Headed to Namibia (1/31/15)

It is frustrating the responses I get for being from Mississippi, all around the world. Here are some real responses I’ve gotten to the “Which state are you from?” question.

“Like… The, uh, river?” (Rarely said with certainty.)
“What’s that?” (Rarely said with tact.)
“I see you are wearing shoes!” (Yes, I am, in fact, not barefoot and pregnant. Gold star for your observation skills. Now go away.)
Oh, that’s where the slaves went.” (Compliments of a little Irish granny who has lost her filter.)
“I saw on Top Gear they really hate gay people there.” (I can see this is going to be a fun conversation…)
“Like the film Mississippi Burning! Is it really that bad…?” (Ditto above.)
“Wasn’t there a big storm there recently?” (They mean hurricane Katrina, and their sense of time is loose.)
“You can’t possibly be from Mississippi. Where’s your accent?” (At home, which is the same place you left your manners.)
“I’m sorry.” (I wanted to punch the Yankee that said that. Instead I opted to lecture her.)
“I LOVE jazz!” (This is by far the best option.)

However, Ish, (my boss Zena’s friend who keeps the books on the farm in South Africa) gave me a new one as we drove to Bloemfontein. “Isn’t the Ku Klux Klan from there?” I was surprised by this and embarrassed not to know the answer. (It’s Tennessee, I now know.) At the time I said, “either Mississippi or Arkansas…” I must apologize to my second home, Arkansas, for throwing you under the bus. Ish and her husband were driving to Bloem for their granddaughter’s birthday party and offered me a ride so I could catch a plane to Namibia the next day. We had an interesting conversation about race in the southern US with a few comparisons to South Africa. I was not as frank as I wanted to be, but Ish had the most fair opinion I had encountered since arriving to this country.

In the backseat with me was Malephoi, a 10-year-old friend of the birthday girl. We talked about fashion (hair styles, what colors I’ve dyed my hair, which ear piercing hurt the most, favorite colors in general), her Sesotho name and English name (Juliet) as well as how people mispronounce both, learning to swim, and how many countries we can name. She was bright and made for truly delightful conversation. When I clarified that I am from the U.S. and not England like she thought, Malephoi said, “Is Obama really your president? I thought that was a joke.” She told me a mixed race person is called “colored” here, which made me squirm even though it is the correct term.

That night I took a quiz and named 136 counties. I texted Ish to tell Malephoi, who (with much prompting and correcting) named 15 countries in the car. She was so much fun to talk to and learn from. AND she shared her candy. What a Class A Kid.

In Malephoi I had a clever kid to talk to, whose ignorance of Mississippi was an easier obstacle to overcome than a misinformed stereotype or inappropriate question could have been. Sometimes skipping “where are you from?” can pave the way for a proper conversation.

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