The Color Question

The day I met the queen of a woman who would one day become my sister in life, she sashayed into the English Department’s reading room and sat down on that fantastically saggy old couch  I spent four years taking naps on instead of actually reading. She and I were in the same American Literature class but had never spoken. There wasn’t really a personal introduction that day we first talked because she’s one of the most direct, to-the-point people I know. Instead, she started with “How much are you?”

 

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Three years later…

 

Most people who are mixed race that I have spoken to in the States get some kind of variation on that question so it was hardly surprising–I get it a couple times a year. Most of the time it’s more of a mystery of nationality. It starts with a look and then a double take. Then:

Hey, are you Italian? No, not in the least. Are you sure? Uh, yeah? Pretty sure.

Or:

Καλημέρα. έχεις ένα όμορφο χαμόγελο! Oh, sorry, no. I’m not Greek.

Or, my favorite so far:

Hey, are you cousins with Shakira? Wait, what? What kind of pick up line is that? I mean, I wish, but…?

For me, it’s actually exciting when someone can see what little bit of black genetics has left me. Plus, there was something genuine about my sister’s question of “How much are you” that allowed me the freedom to pull out my summary of how I came to be packaged in this particular shape and shade with these particular features. By then my explanation had been memorized and repeated to the point of personal cliche–here, let me roll out for you as if on a table the entire collective memory of my family and present each morsel of our history for your consumption. Sample and taste the watered down version of lives that were achingly raw on both sides, of people who were real but who are now stories to trade or add intrigue to my own rather dull self.

As may be clear, I’m conflicted on my relationship to my race. I once had a friend who introduced me to a new boyfriend of hers as her “black friend.” Let’s just say she had to find a new “black friend” real fast. I have white skin (okay, maybe honey mustard or butter yellow might be more accurate, but when has racial terminology dealing with phenotypes ever been truly accurate?) and if I look like a white person and act like a white person and sound like a white person and quack like a white person, then the answer should be clear.

But, then again, what is a white person, really?

I often get asked why I’m here in Africa, in South Africa in particular, and the answer never gets easier because there isn’t one answer and depending on the day, I may not even remember them all.

     Why did you chose South Africa?  Why, do you not want me here?

I came as a cultural refugee. I came as a thief in the night. I came as an innocent and I came as an oppressor. I came with a hunger and found a hunger that swallows mine whole. I came to lose myself and also to be found. There’s a thousand reasons why I’m where I am right now, but the most frequent answer I give is that I want to have conversations about race. My family has one of the strangest, most contradictory racial backgrounds I’ve come across. Then again, show me a mixed racial background anywhere that doesn’t seem like a historical miracle. 

I’m here because a guy I knew at university loved the soundtrack for the Broadway version of Lion King and one night, months later in my London flat I wrote a poem while listening to the Rafiki Mourns track and an image of a mother elephant mourning a dead baby elephant came into my mind. That poem became a story and that story became a meditation on race and place and belonging. And then, somehow, I wound up here. Funny how life works.

 

I tell people that I’m a fourth black but really it isn’t so simple as that. It rarely is.  Being here in South Africa has challenged me in so many ways already–I mean, that’s the point. My students call me Goldilocks and the girls (and a few guys) play with my hair. They say that I have doll hair, reaching over when they think I’m not paying attention t run their fingertips over the curls with a look of awe that hurts me because I remember doing the same to my own mother’s hair when I was younger. I would run my fingers over her finer, blonder hair and wish so hard that my hair was soft and obedient like hers. In middle school, I called my hair The Beast because it broke brushes. Kids would throw pieces of paper or maybe a pencil into my ponytail and I wouldn’t find them until I washed my hair. I used to pray for straight hair to test God. Clearly, God doesn’t like the idea of being a beautician.

