FUN WITH THE FOREIGNERS
“Like Proust meets Cervantes- with added sex!”
2. The barmitzvah (1984)
For many years I went to bed early, with someone whose name I do not wish to recall. But more of that later.
You remember what happened in yesterday’s rip-roaring rollercoaster episode of Fun With The Foreigners? Yes, that’s right, I said I was going to talk about something that shouldn’t actually be called a barmitzvah, and then I didn’t because I ran out of time. So let’s have another try today!
(Today’s episode is brought to you by Daniil Karms and his Blue Notebook, translated from the Russian by Matvei Yankelevich:
“There was a redheaded man who had no eyes or ears. He didn’t have hair either, so he was called a redhead arbitrarily.
He couldn’t talk because he had no mouth. He didn’t have a nose either.
He didn’t even have arms or legs. He had no stomach, he had no back, no spine, and he didn’t have any insides at all. There was nothing! So, we don’t even know who we’re talking about.
We’d better not talk about him any more.”)
Big school was in the big town, with a large Asian community. I soon made new friends there, without really realizing that there were different “communities”. I mean one friend had a pubescent beard and massive turban, and some people did or didn’t eat different things, but that was nothing special. I had just become vegetarian myself, which a lot of older people found completely alien and baffling. But it was normal to ask for a vegetarian samosa at the school fete, so I did.
When I turned up, aged 13, for a friend’s family gathering I thought of as a “barmitzvah” but was actually a Hindu occasion, I was flattered to be invited into a new world of endless plates of food, women in saris, singing and dancing.
It was noisy, welcoming, affectionate, tactile and uninhibitedly joyful. Grown men danced and laughed, and teased each other. This was new. What was more familiar was the nurturing, flattering women. “How tall you are!” “Thank you for coming- this must be strange for a white boy!” “Do you like sweets? You must try this one! Have some more of this!” Friends’ mothers were to do this to me throughout the Mediterranean for the next decade and a half, until I finally stopped looking skinny at the end of the millennium. “Don’t be shy- dance with me!” This was wonderful, though I was becoming self-conscious at the fuss being made of me. Was I really so different?
On the one hand, I enjoyed the attention. This was a foretaste of people turning round to look at me in southern Europe, simply because I was tall and pale. In Granada when I walked into a shop on my undergraduate year abroad, shopkeepers would screw up their faces in anticipation, as if to say “Oh my God- there’s no way I’m going to understand this guiri and his weird foreign requirements.” But as soon as I opened my mouth and spoke the language, they would relax. It was the opposite reaction to what I get in Berlin now- when I walk into a shop, everyone thinks I look normal, and not at all foreign. But when I open my mouth and alien strangulated noises come out, a brief wave of sympathy crosses their faces, just as when someone notices my bad hand for the first time. “Well, he’s not a foreign foreigner, is he? He just can’t quite speak properly.” My non-white friends here, whose German is almost invariably more fluent than mine, and several of whom have high-flying careers, get treated far worse. One friend who was born here speaks Arabic to her children, and often gets harassed in public places.
The ethnic profiling I have been subjected to has almost entirely worked in my favour. A man did once shout at me in a Ugandan slum: “Hey, white man! You don’t live here. Why are you here?” But his tone suggested he was not so much threatening, as wary of my intentions- and why shouldn’t he be?
I think it was in my time at Oxford that I gradually stopped profiling others. Partly because I grew up, of course- but also because the city itself gently pushed one out of the tendency. I remember seeing Japanese-looking girls two days in a row at the same newsagent’s. On day one it was a confused, tongue-tied tourist looking for souvenirs. On day two it was a UK-born post-doctoral researcher in Physics looking for a hangover remedy. So the ethnic profiling went out of the window. I was offended at the idea of “us” and “them”, of having to “integrate” or “buy the whole package”.
I was getting on very well with a Spanish visiting student in my first year, who was impressed by my Spanish compared to her English, which was frankly incomprehensible. I was the only English person she could actually communicate with, a fact I ruthlessly exploited to try and, er, woo her. Sorry about that. We went back to her place and shared a pizza. Not to make a fuss about being veggie, I just picked the salami off my slices before eating them. She was horrified, and never looked at me the same way again. “What are you DOING? That is NOT a very Spanish thing to do!!” As if my aim in life was not to speak the language, but pass myself off as a Spaniard.
Anyway, on the day that I wasn’t at a barmitzvah, I was aware of being profiled for the first time, and it worked exclusively in my favour. I was spoiled rotten and discovered a new, more colourful, universe, contained within the overcast 1980s Thames Valley of lager louts, Sloane rangers, car showrooms and multi-storey car parks.
But when one of the men gave me a well-meaning warning, I didn’t like the teasing tone with which the others joined in. “Keep away from that table- from the green ones,” he said, pointing at a plate of what looked like vegetable bhajis. “Those ones are not for white boys, ha ha ha!”
“Those ones are not for white boys.” I had only just discovered I was different, and now I was being told my fate was sealed. I would be forever Other because of my colour. So curiosity, pride and a competitive spirit crept in. Within minutes, I was hooked. The only vegetable they contained was pure chilli, and my life was transformed. I won the family’s admiration and acceptance, but more importantly and selfishly, my life was about to get much tastier.
Within days I was amazing my mother by requesting equal proportions of pickle to cheese, and making myself mustard on toast for breakfast. Most western food became too bland for me.
31 years later, I was giving a seminar at the African Development Bank in Abidjan to conference interpreters from all over Africa. At lunch they all politely assumed I would wish to steer clear of the spices. When he saw me adding chilli to my food, a Rwandan colleague took me aside and presented me with a gift: a bottle of home-made akabanga. The name is the Kinyarwandan for “secret”, he explained- and Rwandans carry it with them at all times. The secret is “how to be polite about other people’s food”. You discreetly add a few drops of this Scotch bonnet infusion, which is at least 20 times stronger than commercial chilli sauces.
Rwanda may be a totally foreign country to you. You may never have visited it. But you might just find that when you visit your next-door neighbour, you are travelling like a Rwandan. Don’t worry about it- your secret’s safe with me!