Thursday, September 2, 2010

Receiving the "oh you stupid American" look

In some ways I am very careful and almost paranoid and then in other ways I am way too naive and trusting. I am finding it very difficult to choose which behavior to exhibit and when. Overall, I feel very safe and I love the people here. They are kind and helpful and I feel a wonderful energy from everyone I have met. I encounter so many people on a given day from the lawn guy, to a neighbor, to a grocery clerk and I am always amazed how guarded they are initially until I smile and say "hi, how are you?". Then in return I receive a huge smile, a warm "howzit" and a genuine connection is made. There is clearly still in invisible line between not only races, but classes and cultures here.  I am trying desperately to appear as if that division does not exist in my mind and that I live in the la-la land of equality and integrity! But that being said being charitable and kind can also be interpreted as being stupid and naive and I am ever weary that I might be taken advantage of.

We recently visited Hartbeespoort a beautiful town built around a massive dam (probably one of my favorite locations near Johannesburg to date). While we were there we went to a great flea market with African crafts. Trent and his friend Chris took Anna and his daughter Emily to walk around while me and Chris's wife Mandy and Aiden walked into the market and started browsing. Immediately, we were approached by a man, who having been trained in the art of sales, began convincing us how wonderful each item we looked at was and how we must have it! "Oh, you like this picture it is made from banana leaves", "look at this elephant it is made from ebony and is solid as a rock", etc. He then promises a fair price for all the items you may have touched and the negotiations begin.  My favorite part was after they give a price, which is obviously outrageous, and you say "no, thank you", then you get the "how much would you like to pay" or "how much do you think it is worth". After the price is settled and the money is paid another man suddenly appears and takes your goods "to wrap them" and now you have no choice but to follow him to his little section where the high pressure sales begin all over again.  The part that makes all of this even more unsettling is they are clever enough to have told you their names and asked for yours. A relationship is established and some small talk is made. Then the heart wrenching sob stories begin about how the giraffe mask was carved by his own two hands and this is his livelihood. And that is when I feel the looks of the 5 other sales people waiting to take me to their booths. They are all smiling and laughing with us and in their eyes I see desperation mixed with cunningness and that can be a painful combination for someone with a bleeding heart like myself. I so badly want to treat these people as fellow human beings. They too are just trying to make a living to survive in this world. But then there is this part of me that thinks "I am not a sucker,  I will not let you take advantage of me". So what do I do. I compromise. I buy the giraffe mask, which I know Toe-mas (this is how he pronounced his name) did not make with his own two hands because it has clearly been mass produced, for a slightly inflated price and then head towards the exit only being convinced to stop at one more place on the way where I buy a bowl! Fortunately, I love everything I bought but the experience of buying it was overwhelming and left me feeling swindled and anxious. My friend Mandy, having the same experience, jokingly said "if all my shopping experiences were like this I would be cured of shopping!".

I received the "oh you stupid American" look just a few days later while I was shopping at the local Pick N Pay (their version of Walmart). I placed my purse in the front part of the cart where a baby would sit, as I always do when I grocery shop (I know, I know). While I was trying to find Lipton Onion soup mix, which they do not have here, a man came up behind me and said "excuse me". I wasn't sure if he was talking to me so I hesitated before I turned around. When I finally did, I saw that he was in fact talking to me and he was an employee. The man introduced himself as security and then said "your purse". My heart started racing. My initial thought was he thinks I have stolen something. I responded with "yes, you can see my purse." He then said in his thick accent, "you need to keep your purse on you, I could have easily taken it". I was both relieved and alarmed at the same time. I wasn't being accused of stealing but I was being accused of being a moron. I saw the look and felt about 2 inches small. I hate that we live in a world where I can't leave my purse in the cart while I shop. I know I shouldn't be so foolish but I like to still believe that people are inherently good.  I guess the fact that I am surrounded by electric fences and security men at every store entrance and in every parking lot should be an indicator that this is just not the case!

This incident and others have made my skepticism rise. I do not like the ever increasing feeling of hardening inside my chest. When my house cleaner tells me her husband has lost his job and she is supporting the family, I want to believe she is telling me because we are now friends, not because she knows I will give her a bigger tip. When the man on the corner asks me for any amount of change I can spare because he is hungry I want to believe my money is going to feed him. And when my kids play in the park with some of their new friends I want to believe that they are making an impact on these future adults that we are not stupid Americans, but genuine, caring individuals who believe the best in people.

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