My racial identity became something like an excuse for why I felt disjointed and unwieldy as a teenager. It was why I was so clumsy–those damn hips from the Burns side of the family bumping into everything. It was why I’d been told like I looked like Queen Charlotte of England and Emily Dickinson–those big dark brown eyes that I got from my dad didn’t belong with such a pale face. I tell you, nothing makes a girl feel hotter than being compared to the “ugly queen of England” and America’s most famous female shut-in. It was a few years to go before I got the Shakira comment.

What I’ve taken all this time and all these words to say is that I still have so far to mature in terms of my relationship to my background, and I’m allowed to be in that place–and I’m in a good place to do it. A lot of the conversations I’ve been having here are new to me because I didn’t feel allowed to participate in them for so long since I never felt non-white enough to contribute. I don’t get the question “What are you?” here in South Africa because the system of racial categorization is so different from that of the States. In this new cultural sphere, this issue of identity is becoming shaded, placed against and within context and I’m just beginning to work out the relationship I have to my race–which is the only one I speak for.

Maybe from now on I’ll just use what my mother says when people ask her what my father is: “Human.”

 

 

What Happened After

There’s a stretch of mountains in the Western Cape called Sleeping Beauty that I could see from my hospital window the morning after my car accident. On a clear day, when the light is good and the air is sharp you can see a woman’s face, neck, and chest facing up towards the sky in repose. But that morning the rock-faced princess was covered by clouds which obscured all but the base. I looked out the window of my room then tried to find my socks that were lost in the tangle of sheets, then looked out again when I forgot what I was supposed to be searching for. I passed my morning that way.

Right after the accident, while waiting for the ambulance, I was cracking jokes. They were awful and no was really laughing but me, but in my defense, it was objectively funny–me sitting in a cow field holding my roommate’s boxers to the weeping cut on the back of my head. Then again, I always find a way to laugh at the wrong times. In the ambulance, I asked for music so I could dance when the silence got to be too much. I was alive–of course I’d dance. Hopefully, the paramedics got a kick out of the crazy American girl. In the chaos of the fresh wreck, my giggling was more acceptable because of shock but the next morning in the hospital things was a little different. Mad laughter didn’t help the image I gave off of a newly lobotomized patient fresh from an escape from Arkham Asylum–the look complete with head bandage and barely focused eyes. 

Strange things from my bad sleep in the men’s ward keep coming back to me–the sound of my next door neighbor vomiting, a janitor watching me as he mopped next to my bed, the nurses laughing loudly in the middle of the night, and at an almost reasonable hour the doctor who had removed the glass from my elbow the evening before standing at the foot of my bed with three or four other doctors all of them watching me quietly. The only response I could summon for the interruptions was to roll over as best I could (not particularly well) and sleep again.

Not soon enough to avoid the craziness, my friend arrived to break me out. And we would have gotten away in under ten minutes (a record for a hospital discharge), except we were told we’d have to pay in cash. Silly us. So, she had to find an ATM while I sat in the lobby wearing my roommate’s bloody shirt for warmth and trying to look friendly rather than crazed. All the while, Zuma’s presidential portrait grinned down at me from across the hall. 

Our other American friends came to collect us soon after, taking us to Witsand where the promise of a clean bathtub awaited me. It wasn’t until I was by myself in the bathroom of our AirBnB I was able to assess the full extent of the damage across my body for the first time: stitches on my elbow and back of the head, a swollen lip and cuts to the face and neck, bruises on my upper arm, slashes from the seatbelt had turned my chest red and something had pierced my left breast. There was a pain in my lower back and splinters in my hands, but it was all me, all mine. Nothing was lost for good–though I may have some extra glass in my elbow for the next few years.

I stepped into the claw-footed bathtub and the bandages on my wrist had to be soaked away in the barely warm water–I learned later the heater was broken. I couldn’t tell if my shaking was from cold or continuing shock.

It became very clear that I wouldn’t even be able to wash my own hair and so I called a friend through the open door and sat in the tub, hugging knees to sore chest as my friend sat on a stool and poured coffee mug after coffee mug of bath water over my hair as though I were a child again. She gently picked out burrs and twigs, pieces of bush that clung to my curls. I’d slept on these thorns in the night but had been too tired to do more than move my tangled ponytail aside. With each cupful, the water became redder–turning like rust– as the blood that had been matted into my hair and upper back washed away. A clump of my hair fell out into her hand, too. I guess this makes me the Girl with One Less Curl.

