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I Gave Her Rice, Because She Never Asks

In the "Cult of Escapism": I Gave Her Rice, Because She Never Asks

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

I Gave Her Rice, Because She Never Asks

My old lady neighbor (OLN) will probably never understand why I’m so nice to her, even though I told her exactly why. “I’m white, so a lot of people ask me for things, but you've never asked me for anything. And I know I travel a lot and do a lot of strange things but you never, ever ask me any questions.” She smiled, probably not because she understood, but because I was handing her five pounds of rice and some root vegetables.

I know I’m weird to everyone here. And taller. And hairier. And I enjoy answering questions about some of my habits, my heritage and my chest hair (especially my chest hair). Hell, Goal 2 of Peace Corps is cultural exchange. But if someone visits my house, they’re not usually culturally exchanging, they’re usually indirectly asking for something.

Some people come to my house and scan the walls. “How much did that cost?” “Where’d you get that?” “When you leave, what are you going to do with that shirt?” I’m gonna wear it, asshole. And why are you asking how much my machete costs when you have the same one? Panamanians and especially Ngäbes are indirect, but the implication in these situations is always clear: you’re white, so you must be rich; I’m not, so you should give me stuff.

Americans are direct and I’m considered direct by American standards, so these types of comments and questions really bother me. I prefer the kids that walk in, see crackers on my table and say, “Give me those crackers.” Then I laugh and say no and they laugh but stay and talk or play cards.

In contrast, if an adult comes, they may spend 30 minutes talking with me before they arrive at their actual purpose – “I need $5.” Did they actually care about anything we just talked about? It’s likely that they did, but the request casts doubt.

To be fair, I do usually have nicer things and more disposable cash and that is largely thanks to where I was born and the color of my skin. But it’s also because I haven’t accidentally impregnated anyone (five times), so all the money I earn is just for me. And I don’t spend more than I have (usually…thanks Laura, thanks Scott). The point is, the whiteness is significant, but there are other factors and I wish people would acknowledge them, instead of throwing it all up to skin color. Because when that’s the only factor, I feel not like a friend in need is asking for help, but that someone is taking advantage of me. Which is unpleasant.

Additionally, while I don’t usually mind questions about my habits, it can be grating in a small town. “Where are you going?” “Why?” “Why don’t you have any coffee in your house?” “You’re up late today.” I don’t have coffee because I don’t drink coffee and I’m up late because I’m tired and have nothing to do this morning anyway. And neither do you, so why do you care?!


This stuff bothers me less now than it used to, but it can still slip under the skin sometimes.

Which is why I love OLN. I have to pass her house to get to the main road, so she is most familiar with my daily and travel habits. Plus, she’s really poor. As in, everyone here is poor, but even they say she’s poor. And she has never, not once, not ever asked me where I’m going with my huge backpack, what I’m doing, why I’m carrying a bamboo pole to my house, or whether that volunteer that’s visiting is my wife or my sister. She just smiles and greets me and occasionally gives me food for absolutely no reason. She gave me so many mangos during mango season. Damn, I miss mango season. And today she gave me a fish. De-scaled and pre-salted. That’s huge.

So on Mother’s Day last week (which is a national holiday – which sounds good for moms here except most of them end up cooking all day while the men get drunk … so yeah), I asked her what she was doing and she said, “Nothing. I have no food!” Now, this is a common answer (if I’m asking) and is usually an indirect way of asking for food/money. It’s also usually an exaggeration. But her rock stove was dormant and her granddaughter looked at me as if to say, “No, seriously.” I knew she was telling the truth*.

So I bought her food and explained why and I don’t think she got it and probably never will but anyway, if you’re holding a drink right now, raise it and say, “Here’s to OLN.” Because she doesn’t ask questions.

*Ever realize that “lying” is a verb but not “truthing”? Why?


At December 22, 2011 at 3:19 PM , OpenID tragedyannn said...

Great blog! Loving your stories. I also served in Panama ('03-'05) and actually I am a BU alum as well (UNI '03). Thanks for taking the time to share these experiences, they really take me back!


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