becoming nassara

Nassara, nassara 

“It means white person in Moore,” Sabrina explained to me in Ouaga, when we first got in country.

“Foreigner,” our country director specified.

Nassara, nassara 

Either way, it’s my name.

It’s what all the children in my neighborhood chant as I bike by, a chorus of excited shrieks following me to the center. It’s the only recognizable word that fills a room whenever I walk in. It’s what the man hissed directly in my face as I walked by him at the market. It felt like acid in that moment.

Nassara, nassara 

It’s strange to be in a place where it is socially acceptable for children to run down the street chasing after you yelling “Foreigner!”. We all deal with it in different ways. Brady and a couple others have started yelling back “Petit enfant!” at the little ones, much to their confusion. Most of us ignore it and pretend that it’s not happening, but it’s still exhausting to be constantly called a foreigner in the place we are to call home for the next two years.

I’m used to being an outsider. As a Taiwanese-American woman that has lived abroad, I’m used to being the perpetual foreigner, even when I’m home. Like many minority children, my childhood was spent trying to erase my origins, wanting more than anything to fit in with my white classmates. It has taken me a long time to get to this point, but my difference since has become an identity marker that I wear like a weapon, a reappropriated tool of oppression. I’ve grown to be fiercely proud of my heritage. From birth, I have had a claim on two different cultures and three languages. What do you have? One language? A muddy European mutt genealogy? Ha!

In France, I found myself secretly relishing when some fool would call me Japanese and Chinese, evaluating my appearances without even bothering to listen to my heavy American accent. I looked forward to challenging their casual racism and throwing their stereotypes back at them.

Nassara, nassara 

But in Burkina Faso, I feel like I’ve been stripped of half of my identity. I’m identified immediately as “nassara”, grouped with the mostly white Peace Corps trainees. I feel flattened, indignant, confused. Wasn’t this all I wanted growing up? To fit in with the white people? To not have to put in any effort to prove my American-ness? Be careful what you wish for.

Once, in the market, someone asked me if I was Japanese, and my knee-jerk instinct was to aggressively assert my American identity, as I used to do. In that moment, I wasn’t sure if I was more relieved or disappointed that my Asian identity was not entirely erased here, that being American wasn’t enough.

To be the daughter of two cultures is to fully belong in neither—or any, for that matter.

Nassara, nassara 

It’s Jerome, the bartender at our favorite bar. “Nassara! Ne y zaabre?” he greets me in Moore as he clasps his large hands to mine, a huge grin spreading across his face. I laugh at his greeting.

I like that, from him, the hated term of unbelonging transforms into something almost like a term of endearment. For once, I can take it without completely overthinking the socioracial implications. It doesn’t matter right now.

Jerome hands me a cold Brakina and I brush aside any lingering thoughts about being a nassara as I sit down with my friends for a drink.