That night, clean and well-fed, I slept for twelve hours and could have kept on for much longer, though I wasn’t much of a Sleeping Beauty, more of a Sleeping Crash Dummy.   

I don’t know what to feel or how to feel it. I’ve started saying I don’t know so much lately, it’s become a mantra of sorts. I don’t know how we both got away with so few injuries. I don’t know how to handle all of the adult things like insurance and bills. I don’t know how to stop talking about this, but I’m also trying not to make it a part of my identity. I don’t know so much. It’s been told so much at this point, it’s hardly real anymore. From the moment the paramedics asked me what happened, it was already mythologized and calcified and edited into something that’s different than exactly what happened. It’s more than a thing that happened to me once–it’s a saga, and by telling it like a story I’m creating distance. I don’t know how to respond so I  watch others respond for me. It’s too much for me on my own.

But, hey, as least I’ll have an awesome scar for a souvenir to freak my students out with when school starts again.

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The Midnight Bus to Edinburgh

Two years ago I met a boy on the midnight bus to Edinburgh and for the night I fell in love. That sounds like a song, doesn’t it? Like that song by Journey everyone knows. But it was real, even though I still can’t believe my own memory. It wasn’t true love or deep love, but it was a closer step to true and deep than I had been before. Sometimes all it takes is the right context, the thermostat of life turned just right, and all the affectations of affection dazzle in a cubic zirconium sham that shines just as brightly as capital L-O-V-E, if only for an instant.

I think about that bus ride often. I think about the shabby big city darkness outside as my birthday slipped into just another day without me even noticing. London could barely keep its eyes open–even that grand old dame has to sleep sometime. I think about those thick seconds of indecision as I picked a seat and then the surprise I felt as this guy sat down next to me. I think about the awkward quiet and then the later conversations that knit up the space between us. I can’t even remember what was said but I can remember how it made me feel: soft, valued, seen. I remember wanting to feel that way more.

We talked for hours as London turned to suburbs and suburbs turned to villages and then the villages turned into blank swaths of land, though the dark outside was so absolute and my attention so completely held I had no idea what we passed. There were lives being lived and journeys besides mine being made and we were all existing on the earth together. But I was also on another planet entirely as he shared his music with me and we leaned back in our separate seats together, no touch at all.

Who knows what stretch of time passed before I let my shoulders slide across the seat, inch by inch, carried by the smooth revolutions of the tires beneath us. Body met body–my shoulder to his–and the tension that had built in the quiet of the sleeping bus seemed to crackle and hiss. I was not shaken off. I was not repelled. He was not indifferent. Instead, this stranger who was not a stranger anymore raised an arm to cradle my side.

Our angles settled into each other and by the time the sky to our right began to lighten, we stretched out across the two seats, hands tangled up together. We watched the sunrise hit the water below the cliffside road as sea met coastline and the whole time I kept trying to imprint it all in my memory because moments like the one I was living don’t happen often. It felt as though some almighty hand in the sky were writing a scene from a book as we both laid back and marveled at how strange this ride had been.

My neck was tender with kisses and my throat with tears when we arrived at the station because I didn’t want the story to end–this fantasy I couldn’t have believed if it hadn’t happened to me. We held each other, in that Edinburgh station, and I think we both knew we’d never see each other again. At least, not on purpose. And we wouldn’t be the same people even if we did. So, he offered me a ride to my hostel which could have ended badly (and I certainly don’t recommend it) but instead of murdering me, he held my hand when he wasn’t changing gears and told me the names of the buildings we passed.

I never wanted to find the hostel. I wanted to ride with him into forever. But the gray morning let up to show the sign of where I would be staying the night and he was late to surprise his mother for her birthday and it was on the cobbled street between brick buildings still stained with Victorian soot that we gave a final kiss goodbye. I watched him drive away and waved one last time and despite the fog, I think I saw him wave back, too.

