Ethiopians call foreigners faranji, which our local guide tells us means “French” in Amharic.
In rural Southern Ethiopia, where cars are scarce and farmers walk their herds on the main roads, children run after the ten-year-old Toyota Land Cruisers carrying faranji and yell “Ayh-land-ah, Ayh-land-ah” or sometimes just “Ayh-land,” which is their name for the plastic water bottles from which foreigners and rich people drink. “Highland,” our guide tells us, was the name of Ethiopia’s first water bottling plant, which went bankrupt five years ago. The new company, “Yes,” features the slogan “YES for a Better Life!”
The kids from the valley lowlands run alongside the Land Cruisers, yelling Ayh-land-ah. Sometimes they dance, gyrating their bodies in the hopes that foreigners will throw an empty bottle their way. Our guide tells us the children use the bottles to carry their own water collected from a lake or stream, which isn’t always clean, as evidenced in some by their bloated bellies, or else from a community pump, which is cleaner although not still clean enough for foreigners to use, and has often been paid for some faranji NGO as noted on an accompanying large sign in Amharic and English. The locals, our guide says, also use the bottles to carry the local beer made from sorghum. It has little alcohol content and is very filling so that even small children drink it in place of a eating a meal. But mostly, he says, collecting the water bottles is a game to see who can win this trophy from the faranji. Once we learn this, we try to overcome our aversion to throwing our trash out the window and pitch a few water bottles ourselves. It never feels right.
Sometimes the driver slows down, so that the kids catch up with the car, running barefoot at top speed on the smooth tarmac of the roads newly built, in part to bring faranji to their villages and markets. Leaving their sheep or cattle unattended momentarily, they call “Ayh-land-ah” with a saliva-spraying burst of effort and joviality. They raise their hands to the window the way you would to receive a handoff in a football game.
My five-year-old son operates the window controls with one finger. He rolls it down, passes the bottle into the waiting hands, and rolls it back up, with the detachment of a movie star. We scold him, disturbed by this detachment, and worried that it seems rude. It’s okay, our guide says soothingly. You see how happy it makes them. The guide turns around in his seat to look back at the shrinking figures. One boy waves the bottle above his head as he hops back and forth in a victory dance.
Has Highlander become a name for the faranji?, we wonder. No, no, it’s just the name for the water bottles.
The Ethiopians never call us faranji to our faces, only when talking with us about other foreigners or foreigners in general. To our faces, they call Ayh-land-er or sometimes “you.” As we walk in the market or alongside a road, and they are the ones who are passing by quickly, they shout, You, You, You!
This isn’t meant to be rude, our guide explains. They are playing a game like the game of collecting the water bottles. But it’s hard not to hear in this mode of address an implication or accusation about the presence of faranjis in their lives.
In the local markets and villages, where the villagers sell cattle, fruit and vegetables, spices and, in a distant corner, a few tourist knickknacks, many foreigners take pictures of the locals, often paying them to pose: two birr (or ten cents) for the people who wear bright cloths around their hips and beaded necklaces and perhaps dye or shave their hair as an expression of their tribal affiliation. Four or five birr for those who scar themselves or tattoo their faces or insert metal plates in their lips. If someone is exceptionally beautiful or “colorful”—the term used by our guide in place of what used to be called exotic—she can set her own rates.
In the market, there are locals whose dress does not show any affiliation other than to poverty. Their clothes are stained and torn, and the children especially are often without shoes. These children grab the hands of faranji and point emphatically to their feet, saying, “You. Shoes.”
The shoes in the market are very cheap– most are of the plastic variety made in China–but our guide has advised us against buying these kids things or giving the children money because, he says, it encourages them to beg rather than to attend school. When he was seven years old, our guide left his small tribal village against his parents’ wishes and walked sixty kilometers by himself to this same market town because he wanted to attend school rather than tend cattle. His parents no longer acknowledge him, but he has a business introducing faranji to the people and culture of his upbringing that pays him much more than herding or posing for tourist pictures ever would.
His advice to not buy anything for the children secretly comes as a relief to us. How do you choose which ones to help? You and you but not you. We watch an older woman tourist – I think I hear a German accent – swarmed with children as she hands out balloons and candy. This woman’s face is covered with the raw-looking white stretched skin left behind by a terrible burn and her features are misshapen from the plastic surgeries performed to fix it. I imagine that wherever she lives she doesn’t often have encounters with groups of children where they aren’t scared by her appearance. More and more children press around her, grabbing for her hand, calling “You. You.” The woman looks on the edge of being overwhelmed, but she laughs as she digs through her purse for more items to handout.
Sometimes the begging children slip into the faranji’s photos of the tribal people. They wait until the last minute to step into the frame and then hold out their hands for their few birr too. But one of the photographers, a Spaniard, is wise to this game. He lowers his massive zoom-lensed Nikon and points. You. Out. They move away reluctantly. Are they not beautiful too? Are they not authentic?
