I’ve mentioned before that I work 6 days a week and have 1 day off each week. Besides my 1 weekly day off, every month I also get 4 consecutive days off to go replenish myself or explore or whatever. I had my first monthly 4 days off in mid-March, from Sunday to Wednesday. It did not begin well.
On the recommendation of my colleague A and a local volunteer, I decided to spend my 4 days on the nearby island of Pulau Weh. To get there, I had to catch a ferry from Banda Aceh. Early on Sunday morning, A very nicely offered to drop me off to the ferry on her bike. We had a nice, cool ride to the port and I was feeling pretty good. I bought my ticket about an hour before the 9:30 am ferry departure so I decided to kill some time by people watching.
As I proceeded down the pier towards a low concrete column that I planned to sit on, near to where the ferry was docked, I became aware of a group of about 10 women plus a few children and a couple of men entering the general area. I continued strolling to my destination, unperturbed when I realised that they were shouting and that likely it was at me. I decided that I was perhaps being too sensitive, sat on the column and peacefully spent a good 10 or 15 minutes watching people go by while pondering my upcoming relaxation time. Then the group proceeded to walk past where I was sitting and, of course, they were all openly staring at me. I did what I do – I stared back. It didn’t seem to really faze them and after they passed me I ignored them and went back to people watching and pondering.
Suddenly, one of the women plopped herself down beside me on the column, shoved herself practically up under my arm, nodded and grinned at me and said, “Picture, yah?” Now, A and B had warned me some weeks before that some of the townsfolk like to take pictures with bule and that many of them won’t even ask permission before doing it, just assuming that us bule don’t mind having our pictures taken. I had not encountered it but since I was forewarned, I wasn’t surprised when this woman took this liberty. In fact, I was slightly amused by it and smiled a little, saying, “OK” and looking towards where a man from the group was already taking pictures of us with a phone. I mean, what was the harm in letting her take a few pictures?
Over the next interminable seconds, the man took what felt like a thousand photos of me and this random woman sitting on the pier. I smiled goodnaturedly through it all…until this woman who I’ve never seen in my life put her hands in my face to pull our heads together for a cheek to cheek shot. Oh, heck, no!
Now, people, I think I’m a pretty easy-going person. I do not lose my cool easily or over stupid stuff. In fact, I have years worth of patience for all kinds of foolishness that other people won’t stand for. But nobody, I mean no-one on God’s green Earth, puts their hands in my face unless it’s my husband who’s about to kiss me….and I’m single, so that means nobody puts their hands in my face.
I reacted instantly. I pushed her hands out of my face and said loudly and emphatically, “No! Do NOT put your hand in my face. You can take pictures but you do not put your hand in my face.” Apparently, reading body language and tone of voice is not something she does at all; she smiled and nodded at me and continued to have the man take pictures.
By this time, the other women and children in the group were crowded around us, gawking at me. Not only was I now irritated but I was beginning to feel distinctly uncomfortable and I wasn’t sure exactly why. I figured it out really quickly when the first woman got up and a second woman took her place. This one also smiled and nodded at me and had the man snapping more pictures. Then she followed her friend’s example and put her hand in my face too! Oh, snap!
I had the same reaction, “No! Do not put your hand in my face!” And this woman just kept smiling at me, not caring that I was now beyond irritated and just plain angry, because I now recognised what was causing me to feel uncomfortable. I felt like a monkey in the zoo. That was literally what popped into my mind in that moment: “Blessed Lord Jesus, these people are treating me like a performing monkey in the zoo.”
I looked at the people surrounding me, gawking at me, and my eyes connected with those of a girl in the group who looked to be in her very early teens. And all she did was stare at me like I was an oddity, like she was waiting to see what my next trick would be. In that moment I thought, “So this is what the face of ignorance looks like.” [I struggled with whether I should have written that word ‘ignorant’ here but it was my honest-to-goodness thought in that moment and since I am conveying what I was thinking and feeling while this was all unfolding, I decided not to edit this thought.]
I had had enough. I got to my feet, quietly said goodbye and walked away. I still don’t even know why I did them the courtesy of saying goodbye; maybe to indicate that I was done and for them not to follow me, maybe because courtesy is just ingrained in me. I truly do not know why I said it.
As I retreated from them, I wondered why I felt hurt. Yes, I was angry but I was also deeply wounded. I didn’t know these people so how could they have the power to hurt me? I realised that my humanity felt hurt and that hurt my heart. Why should I be made to feel like the latest attraction at the zoo, to be talked about and pointed at just because of my skin colour? It cut me deep that these people seemed to have looked at me and not seen that I’m an actual human being with actual thoughts and actual feelings; I have never in my life felt that way. In my mind, I lashed out and thought what I couldn’t say to them right there, in their own town standing on their own pier trying not to offend anyone, although they did not care about not offending me. I’m almost ashamed to say that I thought how ironic it is that I will have and do and be more than these offensive, gawking women will ever have or be or do but they had the gall to be treating me like a pet. I know that makes me as bad as they are, looking down on them for their behaviour the way they were looking down on me because of my Blackness, but it’s honestly what I thought in that moment.
I decided to go stand near the gangway onto the ferry so that I could watch my back, sides and front because now I felt vulnerable and mistrustful of the people around me, on top of feeling angry and hurt. Eventually, the women wandered off somewhere and I got on the ferry to Sabang, but I took their wound with me in my soul, where it will surely leave a scar when it heals.
The experience changed me a little, made me a little more cynical about the local people around me. I’m working on that because cynical is not who I am and it’s not who I want to be.
At the end of all this, I come away with the hope that I never again allow anyone to make feel less than human. And I pray, God, that I never do something like that to another human being.