What keeps pulling me back into remembering isn’t the experience itself but the perfect narrative of it. Please, if any aspiring filmmakers want to use this story, by all means, be my guest. I haven’t even mentioned how just an hour after he had driven away I went up the Royal Mile to visit Edinburgh Castle and witnessed my first eclipse.

I carried him and his touch and his words with me where I gathered with the crowd as though we were participating in the vestige of some pagan rite. I remember the strange sepia shade that broke through the clouds, highlighting the ancient stones of Edinburgh Castle two springs ago. The light of the eclipse streamed in fractured rivulets through the clouds and burned my eyes but I kept trying to sneak a glance at the sun. I wrapped my woolen sweater around me and tried to watch the sun bare-eyed. And the headache I earned trying to do so was worth the instinctual rush we all got standing subdued as we watched the earth rotate, something it does every moment of every day and yet because we could see it in a pronounced way, it was remarkable. I think life works the same way.

 

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Rhinos and Rosé

The ostriches weren’t the only ones who looked profoundly confused that day–though that seems to be a permanent expression for them. As for us–my roommate, our landlady, and me–I’d like to think that our confusion isn’t as permanent a state as theirs. But I can only speak for myself.

A couple of weeks ago, the three of us spent a whole burning afternoon creeping over well-worn dirt roads under power lines and across the plains of a nearby nature park where the animals run free and the patrons do just about the same. We’d brought a cooler full of Western Cape rosé wine and Simba chips and we were eager to do some rhino spotting. Our chariot on this trek was an appropriately khaki 4X4 that even had its own fridge in the back. Truly, this country is a wild wasteland. 

Regardless of our all-terrain land yacht, sweat dripped down my back and pooled underneath my thighs, the heat made worse everytime we turned off the car. With the shaking and rumbling gone, the animals would come closer and glance noncommittally at us through open windows. It was if they were telling us with their eyes, “Yes, I do know you’re there, but don’t think I’m going to let it affect my life,” before turning away haughtily. I think  I could open a gallery with all the…artistic butt pictures I managed to take with a camera that always seems to delay a second too long. The variety of animals (and their butts) living in the park is impressive for someplace only 20 minutes away from the city. We were Mean Girls level of being actively ignored by ostriches, giraffes, zebras, warthogs, bok, wildebeests,  water buffalo, and, yes, even by the rhinos. Not since middle school have I felt so widely shunned.

Apparently, it had been birthing season not too long before so some of the first creatures we came upon were these adorably ugly miniature versions of ostriches and warthogs. I’m telling you, if you see a baby warthog and don’t want to pick it up and cuddle it, then you may not have a soul.

At the nuclear risk of being cliche, at a reserve (even a small one like the one we were at) there’s finally a sense of proportion when seeing these animals without a fence between you. I don’t mean to sound dense, but these animals are huge. A group of wildebeest was lying down on either side of the road and we stopped again to get a look but then one leveraged itself up on legs that shouldn’t be able to support the weight of that head, those shoulders, that mass of muscle and life. But it did and looked my roommate straight in the eye as if to say, “Yeah, come at me, punk.” Needless to say, we did not come at it. In-person, I could also notice parts of them that I never could while looking down at the savanna enclosure at my childhood zoo. For instance, ostrich underbellies are just odd-looking, and the babies’ tummies bulge ungracefully from between their scrawny legs. 

The best moment (or so we thought)  was when we parked up on a hill overlooking the park as the sun went down and the animals were migrating en masse towards us. It was there we found the rhinos after two-and-a-half hours of searching–a mother and a toddler. Both had their horns blunted. There is something enthralling to their massive, ambling grace. The three of us sat captive as the herds moved, the rhinos edged nearer and nearer, and the sun fell behind us, casting a warm, surreal light. The scene was at once ancient and immediate–as we watched over the rims of our plastic wine glasses.

