All-American Freak

I seem to have tripped on February, sailed over March, and landed on the other side of April. Well, it is a leap year after all.

In February, my little cat died and I was sad. In March I turned 40 and celebrated with a big dance party and I was happy. Meanwhile, plenty of other stuff’s been happening to make me scared and angry, like the weather changing from blazing hot to ice cold every other day, and Middle America coming out publicly as the land of misogynistic xenophobes, or misoxenic gynophobes, or whatever the technical term is for the racist, sexist swine who fill out the bloated beer gut of America. I’ve seen articles for bloggers about what to write about when you can’t think of anything to say. Who needs that? If you’ve got nothing to say, maybe you shouldn’t be blogging. What I need to know is, what do you do when there are so many things you want to say that it all gets tangled together and clogs up your brain, so that when you try to speak all that emerges is a guttural scream?

There’s an old Russian saying, “Don’t read the news before dinner.” “Or any other time, if you want to save your sanity” Mr. Koz remarks, poking his head in from the other room to determine what new madness on the airwaves has incited me to break out into loud, unintelligible Yosemite Sam-like snarls and growls.

The first time I heard about this guy with a funny name who was running for President, I was standing around with some other parents in the kitchen of our preschool co-op, fixing lunch and listening to them talk politics. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Some mixed-race dude with a bizarre name, who had lived in Indonesia as a child, was running for President? I became immediately suspicious. Not that I didn’t believe he was the genuine article. No – my mind was boggling that someone like me was running for office. I’ve never known anyone personally who could relate not just to the experience of growing up in a multiracial family in America at a time when yogurt was still considered pretty exotic, but who was also periodically taken out of that hermetically sealed world of Velveeta ‘n Wonder Bread, to live in hot, raw, smelly, faraway places, like Indonesia for goodness sakes. I don’t know about his early travel experience, but mine was traumatic in a lot of ways; still, I am grateful that I got to see other places, where people did things differently and ate different kinds of food, but they were still people. You can’t grow up having those kinds of experiences without developing a broader perspective of the world and more compassion for its inhabitants, helpful traits if you’re going to be a world leader who’s got to rub shoulders with diplomats and dignitaries from countries around the globe. I’m proud of President Obama for rising above the racist jibes that his opponents have resorted to in an effort to reach out to voters who are still mad that they aren’t allowed to have slaves to boss around. Having been subjected to many indignities over the years as a consequence of my perceived race (since most people can’t tell “what” I am, they tend to project on me whatever they are most afraid of or titillated by), I only wish I were able to react in the calm and collected way that Barack Obama does while continuing to do his job. I guess that’s why he is the leader of the free world, and I’m a reclusive artist who avoids daylight almost as much as politics.

I do remember sticking my head out of the cave a year ago, to hear that Osama Bin Laden had been brought to justice. I still marvel at the dignity with which the President shared that news with the country. No hat waving yippe-ay-ays or other embarrassing gloating. I really appreciate having a dignified adult in charge, someone who understands that the whole world is not guided by the same values that drive this country – which is not to suggest that he doesn’t share any of those values. I know I do. I don’t agree with every decision he makes, but I respect the way he handles himself with grace while bearing criticism on a magnitude that would leave me in a permanent fetal position, all without skipping a beat in doing the job he was elected to do.

It’s difficult for me to talk openly about this kind of thing. I have to force myself not to read the comments after news articles because they are trolled by the most hateful people, spreading their nastiness like a bad infection. Reading that stuff makes me feel like my head will explode, which I guess is its intended purpose. The first time I posted a picture of myself in this blog I wondered if I should do it, knowing that some people who might otherwise like my writing would be turned off instantly once they saw I wasn’t blonde-haired and blue-eyed.  But then I thought, so what? It’s not my job to make everyone like me, not to mention, who wants people like that around anyway?

Perhaps you think I am exaggerating in my assessment of others’ attitudes toward my coloring and facial features. Let me tell you a little story.

I had just graduated from college and moved in with my buddy Hank, who had all the fine features of a porcelain doll, with flowing blonde hair and pale blue eyes. I’d had a few small art shows in LA and Santa Barbara, and left a number of little books with my contact information at the cafes and galleries where my work was hung. One day I received a long letter from a woman who had been particularly moved by one of my drawings. Wow, my first fan mail! I wrote back to her, and was surprised to get another letter a few days later. This began a long correspondence, which took on the tone of friendship, and I looked forward to getting letters from my mystery pen pal. Once, she asked me to send her a picture, and I drew her a small cartoon of myself smoking a cigarette. When I told her I was going to be taking the bus to Santa Barbara for my brother’s graduation, she offered to pick me up from the station. We talked on the phone several times to sort things out, and Hank and I were both nervous but excited when we boarded the Greyhound. What if she’s cool and we have a new friend? What if she’s a psychotic ax murderer?

It was dark when we arrived at the bus station, and there was hardly anyone there. We looked around and saw a car of the description we were given sitting alone in the parking lot. As we walked toward it, a woman jumped out and came running towards us, calling my name. I raised my hand in greeting, which she ignored as she dashed past me to fling her arms around Hank. It was an awkward moment as I explained that, actually, we were the other way around, and I was unprepared for the look of shock and confusion on her face. We got into her car, but she was visibly agitated. As we drove around she became more and more upset. Finally, I asked her,” Is something the matter?” At that, she burst into tears and cried, “I thought you were going to be white!” Then, instead of taking us to her house as planned, she dumped us at the doorstep of an unsuspecting acquaintance of hers, who was frightened awake by our arrival in the middle of the night, but gracious enough to set us up on her pull-out couch as our erstwhile host fled into the darkness, never to be heard from again.

I don’t think of myself as white, but I don’t particularly think of myself as anything else, either. While strangers might approach me with attitudes ranging from curiosity to hostility, friends who know me well tend to forget that any of my ethnic origins differ from theirs. For much of my life, most people I met had barely heard of half the places my DNA traces back to, while the places they had heard of were often the butt of crude jokes. Ironically, I was way more foreign in those distant countries, where I got giggled at constantly for being fat and pink compared to all the lean, brown children who were purported to be my relatives. I dissociated from those places at a very early age, and never more than when I had to stay there did I identify with being an American. Living in Indonesia at age nine, I was so homesick that I taught my little brother all the patriotic songs I had learned in Mrs. Smith’s class in the 3rd grade, and tape recorded us singing them and saying the Pledge of Allegiance. It trips me out to think that the only other person I’ve heard of who might truly understand how I felt back then ended up becoming President.


4 thoughts on “All-American Freak

  1. Shame on her – what an odd, odd reaction. You’re beautiful and while I’ve never thought about what i would classify you as, i’ve never thought of you as not white either… hmmm… i guess because it doesn’t matter to me, i’ve never put much thought into how people perceive varying shades of color. Maybe it’s something i should put more thought into? At 5 N refers to everyone as “like me” or “browner than me.” I’ve not taught him differently b/c that’s kind of how it goes in my head.

    • Racism is a subject I’ve been forced to deal with, directly and indirectly, all my life. Certainly it is a force that has contributed to shaping me into who I am today. I’ve never been given to examining it too closely, certainly not in public like this. But the attitudes that have been emerging in public arenas over the last four years have been growing progressively uglier, and it interests me that so many people express surprise or even disbelief, as if they had been quite sure that racism was magically evaporated sometime in the 60’s. I have a lot of really mixed feelings on the subject, but it really pisses me off that people would question Barack Obama’s validity as an American, because that means my validity has been called into question as well. At the same time I find it rather humorous that I identify more deeply with the President than I did with any of the Asian girls in the stupid club my stupid guidance counselor tried to force me into in High School. I’m as Asian as I am Eastern European, but no one ever tried to force me into some weird Ukranian club!

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