Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Weighty Issues

It seems to me that the three most popular topics of conversation here are: Skin color, money, and weight. All three are taboos in the US, and as such, it has been very difficult for me to adjust.

I’ve never been to a country where skin color has been so important. Nevermind the fact that my skin color (which I maintain is yellow, not white, but Rwandans don’t believe me) is often the subject of discussion—even if you’re a light-skinned Rwandan, people talk. You’re lucky if you’re called a “brun,” or a “kazungu.” My friends tell me that women with dark skin are not generally favored by men—light skin is a commodity.

Money, as one would expect in a country where many are poor, is also a hot topic. In matatus, I often eavesdrop on conversations where everyone discusses “amafaranga.” On the radio, it’s amafaranga, amafaranga, amafaranga, genocide, amafaranga. (I only hear discussions of the genocide in public speeches or on the radio.) When people ask how much I paid for certain things, I always lower the price significantly because they don’t understand that the cost of living in the US is much higher. The cheap sunglasses I purchased for $10 make people gasp, because it seems like a lot of money. It is, here, but it’s hard to explain the concept that $10 doesn’t go as far in the US. Then they say that everyone in the United States is rich, which puts me in an awkward position. Needless to say, I try to avoid this topic as much as possible.

I also try to avoid their third favorite topic, weight, whenever I can. Weight is a topic to be lied about or avoided in the United States, but here, people love to tell you you’ve gained weight. Frankly, I find it annoying. Numerous times, people have said to me, “Oh, Morgan, you’ve gained weight. What…2 kilos?” I roll my eyes and chalk it up to cultural differences. Once, a man I hardly knew said that to me, and I told him in return that he was impolite. (I was having a bad day.)

So many people talked to me about weight that I started to believe that it was a national obsession. But then I asked Angelique, the woman who works at my house, whether being told you had gained weight was a compliment or an insult.

“Oh, a compliment, definitely,” she said, to my surprise. “Because if you’re losing weight, people will say you have AIDS!” Oy. People say that when you gain weight after marriage, you are becoming more beautiful, because you’re more “womanly.”

This information clarifies a lot for me. My weight has fluctuated, but even when I had lost a great deal, people would say that I had gained weight (which was, as you can imagine, really annoying). But now, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s the exact opposite of the US: in the States, people lie and say you’ve lost weight. Here, they lie and say you’ve gained!