Thursday, February 10, 2011

Nice to meet you, I’m a Kyrgyz nuclear physicist

No matter where I go in Colombia, conversations almost always start with the other person asking me where I’m from. Even before I open my mouth to reply and my gringo-tinted accent reveals my foreign origins, my blond hair gives me away.

I tend to be most inundated with this question when I go dancing with Colombian friends in spots rarely frequented by foreigners. When I get asked to dance by an unknown Colombian, the first phrase out of his mouth is always a question about where I'm from. That is quickly followed by a comment on how well I can dance (though without saying what he's surely thinking: that I dance well…for a gringa), then by questions about how long I've been here, what I'm doing here, and if I like Colombia.

After dancing a few songs in which the dialogue is always the same, I often find myself getting bored, if not with the dancing then certainly with the conversation. To spice things up, I’ll sometimes invent a new identity for myself, saying that I'm from Sweden, or that I'm a psychologist.

A couple of weeks ago I was out with some friends and found myself in just such a situation. Returning to the table after telling some guy that I am Swiss social worker (or some such thing), I recounted to my friends about my efforts to amuse myself with these stories. Laughing, we began to invent other, more preposterous stories I could tell, until we settled upon one that they urged me to tell to the next person who invited me to dance: that I'm from the Cauca (a Colombian department known for being inhabited largely by indigenous communities). My interrogator would surely look at me incredulously after such a response, so I was to then explain that my parents were Swedish missionaries who raised me in the Cauca. I couldn't quite muster the courage to tell such a ridiculous story, however, though my friends and I amused ourselves for the rest of the night with the idea of this tall blond girl being Cuacana.

The danger, of course, is that if I claim I'm from, say, Germany, the person with whom I'm talking might actually know a bit of German and I'll be found out when all I can respond is "Guten Tag." Or of if I say I'm a Biologist, he might start talking to me about cellular reproduction, and I’ll give myself away since all I remember from high school biology is that the mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell.

Discussing this conundrum with a gringo friend the other day, we decided that the solution was to pick the most obscure country and profession. So from here on out, I am a nuclear physicist from Kyrgyzstan (what language do they speak there, anyway?). That’s believable, right?

Now that I am in Urabá (where the Peace Community is located) for a couple of months, I find myself again stretching or evading the truth about what I do. Here, however, the motivation to do so is less out of boredom and more out of safety concerns. Here in the countryside, in the region where paramilitarism began, human rights work in general, and the Peace Community specifically, have been so stigmatized (thanks, ex-President Uribe) that it's best to be vague about the work when do when talking to strangers. In official meetings and the like we're of course completely straightforward, but with unknowns, it's much more comfortable to gloss over my work with a vague reference to my work with displaced people. I could try the Kyrgyz nuclear physicist line, but who'd believe in the middle of rural Colombia (let alone in Bogotá). I could probably still pull of Swedish, though...

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