Friday, March 25, 2011

on being a madama

In one of my posts a few months ago, I talked about my love/hate relationship with the word 'fine.' 'Fine' and I have made our peace since then. 'Fine' is just a part of my life, and I'm okay with that. 'Fine' can stick around for a while. Well, til July.

If there were another word that I had to pick a bone with, it would be: madama. 'Madama' is the label attached to a foreign woman. And usually, more specifically, a foreign white woman.

In public, it is not uncommon (it happens all the time, actually) for a person of any age to point to me and whisper to their companion 'madama!' (They are not as discreet as they think they are).

I have been assured by many, many people that 'madama' has absolutely no negative connotation and is not a bad thing to be called. I 100% believe this and am fully aware that no one means me any harm when they refer to me as a madama.

...But that doesn't mean that I like it. It's one thing to be introduced as a madama, or for people who don't know me to call me a madama. But it's another thing entirely to use it as a replacement for my name. I also don't appreciate it when, standing in a group of people, they are obviously talking about me (in Malayalam), and even refer to me in conversation, in front of my face, as 'the madama.'

I guess I should admit that even I have been known to use the word. When I went to the beach with the teachers on the staff tour, they all got a kick out of hearing me say "look at those madamas over there!" And I don't mind if someone uses the word with regard to me in that context, either. But I would certainly never use it for someone known to me personally. I realize that people may not always remember my name, and that it is difficult to pronounce, but surely there is some better substitute, such as pointing at me and saying 'her' or 'she.'

Of course, no one would think to do that because, as I said, the word is neither meant to be nor thought of as degrading--some people even seem to think it's endearing. I just feel that it's a little objectifying, that's all. The title 'madama' also seems to have an air of superiority about it, and I don't want to be superior to anyone.

When someone calls me a madama, what I really want to say is: "how would you like it if you came to my country and instead of using your name, I referred to you as 'the indian'?"  Such labels, as innocuously-intended as they may be, by emphasizing one's 'other-ness,' do little to foster feelings of inclusiveness or welcome.

At the end of the day, though, it's not that big of a deal; no one is trying to be offensive, and I certainly don't want to make a mountain out of a molehill. It's just that I've always thought of myself as more of a Madison than a madama, ya know?

"When you are offended at any man's fault, turn to yourself and study your own failings. Then you will forget your anger." -Epictetus

1 comment:

  1. When we were in Malawi we would stop the kids to tell them, "No. Not Azungu, Auntie Jen, Auntie Susan. Finally, one day we overheard this four year old boy down the road quieting his whole group of friends yelling, "NO! NO! NO! Aunt-y Jenny! Aunt-y Su-san!" We were quite proud.