My Instaratings from my previous week’s enactments were stellar. It meant one did not need to do a Selfcrit like the others. One did not have to ask oneself seven critical questions, or provide seven critical responses. Great Instaratings made one feel like a contestant in that show from long ago, Survivor: The one who did well in the team challenge got to scarf down caviar and gruyere cheese and chilled Pinot Grigio. Losing opponents subsisted on locusts and wild honey.
Not that we were allowed to gloat at the Ranch. We were one big team. We were one happy family. We were here to support each other. We would be nothing without each other. The idea was to be each other’s keeper. Gloating was not allowed, but it was OK to feel good.
My duty was to enact Africa. I pulled no stops. I made the clients wear a colorful dashiki. I gathered them in a circle and encouraged them to rid themselves of their old personalities. They were to visualize themselves under an iroko tree in an African village square. I started my enactment with the obligatory proverb about how it takes a village to raise a child—a proverb popularized by a politician. Allow me to make a little confession here: In all my years growing up in Africa, I had never heard anybody use that proverb.
I told my guests an African folktale filled with speaking animals and cruel kings and precious princesses and trembling subjects. I made them sing and dance, and had them play the parts of different animals within the story. They were transported to the heart of the eternal drumbeat that was Africa.
No wonder they had Instarated my enactment as outstanding.
However, Ling, my colleague, had received ratings that were less than stellar, even abysmal. The truth hurts, but sometimes you have to bite the bullet: swallow the bitter pill and say the truth even if it did not make everyone gruntled. Ling’s fire was dimming; at least that was what most people at the Ranch were saying.
Ling’s ratings were slipping, and everyone could see that. In her Selfcrit, instead of asking herself the seven critical questions and providing answers to them, she was busy blaming the clients. She complained that her clients were the wrong sort. She said her clients did not give her the chance to display her creativity and expertise.
She seemed to have forgotten our Two Suggestions. As the Suggestion Book always reminded us, these were not rules, but suggestions, because we were free moral agents and not mindless automatons.
Suggestion No 1: The client is always right.
Suggestion No 2: When in doubt, see Suggestion 1 above.
I pulled up Ling on my Palmscreen and typed in a smiley face.
She typed in a teary face.
I typed in a sad face with a frowny mouth and sad eyes.
Ling requested we meet in person.
“Chinese food, food, food, that is all they want me to talk about,” Ling said.
She had been crying, and her heavy make-up was ruined. Her red cheongsam was askew. Still, one needs to be a good colleague. We were all one here at the Ranch and should be our brother or sister’s keeper, as the case may be.
“Ling, my Instaratings were quite low at one time, remember? They were all a little less complimentary, but I pulled myself up by my bootstraps and refused to be down at the mouth—and look at me today.”
I bit my tongue as I reminded myself not to come off as boastful or immodest. I had a responsibility to help Ling get back on her feet and be the best she could be, so that the Ranch would fulfill its corporate destiny and raison d’être.
“What can I do to help? I asked.
“To be honest, I don’t know. I think the problem is China. They want to talk about Chinese food. I do not have a problem talking about General Tso’s Chicken and Peking Duck and Sesame Chicken, if that would open the door to great Instaratings. But they hardly want to give me a chance. You know, we are not permitted to cook for the guests. I think some of the guests would prefer that I cook them Chinese food. Truth is, I wouldn’t even know how to cook the stuff. I don’t even like Chinese food.”
Ling realized she had gone a little too far. What she just said verged on too big of a self-reveal. This was not Selfcrit. Even in Selfcrit, one was not allowed to suggest that one was incompetent or less-than in any possible way. The language of Selfcrit was slanted just so that one did not come across as a slacker.
One said stuff such as: I struggle to connect with my clients at every level sometimes.
I am not often at my optimal cheerfulness.
I need to work harder at being more perfect.
I need to be more fired-up.
I must become the role I play everyday.
We were colleagues at the Ranch, and were all fit and competent, and were the best to be found, and had been considered worthy in both character and learning, and were the chosen ones. It was a grievous error to admit that one was less than competent, or not the best, or not the peak of the pack.
I wanted to help Ling.
“Look, Ling, I know how less-than-encouraging these less-than-optimal Instaratings could be, but have you considered maybe telling them Chinese folktales? My African folktales are usually a big hit with my clients.”
“Chinese folktales? Hmm, they are not like your African stories, you know. In Chinese folktales, those who do good end up being punished. No good deed ever goes unpunished.”
“Ah,” I said.
“Have you heard the one about the four dragons that tried to save the people of China from drought?”
“I have not, but I think dragons are cool,” I said.
“Once, there was a drought, and the Chinese people were dying of starvation and thirst because there was no rain. When the four dragons heard the cries of the people, they decided to intercede on their behalf by pleading with the Jade Emperor to send down rain. The Jade Emperor said he would send down rain, but promptly forgot about it. The dragons decided to get water from the sea and pour it down from the sky like rain, and when they did this, people were happy. However, when the Jade Emperor heard what the dragons did, he was furious at them for usurping his role. The Jade Emperor called down four mountains to imprison the four dragons. The four kind-hearted dragons ended up dying in their mountain prison.”
