Sunday, September 4, 2011


No matter how often and how hard folks stare, I'll never get used to being a walking and talking attraction because of the color of my skin. For the four and a half years that I lived in Buenos Aires, almost on a daily basis, someone would stop me -- in the bar, in the club, on the floor, on the street, on the colectivo, in the men's room (gross!) -- and ask me to take a photo with them.

Once upon entering Sitges on a Friday night, it took me a full five minutes to get from the entrance to my friends on the inside because three different groups stopped and asked me to pose with them. Considering that Argentina is a country where there are relatively few black people, I suppose that bumping into me would qualify as a Kodak moment to remember. My friend Rob, a black guy from Texas, got the same thing when he lived in BA -- sometimes we got it together. That's just the way things were. Still, it took me a bit by surprise every time.

It's not like I blend into the crowd any more in Australia or Southeast Asia than I did in BA, but for the most part, Aussies and Asians don't seem to have the same need to document black-man sightings with a camera. (Although last year there was one guy in Melbourne who took my photo as I ran past him while I was jogging around Albert Lake in St. Kilda.) I sometimes wished for more anonymity, but I didn't exactly object to the attention. And not once did I ever refuse anyone. It's just that I've never considered myself to be particularly photogenic, and who needs so many photos of oneself floating around the universe unmanaged? What do those people do with them anyway?

Despite my misgivings, I totally get it. In certain parts of the world, where the color black is such a rarity among the general population (unless it's being worn as an article of clothing), bumping into a brother becomes an event of sorts. Normally, I don't think too much about the difference between me and everyone else, but when I arrived at Thai Alangkarn Theater in South Pattaya for a panoramic-extravaganza-as-Thai-history-lesson that was sort of like The Lion King with live elephants and firework (not the Katy Perry kind, actual flames), it was one of the only things on my mind. My date had stood me up (he was on "Thai time," so he missed our transportation from my hotel to the venue), and I was there alone, one of a handful of Westerners surrounded by hundreds of Asian tourists.

After finishing the buffet dinner in the restaurant, I wandered out onto the patio for the pre-show show, which featured singers, dancers and martial artists. I was starting to get into it when a large man sat down next to me. Before I had a chance to move over, he had leaned in closer and was putting his arm around me while his friend pulled out a camera. I may have been a little out of practice, but I knew what to do. I smiled as his friend took the photo. Without saying anything, the man, who obviously didn't speak a word of English, or surely he would have asked for permission before invading both my space and my privacy, grinned at me, nodded and gave me a thumbs up before standing and walking away.

I wasn't sure whether to be flattered or appalled. Didn't he see the elephants by the entrance? They made for a far better photo op than I did. Unlike the elephants, though, I didn't charge 20 baht a snapshot. But maybe I should. Of course, there'll always be a next time. And next time, if they expect me to smile, it's going to cost them extra.
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