My husband and I don’t take pictures except group ones that we can shoot surreptitiously because the idea of collecting portraits of the different tribal people smacks of being on a human safari. Turning the locals into a spectacle doesn’t help us to experience their culture; it’s only proof that we were there, something we aren’t going to forget anyway. For this reason, we only have our Iphones for cameras. Moreover, we don’t want to taint our brief immersion with the unpleasantness of haggling. That is, until it comes time to buy some souvenirs for ourselves and our friends and family, and then haggling, especially when you get a big discount, can be fun.
We buy from a variety of vendors, trying to spread our money around in the probably deluded hope that some of it might make it to the poorer families. Also this technique helps when bargaining down the wildly inflated faranji prices. If a vendor doesn’t come down far enough, we walk away, pretending that we can take it or leave it. The vendors always come running after us, agreeing to sell the item at the lower price.
The beggar children accompany us during our rounds and then out of the market. My eight-year-old daughter has a little girl on either side of her, clutching tight to her hands. As we exit the market, she tries gently to pull her hands away, but they won’t let go. These girls are only four or five, and my daughter is worried on their behalf. Won’t their parents wonder where they are if they leave the market?
We haven’t seen any sign of parents. Do they have them? My daughter tries again to get them to let go of her hands. You, Shoes? They keep saying, first playfully, then hopefully, and then insistently. Finally we ask our guide to tell them as kindly as possible, You are all so beautiful and sweet and we have enjoyed your company, but we are not going to buy you anything. Their faces fall and they finally walk away. As we turn to go ourselves, I feel in my stomach a familiar physical pain, as if I’m walking away from my own children in some moment when they don’t want me to leave them.
On the Land Cruiser ride to the next village, I stare out the window, thinking about this term “you” and wondering about its origins. Did it have some explanation in Amharic grammar or was it the result of the children’s rudimentary command of English? Is this a translation of an Amharic greeting? I remember how when my own kids were little and just learning how to talk, they would raise their arms and say: “Pick you up. Pick you up.” How cute we thought this mistake was, and how much we wanted to prolong this period when you was me, when they didn’t yet conceive of themselves separate as an “I.”
On our first day in India, we take the subway to Chandni Chowk, the main bazaar in Old Delhi. The clothes and spice areas of the market lie between two stops and we exit onto the street to find ourselves in the hardware and plumbing section. One store sells only sinks. Another is lined with shelves containing every kind of pipe joiner you can imagine. A third has rows and rows of showerheads protruding from the walls. Since these streets were laid out centuries before automobiles existed, they are too narrow for anything bigger than pedicabs and carts. We watch a man with a toilet strapped to the back of his motorbike maneuver through the traffic.
In the clothes bazaar, the alleys narrow to twist and turn between buildings whose depths are impossible to gauge. We peer down long quiet hallways and immense empty anterooms that stand in eerie contrast to the busyness of the marketplace. It seems impossible that such stillness and chaos could exist side by side, that one isn’t diluted by the other. Back on the street, the air reverberates with honks and whistles. Every so often, we have to jump aside to avoid a motorbike or cart, which lends an edge of excitement to things.
Clinging to my husband’s arm, my eight-year-old, Brooklyn-born daughter startles dramatically at a particularly loud horn, which makes the shopkeepers laugh. She begins to startle even more dramatically, trying out this role as possessor of delicate sensibility. Many of our hotel rooms contain full-length mirrors, and I’ve watched her over the past few months notice herself more and more in their reflection. She pulls faces, performs dances moves, tries on different attitudes: fear, sultriness, surprise, hilarity, and what we call her “mean face,” which she has taken to offering to my requests to pose for the camera. She gazes unsmiling with narrowed eyes and a world-weary expression that is an uncanny imitation of the young thin models in high fashion ads. If we were home, this experimenting would take place in the privacy of my daughter’s bedroom, so I try not to pay too close attention, but it feels like a rare privilege to watch her fingering through the catalog of her different selves.
For strangers’ photos, she is more cooperative. Here in month four, having left Africa and now in India, we, and particularly the kids, are the spectacle, rather than the other way around. Everywhere, people pull out their smartphones to capture the children’s images. “You?” they inquire, pointing. Photo? Sometimes they simply grab the kids by the shoulders to hold them in place, while calling to their own kids to come over and stand beside them.
I wait for both sets of kids to exchange commiserating glances at the universal annoyance of parents making children pose for photographs. But as my kids smile, waiting while the various photo-takers swap cameras and take their turns posing too, exuding the patience and restraint of celebrities who recognize their large debt to their fans, the Indian kids seem completely perplexed by this fuss. Sometimes they must be cajoled or threatened into smiling themselves.