“Ah,” I said again, even more emphatically this time. “That particular one sounds a bit uncheerful.”
“You see what I mean?” Ling asked.
I indeed saw what she meant, but I was not going to tell her that.
“You can always be creative with your stories, you know. I use a bit of creativity every now and again, myself,” I said.
“You do?” Ling asked me, sounding a little bit ominous.
I glanced awkwardly at my Palmscreen.
“I see, you have to get back to work,” Ling said.
I half nodded.
“I am so sorry I have been such a pest. I must learn to pick up after myself,” Ling said.
“We all have our less-than-optimal moments,” I said.
I did not look at her as she slumped away with her head bowed.
My Palmscreen lit up in blue and a message scrolled across.
You have clients. You have clients. You have clients.
I straightened up and put on my game face—or rather, my Africa enactment face. I was ready to go get ‘em.
I checked my Palmscreen.
My heart thumped loudly.
It was somewhat true what they always told us about being an enactor at the Ranch: no two clients were ever the same. This was the fun part of our calling as enactors.
“Jambo!” my client greeted me, over-cheerfully.
“Jambo!” I hailed back, slightly accentuating the pitch of my voice to match his high-octane enthusiasm.
He was wearing a dashiki and had a necklace made from seashells and cowrie beads around his neck. He began addressing me after shaking my hand vigorously and elaborately.
“Ah, I miss Africa. I never knew I was going to miss it until I left. I seemed to live more while I was there. Life seems to come at you in waves over there. You feel more. You know what I mean, right? More alive. More aware. More aware of the fact that every blessed moment could be your last. Boom, you are about to cross the road without looking left or right like everyone else, and boom, seemingly out of nowhere, a matatu with loud music booming out of its loudspeakers runs into you, and boom, you are on your way to meet your maker. Just like that. Boom!”
“Boom!” I said.
I sensed he was going to do all the talking, so I let him.
“That smell. You know that smell, right? There is nothing quite like that smell. The smell of Africa.”
“We can make that smell happen for you right here at the Ranch,” I said.
“You can?” he asked.
“Just give me one second,” I said.
I gathered dry banana leaves and corn husks and built a little fire. I sprinkled a few seeds of cayenne pepper as soon as the fire started burning.
He sniffed the air like a rodent. He breathed in, then he sniffed again.
“The smell, the smell. I can smell Africa, again. It smells just right,” he said.
“That is what the Ranch is here to do for you. We do our best to make our guests happy,” I said.
“You know, unlike most people who go to Africa, I did not see myself going to Africa in the mold of some kind of Save Africa Messiah. I was kind of hoping to get away somewhere to save myself. I did not go with the intention of helping orphans—don’t get me wrong, helping orphans is great, and orphans, of which there are a great number in Africa, need all the help they can get. But to be honest, I could barely help myself.”
“There is no place like Africa,” I said.
“Let me tell you this. Africa was the only place that did not judge me. I was used to being judged by family, judged in school, judged at the shitty dead-end jobs were I typically got fired quickly, but Africa never judged me.”
“The motherland never judges anyone,” I said.
The fire was burning out. The Africa smell was fading. His time was running out. I liked guests like him. He was the one who did all the performing. Don’t get me wrong. I love to enact.
I looked at my Palmscreen.
He looked at me.
“Ah, I nearly forgot myself. You don’t operate on African Time here. You know, back in Africa, their attitude towards time was one thing that I truly loved about them. Over there, their sense of time is straight out of Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory. They know something we don’t know over here: time is made for man, man is not made for time.”
“No truer words have ever been said,” I said.
“Speaking of which, I have to skedaddle,” he said.
I thanked him as the Instarating prompt came on. I looked away like a good waiter does, not hanging around to find out how much was left as a tip.
As soon as he walked away, I looked at my Instarate.
Excellent! He had rated me.
He even included an exclamation mark.
Even though I was reluctant to admit it publicly, there was no doubt that I was on a roll. Who knows? Maybe one day soon I would become a Leader. In the history of the Ranch, none of those who enacted Africa had ever risen to become Leaders. I could be the first. Who knows? I did not dwell on these thoughts for too long. One had to watch out for such shortcomings as arrogance, pride, and immodesty. It was okay to take pride in one’s work, but one must remember that the Ranch was all little parts working together as one. This was one of the principles I taught my guests as being at the core of African personhood. This was what Ubuntu stood for. This was acknowledging that one was nothing without others. One is only a person because of other people.
It was time to clock out. I switched off my Palmscreen and clocked out. Of course, everyone knows the Palmscreen never really goes off and never stops watching you.
At the dining hall that night, I was the object of all manner of accolades. Other performers slapped my back. From every corner of the hall, my fellow enactors called out to me.
