The Time I Vacationed with White Missionaries
Pictures on the fridge, big happy family — dog included, Keep Calm and Pray poster, Jesus paraphernalia, an entire collection of board games, from Taboo to Blockus to something called Ubongo. The Govardos had been housing 17 students from their daughter’s college prior to our arrival, and the mom apologizes for not having enough bathrooms.
“Naw, we survived,” tall guy in a denim shirt says, the perfect response; witty, easygoing, charming, not overdone.
Something I could never do.
When people like them speak to me, my brain just somehow has to focus on — don’t stutter, don’t forget key words, make it slightly funny or at least enjoyable to listen to. Because they never seem to simply say things. Every interaction has to be like a performance, complete with occasional apologies, appropriate chuckles and pertinent little tidbits.
So this is her world. White Missionary Christians. All cosy countryside houses and adorable tiny dogs. All hospitality and warmth and smiles, quirky stories shared over cups of tea. Politeness and pleasantness just emanating from their pores. Light music in the background while a lovely dinner is had around the table. Dog walks and pianos in the sitting room and a collection of family friendly DVDs and gospel CDs.
How exactly did I end up here?
I randomly met this girl named Amy at the Christian youth group in Montpellier, France. She was a North American who had lived most of her life as a missionary kid in Niger, West Africa. We went to lunch one day and came up with the idea of doing a vacation together. We barely knew each other, but figured since we were both Christian we had things in common. I also figured she had been around black people so I might get along with her. Living in France at age 20 was my first experience in a predominantly white country, and I was discovering how much racism truly governed the world. We planned a trip to touchdown in Barcelona and London before spending some days at her parents’ friends’ home in Scotland. Her parents knew the family well, having all worked together as missionaries in Niger. Amy and I quickly learned that Jesus was about the only thing we had in common though, and the dynamic turned toxic pretty fast.
The trip didn’t start off great for me. Midway through the train ride crossing the border from France into Spain, I got a vision of my passport still sitting on my dressing table back home. I had one day less in Barcelona with Amy as a result. Then while in London I decided to buy a trolley bag to use in Scotland because my bag was becoming too heavy to carry around. Amy didn’t think it was such a good idea, especially since the bag had a giant Union Jack plastered on the front. She mentioned that Scotland was in the middle of trying to break off from the United Kingdom or something like that, so politically it might be insensitive for me to walk around displaying the flag they no longer wanted to be a part of. I didn’t really care, the luggage was reasonably priced and my arms were hurting. Turns out Scottish terrain is not suitcase-friendly though, what with all the hills and cobblestone pathways. The wheels were destroyed in no time, and I was fuming that Amy was right. We spent a couple nights in an Edinburgh hostel before heading to the Govardos’ house in another part of the country.
Hanging in the bedroom that I slept in at the Govardos’ house was a framed picture of an African woman who looked about my age. She had a pretty smile, her eyes looking at some far away object of her happiness, the child in her arms staring directly into the camera with that intense nonchalant gaze that infants have. The almond eyes gently enhanced by a dark liner, slightly flared nose and thick lips set in skin the color of sandpaper. She was beautiful.
For a second I wished Christianity really was just another lie. Another elaborate deception to keep some people smug and happy on earth and others aspiring to afterlife success. Keep them sucking on the pacifier of The Great Hope, while blundering through a disadvantaged life. But in my heart I knew it wasn’t. And I knew it was an ugly, ugly thought, but I resented the idea that heaven would be filled with all these smiling, comfortable, happy white missionaries.
Ok so they prayed for sick and dying children. But was it ever their own children? In that state? And in the instances that they were, wouldn’t they just fly back to the West, get them proper treatment, care for them in the comfort of their own home? And yet the African or Indonesian or Indian people surrounding them didn’t have these luxuries. Yes, they are there to help. They are there to help because they can afford to be.
You have to be in comfort to willingly place yourself into lack. You have to be in safety to willingly place yourself in danger. You have to know that you are globally respected, trusted and relied on to present yourself as a quintessential white hero. I’m not saying what they do isn’t good, or necessary. I’m not sure what my critique is, if I’m just angry at the fact that they choose their role of savior to people who never chose the role of victim, just had it served to them on a plastic plate.
