By Soamiely Andriamananjara
The ever-recurrent scene goes something like this: The person behind the counter — an average American — looks at my driver’s license, he frowns a bit, smiles, then looks at me. “That is one heck of a long name!” he says, apparently very impressed.
“Yes, it is!” I respond with a smile. “Quite a mouthful.”
“What kind of name is that?” he asks excitedly. “Where are you from?”
“I am from Madagascar.” I know exactly where the conversation is headed.
“Mada-what?” he exclaims.
“Madagascar,” I say patiently.
“That is a real country? I thought that was just a movie!” He laughs loudly and I join him in laughter — not sure if I am laughing with him, at him, or at myself.
“Nope!” I retort — half-amused, half-disappointed. “It is actually a pretty big country.”
“Where is it located? Is that in India?”
“Nope! It is on the east coast of Africa.”
“Africa, really? Do they have a lot of people from India over there?”
“We do have some, but not a lot.”
“But your family is from India, right?”
“Nope! My family is from Madagascar.”
“But originally from India?” He is not asking. He is telling me. “You do not look African!” He has made up his mind.
“What is an African supposed to look like?”
Like most Malagasy who have spent some time abroad, I have had this conversation so many times. And each time, I cannot help feeling a bit frustrated and troubled, not really because of my new friend’s total ignorance of our beloved country, but mainly because of my disappointment. I grew up listening to American songs, learned all about the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada in high school, my parents admire JFK and MLK, and here is this reasonably well informed American person who is not even aware of Madagascar’s existence.
Does he not know of our endemic flora and fauna, our unique lemurs, that five of seven species of baobabs are found on our island only, that even our people are an anomaly, our origins still baffling many historians and anthropologists? How can he not know of us and how special we are? Is it really an arrogance to assume that any random person in the streets of Washington, DC — which boasts to be one of the most well read cities in America — should automatically know something, anything, about Madagascar?
The average American has a very limited knowledge of foreign places, especially of distant and exotic lands like Madagascar. Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka recently declared that Americans are now among the most insular and least curious people in the world. Due to their lack of an integrated exposure to other cultures and societies, Americans are often said to have an island mentality, along the likes of Japan or England — a mentality which, according to Wikipedia, is characterized by narrow-mindedness, ignorance, or outright hostility towards any artifact (concept, ideology, lifestyle choice, art form, etc.) originating from outside of the geographic area inhabited by the society.
For someone like me who believes that Madagascar is the most unique, wonderful and special place in the world, meeting someone with such an island mentality, who has never even heard of the great island of Madagascar, can be awkward and painful. Often, I am tempted to grab my narrow-minded conversation partner by the collar and yell: “How dare you not know about Madagascar?”
But that is where the irony lays. Why should he know that Madagascar is an island shaped like a left foot in the Indian Ocean? Why should he care that the people and the language in Madagascar are called Malagasy? He probably does not need to and can afford not to. America is big enough for the average American not to care about the outside world, without being “a total Trump.” America has achieved so many great things, that the average American can afford to be completely oblivious of what is happening in the rest of the world and still be a decently well-rounded fellow.
It pains me to make the point that it is indeed a bit pretentious to expect the average American to know (or to be interested to know) anything at all about us. As a people, as a society, what have we done that may be worth the interest of the narrow-minded American? What have we achieved to warrant a special place on the American radar screen? How many Olympics medals, Nobel Prizes, World Cups, Oscars, Pulitzer have we won?
The more I think of it, the more I am convinced that we — more than the Americans — are the ones with the real island mentality. Given our geographical “eo anivon’ny riaka” insularity, we have developed a tendency to think that we are exceptional and one of a kind. The lack of a regular exposure to global benchmarks has made us believe that we are so special that everyone in the world must know about us. Unlike most Americans who do not care about what the rest of the world thinks of them, we have acquired a strong and unfortunate need for others to acknowledge our isolated existence and to recognize our uniqueness. We are systematically disheartened and humbled when we meet someone who has never heard of us — when we realize that the fame of the Three Horses Beer, the Mahaleo, and the Romazava has not (yet) reached the States. Poor Americans, they don’t know what they are missing.