Most folks in Mwambo haven’t seen many white people before. This usually just means that the kids are at once excited and terrified when I show up. But that’s not the only amusing consequence of their lack of exposure to my kind: they also often have no idea exactly what I am. About 30 to 40 percent of children assume I must be Chinese, or maybe that Chinese and white people are the same thing. So they shout “Chaina” at me, which I guess is the word for a Chinese person, and also repeat things I said in a Chinese accent, throwing in some “chings” and “chongs” for good measure. I actually consider it kind of an honor – who knew I could pass for Asian? – but it would be pretty offensive were I actually Chinese.
Today, a woman out near Lake Chilwa did even better. As I passed by in the project minibus, she shouted “Colored!” at me. In Malawi, “colored” is used the way it is in South Africa, as a term for people of mixed white and African heritage. In the US, such a person would just be considered black, due to the persistence of “one drop of blood”-style reasoning.
Now, I don’t actually look the least bit black. One of my enumerators suggested that the confusion might have arisen from my baseball cap, which shaded my face slightly. But considering my generally dismal failures in attempting to blend in, or at least not be too obtrusive, I see this as a small victory.