearer. When asked about my life and my family, I far too often fall back into impassioned pontifications about Latin American history and the cultural identifiers that set my ethnic group apart in the States. I explain that before attending school I spoke only Spanish, that while I’m born and raised in the United States, most of my family doesn’t speak English, and that there are multiple areas of the country where you’ll never hear a word of English (shout-out the security guard in Little Havana who, many years ago, in order to get me to park in a different area next time and without ever speaking to me, left me a note on my windshield written in Spanish). I try to illustrate the profound connection that I have with this region; that people pulled from this coast formed the part of me that grew up with fried plantains and a 3/2 clave. I perpetually have multiple easily-accessed Youtube videos that describe, in French, the vibrancy of African heritage in Colombia. I’m always moved to see the astonishment and the recognition of a common origin between the music of the Pacific Coast of Colombia and the Atlantic Coast of Africa. The locals at the embassy have noted and shown appreciation that my morning greetings and workplace conversation are warmer and more sociable than what they say they’re used to from Americans.
But my biggest surprise about American diplomacy is that there’s effectively no expectation we speak the national language. This is the case even when what’s spoken locally is the planet’s other global language. To be an American abroad is to be both revered for our enormous societal footprint, and mocked for being too stupid to appreciate any culture other than our own. My white face walking near a US Embassy often brings me a “good morning, sir,” even as a response to my “bonjour, monsieur,” with the presumption that certain cultural concessions must be made to Americans. When this happens, I’m often more short in any further conversation than I should be. I unreasonably take it as a judgement of my intelligence and my culture, annoyed that for the first time in my professional life I’m not viewed as “ethnic” in any way. I often find myself clenching my fists whenever I’m spoken to in English, less in anger and more in a ridiculous metaphorical attempt to wring out whatever is so evidently American about me (particularly stupid because this usually happens inside the confines of an American embassy). Still, I’m not completely oblivious. I acknowledge that there exists a genuine enthusiasm for English; people need to practice a language. Throughout my life, plenty of people have indulged me while I worked through the challenges presented by day-to-day conversation in a new language. But this determination to participate in the English-speaking world often spills into impoliteness on the part of others, most notably when accompanied by the woman I’m dating, who doesn’t speak any English. People have trouble believing I could have a romantic relationship in French. So profound is their astonishment that often locals will speak in English while she’s right next to me. Occasionally my insistence that she be included in the conversation will be met with obstinance on their part and instantly all of my linguistic/cultural frustration seems justified. At that point, she’ll usually set the person straight but by then the door is closed on that particular cultural connection. That’s a shame to me.
I don’t want to feel like an outsider. To be a child of immigrants is to always feel like you’re on the cultural outside looking in. I’m a minority in my country of birth and an outsider in my country of origin. That feeling of loneliness leads me to desperately seek recognition for the effort I’m making to understand and appreciate the people I’m meeting. Even more, in my weakest moments, I want the people who already know me to recognize the sacrifices I’ve made to get here. Whether it’s the time and energy that go into learning a new language or the songs of another musical genre, the study of history that helps one navigate the accompanying cultural nuances, or even just the willingness to painfully part with the world I know and the people I’ve loved the most; I want recognition for pursuing something deeper. I can’t always explain what that something is. I just know what those experiences are, that get at me in a way that touches my heart as much as it does my mind. I’m addicted to the energy that people give off when you bridge a cultural gap. Seeing a smile widen and a pair of eyes light up in a person from a far-away place as together you traverse language and cultural barriers to share a moment is my great joy in life. I’ve been remarkably fortunate to have had eclectic experiences. In the monotonous, plodding hours of office work, I often find myself escaping to my mental camera roll of piano covers in France, jazz performances in Japan and playing old bambucos for my grandfather before his passing. Music, language and culture have left indelible marks on my life. Those connections reverberate through time and space. They’ve shaped who I am and left me with a passion for seeing people find their way in the world.
Unfortunately, the intensity with which those feelings resonate within me have the consequence of giving me trouble coming back to reality. I often fail to appreciate the people in front of me in my day to day life. I usually really only miss things when they’re gone. I fear that I’ve spread myself too thin, that I’ve lost any sense of identity. I worry that I’m just a collection of facts and that my obsession with this vague pursuit will ultimately result in me ending up alone. This search for wisdom from the past or work towards an idealized future often stops me from living fully and presently. The current state of the planet doesn’t help. But in a world that makes less and less sense and feels more and more doomed, I can always pull strength from the technicolor collection of faces that have touched my life these past ten years. They’ve become part of the substantial reservoir of human affection that I inherited from an attentive and loving family. I want more people to have that. I want fewer people to be denied it. I want to do my part in helping as many people get there. I just want everyone to see that, starting from our first hellos and through to our final goodbyes, what seems so different about us can never outweigh what is ultimately the same.