|David Brown runs Word Of Mouth Ltd, a language consultancy working with politicians and the media. He also works as a journalist, recently covering stories in Azerbaijan and Georgia. He has lived in Finland for seven years.
DURING THE endless, and at times deeply passionate, recent debate about Romanian beggars on the streets of Helsinki, little has been heard from the Romanians themselves. Other than a single fascinating story in Helsingin Sanomat, the debate has largely involved Finns talking with each other about a silent and exterior Other. Many people have asked what might be best for the Romanians themselves; few have gone as far as asking a Romanian.
IN SHORT, the Romanian beggars have become an object, and I realised the other day with no small sense of shock that they have become objects for me too. I do not see a human being sitting on a street corner, and barely register even their gender or age, but see only an object in human form.
THE FACT that apparently some people have started saying to these people “Go to Romania” confirms that opinions are formed on the basis of assumptions – it is more than likely that many people on the receiving end of these jibes aren’t actually Romanian at all. In reality we know nothing about the beggars’ motives or experiences in life, and if we did, would probably feel less qualified in passing judgment.
PERHAPS unusually for a white male, I have some experience of objectification myself. Twice on streets in the Arab world, once in Beirut and once in Aleppo, I was included in the group “you Americans,” which I found at once frustratingly stupid and deeply funny. That a Syrian could call me “American” says a lot more about his preconceptions and bias than it does of my own, just as my assumptions that all beggars are Romanian objectifies me more than it does them.
IN AFRICA, I have sometimes found myself the only white person in a bar, and occasionally the only white person on the street or in the village. In such cases, I feel I am less seen as an individual than as a walking target – be it of curiosity, interest or hostility. People looking at me might see a mobile ATM machine, a potential boyfriend and ticket to Europe, a person worth robbing, or just someone they wouldn’t mind talking to, but there is no doubt that what they feel and what conclusions they draw are not based on who I am, but on their attitudes towards an amorphous “west”.
DESPITE being born in a colony myself, I was once disparagingly called “a colonial” and I am sure many Africans see all Europeans as being part of a new wave of exploitation and theft. At times I have certainly sympathised with their plight in the face of western hegemony, and certainly understood their cynicism – it just feels strange to be on the receiving end of it.
LIKEWISE, I suspect some beggars find it strange to be on the receiving end of the “Go to Romania” comments and the cynical looks. Not least those who are actually Bulgarian. David Brown is a language consultant and journalist, regularly covering stories in Africa, Asia & the Middle East. He has lived in Finland for 8 years.