A month ago, shortly after arriving in Mbale, I offered some initial reflections on what it means to be an outsider and specifically a muzungu. A few days later, I learned that not everyone was quite sure I’m a muzungu. While visiting an orphan’s program in Bududa, one of the older kids said he thought I might be Chinese. I’ve gotten similar comments more recently. In the last few days, two more people have guessed I was Chinese. A third Ugandan, after hearing me tell his friend that I’m not Chinese, guessed Japanese. (All of these opinions were offered unsolicited.)
Why the ethnic confusion? My grandfather was from the Philippines, and many people in the US have guessed that I might be part Asian. Personally, I’ve never been sure what about my looks conveys that. When I asked my Ugandan friends Eddie and JB about it, they had a clear answer: my hair. It also explained why I was getting more comments recently. Something about the way my hair flops down as it gets longer looks Asian to Ugandans. (In fact, if you watched the Spain-Honduras game last night: Eddie says the Japanese referee looked like me.)
So this morning I got a haircut. I didn’t do it specifically to avoid looking Asian, as having long hair in the Ugandan heat is pretty annoying on its own, but the guys agree that I look less Asian now. I’ve got no clever cultural commentary on this. I just think it’s kind of funny.