We arrived at the gate at 6:58 to leave and it took a few seconds to realize something was wrong. The gates were supposed to be locked at 7 and yet there we were on the wrong side of the padlock. Some choice words were spoken and we drove to some chalets available for renting inside the park for those who not only want nature nearby them while in a car but also while having a braai.

One was unlocked and unoccupied by human or beast. The universe, it seemed, was going to provide for us one way or another.

It was then we realized that we were not alone and met our (human) neighbors who, together with us, made quite an international crowd: Bulgaria, Slovakia, Great Britain, America, Ireland, and, of course, South Africa. They shared their food and drinks and we shared our chocolates and political opinions about Trump.

Earlier, as we drove by the chalets, I had expressed the desire to spend the night in one of them some day soon. Be careful with your words, dear children.

That night we slept with the door wide open (on the second floor, that is–I’m not at that level yet) and awoke to discover that the previous night had not been a dream, that we had, in fact, been locked in with the animals. We were not dead. We had not been mauled–nor had the car which was real a concern since the rhinos apparently like to get friendly with large vehicles. And, after a short sleep, we found that yes, we had enjoyed ourselves.

I can only hope that the rest of my stay here proves to be as story-worthy in a good way. In the meantime, the title of this post is the working name of my (fake) autobiography.

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The Body

Listen. I don’t really want to talk specifically about my body here, but I do want to talk about the perception of that body in general because I recently read an article in passing that enraged me. It’s called “The No-Bullsh*t Swimsuit Guide for EVERY Body Type.” I was researching ski jackets, obviously.

This article is from the oft-shared Huffington Post, known for its (nominal) left-leaning approach to most topics and the article I read is a light-hearted little piece that lists features that one can exaggerate or hide, depending on preference, for the swimsuit season. The writer chose not to include type-words for shapes like “apple” or “pear” and I thought well, isn’t that a nice change? I am more than a piece of fruit, aren’t I?

And then I found a phrase I had to read again. It was under the heading “Cellulite.” Dear God. Swimsuits are already a trigger word for many women (and everyone else who is past puberty and has lost that precious childhood unconsciousness about their bodies). To bring up cellulite in polite company is taboo in my experience, except among good friends and even then we don’t refer to it by name, we call it by nicknames or use oblique statements. I hoped that the writer would handle the topic with some generosity. After all, this is from the Huffington Post, supposedly egalitarian and feminist in its message and viewpoint.

Ha. Nope.

The exact sentence is like something from a 1950’s housewife magazine: “But there’s no reason to turn into ‘Modest Molly’ or sacrifice your personal style when attempting to keep those unsightly dimples under wraps.” If this sentence doesn’t make you rationally angry, then consider why I found the phrase “unsightly dimples” inflammatory: no one gets to bully my body, even me (especially me). No one is allowed to categorize or criticize any inch of my flesh. I am especially piqued by the word unsightly because it is a vicious word. I looked it up and it’s meaning, according to the Merriam-Webster thesaurus I keep in my bedside table, is harsher than I believe the writer intended: “unpleasant to the sight; ugly.” Synonyms include–but are not limited to–grotesque, hideous, unappealing, and vile.  What makes this passage even worse is that in the same paragraph, the author states, “Whether you’re slender, curvy, short or tall — cellulite doesn’t discriminate.” So a vast number of us are jiggling sacks of cellulite. Ok–then why is it vile? How is the norm, or at least the average, also the grotesque?

Unlovely is another synonym of unsightly and it was the one that hurt. To be called lovely, for me, is the highest praise possible. Lovely is a delicious word, a lush and rhapsodic word. It is full of tenderness and intimacy and affection and, well, love. In the context of the body, unlovely is cruel and uncalled for, almost a depredation or invalidation. It is the absolute absence of love for the subject.