So yes, they will answer God’s call on their lives, move to the most remote of places, live and work there for a number of years, move back to the West, host dinner parties and game nights, take in their missionary friend’s kids, walk their adorable dog Patty, reminisce on old photos of themselves in the poor country, and thank God that they can have such a wonderful, fulfilling, selfless life through his grace. Then they will get raptured, and watch comfortably from heaven with perhaps the same smug look from earth. Their whole clan would be there, because of their lovely praying grandmother, and they would just live happily ever after for all of fucking eternity.
And where would I be?
A black-conscious, cynical, envious, angry Caribbean girl? I must face it, their life is my dream. And I am still quite comfortable compared to the poor nations these people have worked with. How do the tribesmen feel towards them? Is it really a pure sense of gratitude, like Amy suggested? Is that gratitude never overshadowed by jealousy, envy or even hatred and resentment? If not, I could learn a thing or two from them. To look at those who live your dream, who tend to your dying baby while you look at a picture of their baby all grown up, grinning in front of the university they attend, and you know that yours may never even know the word university.
The tribe woman in the picture, she looked like me. She was one of the few people in Scotland who looked like me. She could have been me. I could have her ancestry. All these “coulds”, “coulds” that would never be certain because black history has been so widely erased and distorted. Her people, my people, deemed savages at worst and primitives at best, a people forever scarred by the injustice of slavery, cursed to start their ancestry from “the enslaved Africans were transported across the Atlantic Ocean…”
They can trace their ancestry to Ireland and Italy and Scotland, go starry-eyed by the tales of bravery and resilience of their oh-so-revered ancient kings and queens, while we were never taught about ours. Where is our ancestral pride? Where are the tales of our great kings and queens? Our pride is like a toddler with an old soul in a bustling adult world. Our heroes are recent figures like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr and Bob Marley. They celebrate the natural blonde hair color of a baby, while we rejoice if our child’s hair is not too kinky. They complain about magazine covers promoting unrealistic beauty, but we must be content and grateful with 1% representation in mass media.
It was when Amy said “This friend of mine once told me that for every question someone asks, you should ask them one back.” That was the dumbest thing I had ever heard, and I was pretty sure she followed that rule. I looked at her, alarm intermingled with disgust etched on my face, before I could stop myself. I knew she saw me looking at her like that out of the corner of her eye, through that veil of politeness that she wore constantly. Did it never get tiring? Being Little Miss Perfect and Prissy? Miss Know-it-all? Miss Champion of Humility? Did she ever take a break from her titles?
She made me feel hopelessly stupid. The questions she asked, directed at some abstract yet somehow relevant fact about geography, history,politics and the like, things I did not know, even about my own country. She had a morsel of information for every subject imaginable it seemed, and could prolong or switch conversation at will. Her questions intimidated me so much I began to dread them. I began to regret not going to all my lectures in college, studying to pass exams in high school instead of studying for knowledge, not googling enough random information. I started feeling, more than ever, that I was only good at languages and writing, nothing else in the world, and I would cling to my talents like a lifeboat lest I drown in the sea of life.
Even things I was sure I knew, when she began her interrogations I would just go into panic mode and my brain would go blank before my mouth blurt out something, hopefully something accurate. Like when she asked which side of the road we drive on in Trinidad. “Left!” I said, avoiding eye contact.
“Oh, like here then.” She sounded surprised.
Part of me felt like she knew the answers and simply insisted on asking me questions just to show up how dumb I was.
Her: “What are the exports of Trinidad?”
Me: “Uh, different stuff like, cocoa, sugar,um, especially in the colonial days…oh and oil because we have oil.”
I would make a comment like: “Chick peas are great, they’re almost like a staple in our food, very Indo-Trinidadian.”
And she would go: “Oh? Do you guys grow chick peas?”
Me: (Confused look, because I’m seriously wondering why she considers this an interesting follow up question.) “Um, I don’t know.”
Her: “Do you guys have a lot of fruit trees in Trinidad?”
Me: (Seriously, do we have a lot of fruit trees on a tropical island?) “Yes, we have a lot of trees.”
The next time she asks me anything annoying like that, I know what I’m going to say. I’ll look her dead in the eye with a straight face and ask, “I’m sorry, do I look like an encyclopedia?”
