[VTP writer Jennie Le recently returned from Tanzania on a volunteer mission with United Students. Below are the reflections of a Vietnamese American woman’s first experience of Africa.]
I never thought I would ever say this, but I think I know what being white feels like. While this was not a thought that had crossed my mind before my trip to Africa (really, I don’t spend my days pondering the lifestyle of a caucasian female), being in Tanzania made me definitely feel like the “other”–as in not Tanzanian, as in white.
Upon my first day of arrival, a fellow traveler in my group taught me the Swahili word ‘mzungu’ and told me to get used to children pointing at me and hollering this word. I was told the meaning of this word was “white person,” but other sources say it’s defined as “person of foreign descent,” which in Tanzanian terms I am.
However, to the children especially, the only other type of person out there besides African is white. I was told by many of the teachers that the students in the schools I visited have never seen a “white” person (non-local person), and as a result, I was quickly classified as a white mzungu by the students and even the local villagers in remote areas.
I clearly know that I am not white, and being in a traveling group where everyone had blue eyes and light hair, I as an American understood the ethnic differences between us.
Yet strangely enough, because we all faced prejudice as being the “other,” we came together because as a group, we were all stared at, pointed to, and whispered about in the same way. We flocked together as English-speaking, Western etiquette-following, candy bar loving Americans. As my music player slowly drained in power, I even agreed to listen to country music, a genre I had never connected with before because of the intrinsic differences in my experiences and that of the singers. But our love of Pringles, mp3 players, peanut butter, and warm showers brought us side by side. Personally, as a person who questions the role of race and gender in American society, I no longer thought about us in divided terms in Tanzania. We were all Americans who loved the red-white-and-blue flag and couldn’t wait for consistent electricity, drinkable tap water, and pre-set prices.
I’ve definitely learned a lot from my trip and value the new set of feelings I had when I was there, not just feeling white, but feeling grateful, lucky, and privileged to be brought up in a seemingly crappy but mostly great society. Although those thoughts will always stay with me, I couldn’t help but notice that a week after my return, I had already started processing the different class and racial groups I saw in Los Angeles. However, that isn’t to say that I don’t believe in oneness and the ability for all Americans to see more eye to eye, as naive as that may sound.