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The grammar of being abroad

January 6, 2009

When abroad, there are some things you say, in your native tongue, that you’d never say in your native land. Today, a mzunugu friend of mine bumped her head against something. “Oh, sorry!” I called. This is what Rwandans say when a person trips or falls or smacks her knee into a table. I know, because I’ve done these all, some of them more than once, and if a Rwandan is around, they apologize to me, as if they had put the table in my way.

What switched in my brain that I “sorried” my friend, I have no idea. It’s innocent enough, but there’s another construction that leaves me uneasy.

I went to exchange some money today, and I’d heard from friends that there’s a guy in town with a rate 5 francs higher than most anywhere else. They refer to him nonchalantly as, “The Indian.” He is, as I have led you to believe, from India. (Where, I don’t know, but he clearly misses it.)

I’m not sure why we do this. “You need to change money? Go to the Indian! He’s got the best rate!” In the States, we’d never say, “You need a good lunch deal? Go to the Mexican! He has $1 tacos!” Perhaps because the offensive stereotypes in American culture don’t link Indians and money….but does that really neutralize the problem?

I didn’t think about this at all until I announced over the phone, “I’m going to the Indian, then I’ll meet you at Bourbon.” Just like that, I turned him into a destination. He turns out also to be a very jolly guy who, if you are nice to him, will give you a caramel.

But no, I don’t remember what he said was his name.

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