And she’ll undeniably put on that little innocent/confused expression, furrowing her brows and lowering her gaze, and mutter something like “I’m sorry, I just thought that was something you would know.” And for good measure, to add insult to injury, she would add, “I’m sorry if you feel like I’m badgering you with questions, I’m just really curious.”
To which I would reply either:
A. Well yeah, sometimes you should shut up.
B. Does no one ever tell you it’s annoying?
C. I know, you’re a really smart, really curious person, and I’m just incurably stupid compared to you. So maybe you should stop asking me things.
I did try once to subtly show her that not everyone had the same knowledge as her, believe it or not, when we were sitting on a bed of smooth pebbles, backs against a little stone wall, gazing at the Scottish beach. She had just finished one of her interrogations, and Missionary Mother was off coaxing the dog away from the water, when it occurred to me to ask what her education was like.
“What kind of school did you go to?”
“Well, it depends on which stage of my life you mean. I was homeschooled as a kid, then I went to a public school.”
“Uh, in Niger I went to a private international school, like where all the diplomats’ and missionaries’ kids in Africa go.”
“And what was the education system like for the rest of Niger?”
“It was pretty bad. In fact, the University in Niger was not accredited for a very long time.”
“Ohhh, hm, ok. And then you went straight to private university in the US?”
“Wow. What a varied, top class education.”
People like her rarely say “I don’t know” in conversation. And when they do, it’s never a simple, succinct statement like it is when I say it. It must be embellished, beautified enough to distract and apologize for not knowing.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I really should know this, Oh, I feel so bad, I really can’t tell you right now.”
I suppose this fits into the pleasant conversation more pleasantly.
And when they apologize, it has no meaning, because they apologize for everything, including things out of their control, and things they really don’t need to apologize for. It loses its value, becomes just another word you toss around to make yourself look better. This girl, she apologizes for everything. All this effort poured into being perfectly polite is ridiculous. She reminds me of some little blonde girl in a pink frock and lacy bonnet, straight out of an old nursery rhyme book. Little Miss Muffet who sat on a tuffet eating her curds and whey. Or maybe Piglet from Winnie the Pooh.
It’s a fine evening here in Scotland and we’re all gathering ‘round the table for dinner. Missionary Mom is bustling about, calling her son Isaac for about the fourth time, and organizing dishes of rice, chili, baked pasta, pulled pork and salad. Angel Amy is of course, dutifully helping her and managing to simultaneously maintain small talk. Missionary Dad enters the scene, he is a serene patriarchal presence with his kind yet tired-looking face, easy smile, soft blue eyes and gentle movements. The mom is more of a firecracker, with bright reddish-orange hair to match. She is your typical mom, bare face framed by wisps of hair escaping her clamp, a bit frazzled but nonetheless sweet and accommodating.
We all begin to sit around the table. Little Cory floats in, and he is adorable, with blonde lashes and a bulb cut, somewhat large head and innocent little face. Isaac sort of bumbles in with the hapless gait of the angsty teenager he is, and plops himself down. So begins my glimpse into the glitch in their perfection.
Isaac is quite the handful. Either he’s in the rebellious stages or he simply doesn’t like the whole perfect son trope cut out for him. He was mostly sullen throughout the meal, but when he did speak, he said the most interesting things of anyone seated there. He asked me stuff I actually cared to answer, I chuckled at his comments. The parents were not entertained at all, and Amy did her best to politely ignore his weirdness, but I was completely fascinated. I couldn’t imagine what it was like having your own independent thoughts in this family, and disregarding the script. Mom and dad struggled hilariously to get him to reel himself in, but he paid them no mind. I had heard the stereotype, but now it unfolded before me in real life. Why was it so hard for white people to control their kids?
Later, he locked himself in the room and they took turns asking him to unlock the door, becoming dramatically frustrated when he screamed his refusal. This would never fly in a black household. I myself as a parent would either kick the door down or break in through the outside window. With kids, you gotta scare them a little. Make them know you mean business. The first time you tell them to do something and they say no, you get the belt. After a bit they will realize that no is not the best response. Lots of Caribbean children get discipline beaten into them, for better or worse. But Isaac was gonna come out of that room when he was good and ready. What a stark difference from my own childhood, like when my stepdad took my bedroom door off its hinges so that I would have “no privacy in his house”, all for texting a boy.
But whatever. I now knew how they were flawed. That was all I needed to see.