As I have read and re-read this article, I’ve come across more features that are worrisome. Few, if any, of the models are WOC and none of them are darker than Turks and Cacicos resort tan. There’s also a troubling dissonance in tone between “unsightly dimples” and this recent article from the same site criticizing Urban Outfitters for using a larger woman to model a size the company doesn’t even carry. In the bathing suit article, the issue is that women of size should cover up their bodies, in the other article women aren’t even given clothing options to cover their bodies with. The tone difference between 2014 and 2016 is stark and strange.

I will allow that the swimsuit article came out in 2014 and the times they are a’changin’, but I don’t want to be told that if I cover my flaws, I will be better. I certainly didn’t need to be told that as a sophomore in college. Why must they be considered flaws at all? The phrase “unslightly dimples” doesn’t frustrate me because it was used by this particular author in this particular article. I’m frustrated because I’ve heard and read the phrase before and am finally too tired of the mindset it engenders to not call it out. There is something inherently wrong with our idea of beauty if it separates the idea of the feature from the nature of it. What I mean by this is that most women who have thighs that are thick and supportive and strong and powerful also have thighs that are not smooth in texture. The two can exist separately, and they certainly do, but they also very often exist together–fullness and cellulite. And that are not unsightly. That is nature.

This rant is not about the body. This is about words and how our society tosses them about in relation to the body.

Soon, I’m going to be living in a culture that values size and thickness. A South African ass is a thing of beauty, from what I’ve been told. I know American beauty culture is changing as non-white voices are able to grow louder in the porcelain din, but I’m looking forward to that first walk on the beach. I’m eager to see if there is a difference, in display and in size and in color. Fingers-crossed.

Go forth and be lovely in thought and heart and body–whatever texture or shape or color or size.

(P.S. Don’t forget about my Beast. It’s in there in the photo, I promise you.)

Begin Again

Let me just blurt out what’s on my mind: in less than two months I’m going to South Africa to be an assistant teacher in a local high school.

Yay: elephants! travel! new friends! good food! great wine! inspiration for my novel! the experience of a lifetime!

Ehhh: racial tensions that I, as a mixed girl who’s on the whiter side of brown, can’t prepare for; political problems in the country that were not present a year ago when I was applying for the position; inner social anxiety that’s been running rampant; raging imposter syndrome that’s beating my ego to a pulp

So, yeah. Mixed feelings.

I’m absolutely grateful for the opportunity, don’t get me wrong, but even studying abroad in England didn’t prepare me for this mindset. I know it’s revolutionary to say, but England and South Africa are completely different places. Whoa. I know I’m blowing some minds here.

In this blog, my intention is to unpack and share my experiences and emotions. In the  blog I wrote while in England, I got about 7 or 8 posts in before I was frozen by kudzu-like ennui.

Now, I begin again. Smell that? It’s a new start.

I really want this blog to be thoughtful and funny and warm and genuine. I’ve been reading some great books by women whose voices are all those things and more: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, The Gifts of Imperfection by Dr. Brene Brown, Bossypants by Tina Fey, and, most recently, Seeds of Hope by Jane Goodall. Looking at it like that, I’ve got the library of a 40-year-old Californian divorcee trying to “find herself”. You better watch out, I’ll probably start using words like “soul” and “spiritual experience” and (anti-New Age trigger warning here) “flow of the universe”. I see a therapist. I read self-help books. I meditate and do yoga and spend time in nature. Haven’t gotten into Buddhism yet, but who knows?

And yet, I also like to think that I am real, rather than a stereotype. I like to think that we all are more than the sum of our parts, more than our stereotypes. This is, of course, one of the reasons I selected South Africa.  I have serious qualms about this blog, but I also have a deep push to write it and one thing that I’m trying my best to exercise is letting myself follow these small urges. I’m very good at dismissing small actions that I call ridiculous in the moment, but small moments are where life is. And I want to share my small moments, my life, with you.

One last thing–one of my favorite books is My Dream of You by the late Irish author and journalist Nuala O’Faolain and this quote destroys me in the best way possible every time I read it: “The world is wonderful, she said. All its little things. It is wonderful.”

Sit on that for a bit.