“Africa rising,” some said.
“Black power,” some called out.
“Africa on top,” another said.
“Africa on the move,” yet another called out in greeting.
There were questions from all sides.
“Can you tell us how you do it?”
“What is the secret of your success?”
“What can I do to improve?”
I smiled and remembered that one needed to be modest, especially with fellow enactors, because everyone at the Ranch was a person because of everyone else. I reined in the surge of pride growing in my chest and put on my modest face.
“I could not have done it without you, my fellow enactors. If I am standing tall today—you all know what they say, right? It is because I am standing on the shoulders of my fellow enactors. We are all enacting great regions. We just need to make our clients connect with our beloved continents and countries, and watch those ratings go stratospheric.”
“Great speech,” they said.
“Morale-boosting speech,” they said.
“Hear, hear,” they said.
I looked around, scanning the length and breadth of the dining hall for Ling. She was sitting all by herself in a corner. She was like the unpopular kid in high school who sat alone during lunch and had a serial-killer future.
I could see her dinner on her Styrofoam plate. It was a single baby carrot. She was having a single baby carrot for lunch. She needed her morale boosted. She needed a pep talk. She needed a little puff of air beneath her wings. Who best to give it to her but the man who just made a great morale-boosting speech? However, as I walked towards her lonely table, she stood up and walked away, her eyes on the grotty dining room floor.
I asked myself a bunch of questions.
Had I somehow hurt her by being immodest?
Had I been less than supportive to my fellow enactor?
Had I done anything to make her feel a little less about her personhood?
No, No, and No.
Since the answers to all three questions were negative, I proceeded to enjoy my dinner heartily.
My Palmscreen told me that I had clients. They were a mixed group, so I decided to give them my tell me something I don’t know about Africa routine.
“Do you know that in some parts of Africa, people are buried in coffins that are made in the shape of their professions?” I asked them.
I then proceeded to answer my own question.
“A doctor’s coffin would be shaped like a stethoscope, and a lawyer’s like a wig and gown, and a mechanic’s like a spanner, and a musician’s like a guitar.”
Their responses ranged from wow to cool.
One of the clients, a college kid, raised his hand to ask a question. For some reason, questions made me somewhat apprehensive. Had I not been thorough enough in my presentation?
“What about the coffin-maker?”
“Yes, the coffin-maker,” I said.
“When the coffin-maker dies, is he buried in a coffin-shaped coffin, because his profession is coffin-making?”
A few people laughed. Not good laughter. More like a “gotcha” kind of laughter.
“Well, technically, a coffin-maker is a carpenter, so he gets buried in either a hand-plane or a saw-shaped coffin,” I said.
My answer sounded satisfactory to my clients.
The Instarating prompt came on and they all set about rating me.
When they left I checked: They had all awarded me excellent.
Later that evening, we all gathered for a Groupcrit. Our Leader gave his usual speech, telling us to have the right attitude towards Groupcrits. We should embrace the opportunity that Groupcrits offer us to become better enactors. There was no doubt that those who performed best were those who saw Groupcrits as a way to improve their performances. He looked pointedly at me, nodded, and cracked a tiny little smile.
I smiled back broadly.
He nodded at Ling. He did not smile.
Ling stood up.
From every corner of the hall, voices rose at Ling. She looked thinner and frailer than she used to. Her eyes looked red from crying.
“I know that I have not been pulling my own weight these past few weeks, but I promise to do my best to improve,” she mumbled.
“Promises are not good enough. Yes, promises are nothing without practical applications,” he said.
“Am I right, enactors?” he asked.
“Promises are nothing,” we echoed.
One by one, individual voices rose from different corners of the hall.
“By not pulling your own weight, you are pulling the Ranch down.”
“You are dead weight.”
“The Ranch is only as strong as its weakest link.”
The Leader was nodding and smiling, and this no doubt increased the tempo and furiousness of the enactors, as their criticisms now came on fast and furious.
“You are bringing us down.”
“You are not working as a team.”
“You are lowering team morale.”
“You are not doing enough for China.”
“You are doing China a disservice.”
The Leader, meanwhile, was pacing. He was pacing through the four corners of the hall as the criticisms rained down. His head was up but his eyes looked at no one, they looked straight ahead.
“I can see that we all agree that promises are not enough. The Ranch is standing today because we all pull together. We cannot allow any lone individual to pull us down. I need time to think,” he said.
He walked out of the hall with his hands behind his back.
We trooped out. I did not look at Ling. I had to be careful not to be seen as joining myself with an enactor who was pulling the Ranch down.
The next morning, I did a welfare check on Ling on my Palmscreen, but her face did not come on. Where her face should have been, there was a black spot.
I shook my head, then remembered a saying at the Ranch: Enactors come. Enactors go. But the Ranch remains.
I resolved to work harder to maintain my Instaratings.
This story is from a series of interconnected stories that interrogate what it feels like to be an “alien” in today’s world.