My five-year-old son, it has often been said, possesses a face that the camera loves. The feeling has been mutual, and he arranges his body and expression into natural pleasing lines, even moving through a few poses to give the photographer different options. He has big brown eyes with remarkably long eyelashes—people are constantly remarking on them—and these looks have brought him much attention during his short life, which he has soaked up and sought out. My daughter, on the other hand, tends to stiffen in front of the camera and must be tricked into making a natural expression. Perhaps this is the reason for her mean face, a different kind of trick to look cool or bad or fierce instead of simply self-conscious. Many people also remark on her beauty—she has dark blue eyes, set off by pale skin and blond ringlets—but she tends to shrug off their compliments, and I wonder during her sessions in front of the mirror if she sees and takes pleasure in her own beauty there.
At first, all these requests for the kids’ photos strike us as funny, and secretly make us proud. For my daughter’s part, her tendency toward politeness trumps her shyness, and it strikes me as not a bad thing to have her join her brother in the spotlight, and then eventually replace him. As the requests for the photos intensify, my son begins to grow weary of them. He’s at the age when he still spends much of his time lost in a dream world—he walks through the markets of Old Delhi, Bangkok and Hanoi swinging invisible swords, throwing karate chops, and performing spinning kicks. All these people wanting to take his photo pull him out of his game.
“I’ll do it,” my daughter says, stepping forward. As she is photographed over and over again, she begins to grow more comfortable in front of the camera, never preening exactly, but smiling naturally and graciously. Afterwards, there is often an awkward moment, as she turns to the people posing with her to say thank you or bow or make some gesture recognizing that their images will be forever entwined in some way, but they have already moved on, peering over the photographer’s shoulder to see how the photo turned out, this trophy of a foreigner. I can’t help wondering how she understands this interest in her looks. Is it simply that she is beautiful or that she possesses an ideal of Western beauty with her pale skin, blond hair, and blue eyes? I wonder if a hierarchy of people’s appearances is beginning to form in her mind, which is something that we had managed to avoid so far in our mixed neighborhood of Brooklyn.
After India, we travel through Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, and the requests for photos continue. In Laos, we meet another traveling family, with four children ranging in age from three to thirteen, each of them beautiful with shiny black hair, dark eyes with long eyelashes, and warm tawny skin. They are Maori from New Zealand. The kids all befriend each other and swap stories of life on the road. My kids complain in a humble-bragging sort of way about having to pose for photos all the time. The New Zealand kids shake their heads. No one ever asks to take their picture.
That’s crazy, my husband says. You are all so beautiful.
Sometimes we get confused for locals, their mother says, shrugging.
In Vietnam, we visit a Buddhist-themed amusement park in Ho Chi Minh City. We are one of the only Westerners we see, and the kids are asked to pose dozens of times. We try to impress upon our children that we are guests in this country and it is polite to grant the Vietnamese people what they are asking. But at the same time, the kids are old enough where I feel they should be allowed some autonomy over their own bodies, who can have access to them and who cannot.
A Vietnamese woman gestures to take my son’s photo. He shakes his head and hides behind me. I shrug my shoulders. I can’t make him cooperate. As we walk away, I ask him why he refused to pose. She didn’t even have dark skin, he says, sounding very annoyed. Why did she want my photo?
I feel both aghast and vindicated. She was Vietnamese, I tell him, and you are not. That’s why she wants your picture. You’re different. It’s not because you have light skin. This is what I want him to believe anyway. Also, your skin isn’t that light, not compared to Esme’s. My own father was mixed–a Creole from New Orleans, although he was light enough to pass for white and did–but many people who knew him comment on the resemblance between him and my son. They think you’re cute, I add.
But from then on, he refuses any photo requests, even hurling a soccer ball at someone trying to take his photo and making an X with his arms in front of his face to signal his objection. He acts like he is being hounded by paparazzi. I don’t know if this refusal stems from a sense that his looks are something to be prized and he is tired of giving them away so freely. Or if he is refusing the implicit hierarchy behind these requests. Or if he is simply tired of being the spectacle, the one who is different, and he just wants to be left alone.
When we were in Ethiopia, our guide explained that some of the tribal people might refuse to have their picture taken because they were afraid. They believed that these photos stole a little bit of their souls. Given that some of the tribal villages, particularly the more “colorful” ones like the Mursi people with the lip plates, have begun to abandon their traditional ways of life because it is more profitable to pose for the faranji photos, their souls are slowly being stolen from them.
And what of my own children’s souls? What effect will it have that their images now appear in the Instagram feeds and Facebook threads of strangers around the world? Or are simply passed around a dinner table as proof of the different-looking foreign children spied that day? Will they be left with warm memories from being treated around the world like celebrities? Or will it undermine a vision of everyone’s shared humanity since their difference was always being noted and captured as a prize, which is another sort of theft of soul?