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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Worlds Collided

I collided with my old life recently in the form of M, one of those amazing people who picked up his whole life and moved it over the sea, in this case to Japan and then again to Canada, where he spent seven long years struggling against cold viruses, weather, and people, like the immigration officer who singled him out of a large group of students returning from a study trip abroad and sent him off to the special inspection room, or the guy who hired him over the phone then with slight of hand slipped the job away when he saw his black face, or the juvenile dimwit who finished bottom of his class in Canada and found a job in her field on graduation while he cleaned toilets. These stories are hard for me to hear because of the obvious sorrow of the teller, and the fact that he is one of millions, and that he’s talking about my country and there is nothing I can say in its defence. It’s a national shame that most Canadians don’t even know to be ashamed of.

That said, it was actually great to see him. He’s in another tight spot because after 8 years in Japan and 7 in Canada he feels behind his Ghanaian colleagues, yet he encounters the usual demands for a share of all the billions he must have raked in abroad from people in his hometown. It’s the double-edged cross borne by the returnee to Ghana. Even harder is that his wife and children have stayed in Canada for the good schools [though they may come back this spring]. In a twist on the usual remittances from abroad, he sends them part of his salary every month.

He treated us to some banku and beer at a bar/chop called Duncan’s, which is next to the journalists for human rights office and a hub for local journalists, I’m told. We caught up with Mark and told him a bit about our travels and swapped updates on common acquaintances back in Toronto. He’s a kind, brilliant, and principled man; hopefully we will see him again before our departure.

I find myself hardening here, maybe getting a little more attuned to my anger and frustration at certain things. Expressing anger, even being assertive, doesn’t come easily to me, especially with people I don’t know. But of course, the more one is pushed…

The other day three junior high school girls were walking along the dirt road near our house, maybe 20 yards behind me. Predictably, they starting shouting, “Obruni! O!bruni!” I ignored them, like I tend to. They tried again, “Obruni! Hey grandfather!” This had them in fits of laughter so she said it again, and they all started calling, “Hey grandfather! Hey obruni!” I didn’t really get the grandfather comment, but their devious laughter made clear that they were crossing boundaries.

Something kind of snapped in me. I turned on my heal and stared them down, snapped, “You should not be so rude! Respect your elders!” They kind of cringed, scattered a bit, and shut up.

It felt good to assert myself. Does it sound cruel or bullyish to take pleasure in chastising buoyant young girls? Like I said, I’m hardening. You get sick of the constant harassment, and children are the worst. They are also the most innocent and probably mean the least harm in it, and about 15 seconds later my self-satisfied smile faded and I felt bad for snapping at them.

A few hours after that I thought back to it. “Screw it,” I thought. “Those brats knew better than to be so rude.” It’s true. Any Ghanaian would have smacked them without hesitation, so a mini-lecture from an obruni certainly won’t hurt them.

At work I snapped at one of our reporters because she kept nagging me for the only internet connection in the room, while I was researching and writing the lead story. “Are you finished, Chris?” she barked as I walked out of the room so I could hear the person I was interviewing over the phone (it’s impossible in a room full of flirting laughing joking reporters).

“NO!!” I shouted, slamming the door. Luckily, because Ghanaians express their emotions quite strongly, I think I’d have to go to work with a sawed off shotgun and start blasting before anyone would notice I was in a bad mood. My interviewee gave me the info I needed so I returned to the room and told the woman she could take the internet. She smiled sweetly and thanked me as if I had saved her drowning puppy.

What I don’t understand is how immigrants to Canada, who face a far more negative form of prejudice, contain their anger so well. I think of all the immigrants I met through my job, and all the frustrations they had and continue to have, all their struggles just to be accepted and given a fair chance in Canadian society, particularly the workplace, and I am amazed at the dignity, strength, and perseverance with which most of them handle it. Many did express extreme sorrow or anger at their situation, and I’m surprised there weren’t more like that. I’m sure every immigrant feels it because of the intensity of the experience, and unlike me they have planned to come to the new place permanently. Backing out, going home, after picking up one’s entire life and saying permanent goodbyes is almost unthinkable, so even if they regret the decision most are stuck with it. Few return. It must be maddening. I suppose though it’s counter-productive, and immensely difficult, to express what one is really feeling to a professional who you hope will connect you to opportunities.

Back in Ghana, this intensive emotional expression is overwhelming at times, but sometimes it can be quite enjoyable, whether it’s witnessing one of Bossman’s patented rants, receiving a ‘God bless you’ from a grateful driver when you give him some water, or watching that same driver pull a U-turn to buy a dirty white purse with a shy smile and “My wife will love this” as an explanation.

Recently I looked back in awe as Miia gave hell to some young boys who had been tirelessly calling out obruni obruni obruni at us. They had also been playing a game some play, which is to shout out various Ghanaian day names, knowing that many whites adopt such a name (Ama for a Sat-born female like Miia and Kojo for a Monday-born male like me) and hoping to elicit a response.

“Imagine how exhausting it is for me to hear that 200 times a day!” she shouted at them as they giggled and apologized.


Amanda said...

Chris, I so appreciate your thoughtfulness and perspectives throughout your experiences. Having known many of the same immigrants as you in Toronto, (or at least some of them), I can only imagine the challenges involved in keeping such a positive perspective.

I've been losing it now & then as well...seems that having a baby has freed up some of my ability to stand up for myself, and for him. Nothing huge, but it sure feels great when it happens.

Thanks to both of you for continuing with such a great documentation of your experiences. And, hey happy spring!!


benjibopper said...

It's a mom's perogative, assertiveness. Thanks for staying involved from so far away, Amanda!