Every now and again I like to do these little social experiments. Gotta keep things interesting, right? My latest stunt – wearing a traditional Cameroonian bubu on my travels home. Just to clarify, a boubou is basically a pair of pajama pants worn with a mid-calf length dress, same color, mine happened to be baby blue. Topped off with a checkered scarf and leather shoes. Super chic.
There were two reasons why I decided to put on this outfit before embarking on my long trek to Pennsylvania. Number one, they are the most comfortable clothes I own, not to mention that they look way nicer than most of my “western” clothes. Hand washing and intense sunshine have not been kind to my cotton apparel. Reason number two, on the other hand, is a bit more philosophical. Hear me out.
I wanted to see what the dynamic would be like if I traveled from Africa, a place where I stand out racially but attempt to fit in with the clothes I wear, to America, a place where I am among more white people, but where I would be stylistically alone in my Cameroonian boubou. In short? I wanted to toy with people’s comfort levels and, I guess, start rattling their cultural perceptions and tampering with the racial spectrum of “black” and “white”. What was I visualizing? People coping with their confusion by spontaneously launching themselves into a flash mob performance of Whitney Houston’s “It’s not Right but it’s Okay.” Ahem…
It is worth noting that I did not foresee myself getting delayed in New York thus lengthening this experiment into a 36 hour ordeal. I suppose I did have more time to collect data. What did I find? Well, I found that I felt much more at ease while I was in the Cameroonian airports and to a certain extent, Brussels as well. People had a hard time determining my nationality (rightfully so). I received more strange looks than I could count and some losers even snapped photos of me from a distance. That’s right, you heard me, chances are you can creep on me somewhere else on the internet besides this blog.
It was sort of humorous to see people clearly avoiding me in the seating areas, especially in the states. All the chairs in our gate to Detroit, and later, Pittsburgh, were full except for the one seat to my left and the one seat to my right. I myself felt torn because normally I would offer up my seat to someone who clearly wanted to sit but, in the same breath, they had their choice of places…I just so happened to be the limiting factor in both cases.
The flight attendants and even the other passengers on my flights, internationally, didn’t really seem to be phased by my appearance. Airport security, specifically in New York’s two airports, on the other hand, got all up in my grill. Most thorough security pat downs of my life. At one point the officer asked me if I would feel more comfortable going into another room for more privacy from the other travelers. My response, “nope, I’m good here” (side note: In hindsight, what I should have said was “excuse me sir, at least buy me a drink before you start talking to me like that!”…next time). Speaking of which, I recently heard that it is now perfectly legal to strip completely naked at airport security to expedite the process, or I suppose, only if you are called in for “closer examination”. Curses! It is times like this that I wish I was more comfortable with taking my clothes off in public. That would have been a cross-cultural/paradigm shifting experience for everyone in the terminal to remember. Upside is my parents would have been able to see me sooner…albeit on the evening news.
Bringing it back – I understand why I got special treatment from TSA; I was wearing 5 yards of fabric. But it was the unnecessary glances of distrust or the inadvertent looks of disapproving concern that rubbed me the wrong way.
I broke down for the first time soon after arriving in JFK. There were just so many people and the terminal was constricting. I’m pretty sure that I made a phone call to my mother from a payphone before temporarily shutting myself into a bathroom stall. Talk about your womp womp moments.
But in the end, everything worked out as I hoped it would – I was wearing a conversation starter and some Americans just can’t help themselves. Sure, some Hassidic Jew mistook my garb for a different branch of Judaism and tried in broken English to borrow a cell phone I didn’t own, but more formative were the conversations I was able to have with the few women around me waiting for our soon-to-be cancelled flight to Pittsburgh.
Goal number three of the Peace Corps states that we, the volunteers, are meant to transfer the culture of our host country, for me, Cameroon, back to our friends and families in the states; it’s the whole cross cultural aspect of my life. Well, what better way to have great conversations about the Peace Corps, Cameroon, and development with Americans than to sit down with a bunch of strangers in some crowded airport while wearing an African dress and just start answering questions.
Up until my trip home, I had addressed this third goal of the Peace Corps through letters, my blog, phone calls, and the occasional email. But I have to admit, it was sort of awesome to make people feel noticeably uncomfortable in a public setting. Loved it.
I am already brainstorming new ways to take this experiment to the next level during my next flight home. I’m thinking, this time, more fabric…and probably a hat.