Sunday, November 16, 2008

Brief as Photos - 13: An American Abroad

They lived in an area not too far from the embassy. There was a taxi stand right around the corner from them, and it often felt like all she needed was a magic wand. When she ventured out, she would hit the buzzer right on the electric pole outside their apartment building, and a taxi would show up. It was cheap and it often came with free language lessons, as almost all the drivers were big friendly talkers.

The first week in town, she was careful not to call attention to herself as an American living overseas. Not that it was any big secret who were living in their building. One day on a long drive to the old part of town, the driver in his local language asked her where she was from.

“I’m from the Philippines,” she replied in the same language. As somebody with ancestral roots going all the way back to Kublai Khan, Lapu-Lapu and Hang Tuah her reply was technically true.

The driver looked at her in his rearview mirror and smiled. “Ah, Arafat!”

She probably exhausted all her knowledge of the local language trying to explain that she was not talking about Palestine, but the Philippines, a country in Southeast Asia. The driver did not seemed to understand what she was saying and went on chattering like a bird about Arafat this and Arafat that. So that was that.

There were no jobs at the embassy so she spent most of her days exploring the old city. The taxi drivers, the rug merchants and the rest of the shop keepers got to know her really well. At another taxi ride, the driver did not asked where she was from. He just presumed that everyone in their building came from America.

“You’re American.” He said.

Afraid that she’d spend another long ride in a one-sided discussion on Arafat, she thought it would be safer to respond “yes.”

He wanted to know about California and the bevy of Baywatch babes (the show was on cable television). So they talked about that a bit; the driver in his spotty English and the passenger in her artless articulation in his local language. As she was paying him, he asked for her name. She told him “Madame Devereux.” Their eyes met in the rear view mirror and his looked deeply puzzled.

“You look like this (he gestured at the almond shape of her eyes), you have a French name and you are American.”

She nodded and he shook his head as if trying to drive away some cobwebs on the air. He smiled as he drove away but the puzzled look stayed on his face.

It often surprised her how much foreigners did not really know about her country beyond Hollywood. They seemed to think that all Americans lived in million dollar homes, drove fancy cars, and did not have to clean their ovens; and that they also kick their kids out of their houses as soon as they turn eighteen; and that they leave their grandparents in old peoples' homes and never ever visit. And the people were all gorgeous with sparkling white even teeth, and they picked the green bucks off their sweet-smelling moneytree orchards. It was amazing how much and how little they know at the same time.

She had been in the country for about six months when a teacher’s assistant job at a local school in their neighborhood was advertized at the embassy. The pay was not great (they never were) but she thought it would give her something else to do. She sent in her resume and a week later, she was asked to go in for an interview.

The director of the school who was also the owner invited her into a small office. The woman who was in her 60’s looked exceptionally well put together, from her bouffant hair to her Bruno Magli shoes. The director inquired in flawless English if she would like some tea. She declined politely. The director looked through her resume and asked some inconsequential questions. She answered politely.

After chatting for about 10 minutes, the director looked at her and said, “You are very qualified for this job,” she smiled, “your resume is excellent and you speak very good English.” The director’s tone was supposed to be complimentary and kind, then she said, “But I’d like to hire somebody who looks American.”

So that was that. She hailed a taxi and went on exploring the old city some more.

Read: About this series and the All Persons Fictitious Disclaimer

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