Skins, noses, lakes, and jobs

We were in the middle of a lake at noon – the threat of sunburn was high. I didn’t bring sunscreen, and the week before I had badly burned in the mountains. The family I joined on the lake saw me also last week and got a kick out of a white boy turning pink.

So when I got in the flimsy, narrow boat, Ufik joked that I would turn black like him. That, or at least getting a deep tan at the end of several months, was definitely possible.

I shifted my weight too quickly and Ufik let out a little shriek. Oops. Every year there are stories of overturned boats and drownings.

Before we push off for some trip among the boathouses, he says, Don’t worry, your nose will stay the same.

Skin color is obvious enough it often isn’t explicitly pointed out, but nose shape can come up just as often. Mine is pointy, his is flatter. I want to communicate that I wouldn’t mind a change, but it’s a difficult concept to translate.

Instead, I say all skin colors are just as beautiful as any other. The family scoffs it off. They live in a place where it is common to use skin-whitening cream, often applied to women’s and children’s faces at gatherings.

We push off and, while the family can still hear us, Ufik is quick to start a conversation with me. It’s just us alone in the boat, and he chooses an uncommon question.

You know how much tourists pay for a ride around the lake?

My guess is way off. Ufik collects the equivalent of about $22 for a ride a little more than an hour long. Tourists get to photograph the floating fishermen’s homes, fisheries, scant wildlife, while Ufik can buy roughly 20 meals. It gives us a good laugh.

So, in addition to grilling fish on the lake for local families, he also finds work as a guide, but he doesn’t speak English. Yet, when I ask how work is on the lake, he refuses to say he works there. He’s still a student.

He warns of an upcoming bamboo stalk that grazes my shoulder. This part of the water seems untouched, the bamboo having perfect symmetric cousins.

He’s earning a degree in law, but doesn’t know where to find a job. Most go to civil service, where a comfortable job is almost guaranteed for life.

Ufik got married two years ago, when he was 22, and his child is already a year old.

We pass a home where three men are sitting outside, and one of them yells out in the local language. I mention one word in the language, and excitement jolts them out of their seat. Ufik says they’re crazy. They hear and say he’s crazy back. Everyone knows everyone on the lake it seems.

But the lake, the backbone of the region, is shrinking fast. I ask if it impacts him.

He says he’s scared. There are parts of the lake already ceding ground. Sure, it’s the dry season, but the water from the rainy season will only drain again. Sediment loosened by deforestation in the mountains fills in the lake, and a floating freshwater plant sucks up even more.

He flips the conversation to ask how life is in America. It’s a simple question without a simple answer. I had already broken the seal on perceptions of skin color so I thought Why not go further?

I don’t quite like life in America. This is place is nicer. I don’t quite know whether it translates.

But the women? Everyone has white skin.

I tell him I would be happy to switch skins if it were possible. Noses, too.

I wouldn’t want to make it seem as if his entire view of America was shaped by the color of skin he saw on TV. He mentioned it quite a bit, but always with a slight smile that made me think it was half a joke.

Instead of correcting his statement, I chose to ask why white skin is beautiful. I can’t imagine how a wife must feel when the standard of beauty is impossible to reach. How do people truly view aesthetics, if it’s mentioned so often and with such absence of judgment of character?

Because it’s beautiful. But why?

That conversation is a dead end, so I ask more about life on the water. Fishermen nearby are heading home – without many fish caught. The hotter it gets, the fewer fish that want to come out for food. They stay under the floating greens that cover the lake.

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