Being a foreigner and living in another country can be taxing. In addition to getting used to how local customs and culture operates, I recognized that I also had a “part” to play. Though I was born in America and hold American citizenship, when people first saw me, they’d assume I was Chinese or Korean. Most Ghanaians do not interact with East Asians in their day-to-day lives.
“Ching chang cong,” Ghanaians would, on several occasions, cheerfully spout at me. Obviously, they didn’t recognize that this type of “greeting” was rather offensive. Furthermore, when I told people that I was American, their faces reacted with disbelief. To them, “American” means “white.” I’d point out that the President of the United States was Obama, a black man; I’d see the light of recognition go off and they’d understand. Well, they would understand as well as a person breaks into a new pair of shoes. After a while, I just stopped trying to explain.
Compounding the feeling of being the Other, I was aware that there’s a fair bit of anti-Chinese and anti-foreigner sentiment in Ghana — and I’ve heard in much of Africa. Those resentments stem from how a) some Chinese firms do pollute the local environment, b) how some Chinese firms treat their workers poorly, and c) how Chinese companies have undercut prices of local products. (Of course, the Chinese are known for behaving exactly the same way in their own country.) Lastly, there has been talk of a new colonialism of the African continent by the Chinese.
(My short comment on all of these concerns is if the governments and people don’t want the Chinese in their country, then just prohibit them from entering.)
Like anything else, “some” does not mean “all.” Despite the nuances, I felt that my other “job” was to show the Ghanaians that East Asians can be good, too. I acted on my best behavior in public. For instance, if I went out to a bar/club, I drank in moderation and never let myself be drunk in public. Or, I never went out alone with black women because I didn’t want people to think I was “stealing their women.” I always went out as part of a family or a group. Lastly, I learned a handful of words so that I didn’t seem like a tourist and showed an interest in soccer and local culture.
Furthermore, I suppressed my standards for acceptable behavior. Ghanaians do not separate the public and the private sphere as clearly as in America. For instance, many a Saturday I would wake up to a neighbor blaring Ghanaian music in anticipation of an all-day funeral or wedding. And once the music was on, I realized I better leave my house because that music would continue until 9pm at night. It wasn’t my place to tell them to turn the music down.
But being on your best behavior all the time can be exhausting. For instance, sometimes when a taxi driver would try to trick me, I had to resist not getting upset.
I couldn’t change the way I looked. I recognized there was a “tax” for being a foreigner. Instead of paying several times the normal rate, I just sent locals to get a quote or run my errands.
There were occasions when I felt that I received special treatment by the police because of the way I looked. It’s a hard thing to prove but it often times felt like they would do an extra-long search or ask more questions because I was a foreigner. The driver of an East Asian friend who was an executive said that he was stopped more often when he drove my friend than when he drove local executives. One way to deal with things was not to go out after a certain time, say 9pm. Other times, to escape all these expectations, I travelled to the countryside or abroad.
There’s a feeling of helplessness and a resentment knowing that you get treated differently because of the way you look.
One of the things I appreciate about white Americans who live — not just travel — abroad is that they subject themselves to a similar discomfort. It’s a shame that these people — missionaries, diplomats, senior executives and their families — are such a small portion of the American population. Having gone through it themselves, they can better understand what it’s like to be the Other.
Photos from Time series “China Goes to Africa”: