Disclaimer: This is more of a personal essay than about identity in different cultures. Carry on.
They say traveling gives you perspective. If true, then like a hoarder I’ve accumulated years of the stuff and need to start sorting out what to keep and what should go. Something I learned early on as a weird, social reject in the white washed suburbs of Massachusetts and New Jersey is that I did not stand out. I was not picked for recess marriages and crushes. Boys barred me from joining their Goosebumps club. At some point I got chubby, and moved to New Jersey. Cuter classmates stole male attention and that was just going to be that. I always had some saving grace friend who pulled me out and we were able to talk about the same things. What did we have in common? Often we were pretty-girl rejects. We were more light hearted, and often times intellectuals. More obnoxious (but funny) things came out of our mouths. We were less concerned with how we had to act because most of the time, people weren’t actually paying attention to us. It had a sort of sad freedom to it, I find.
By the time I moved to Florida I knew where I fit in the world and I was over it. I wanted to change. I learned charm, charisma, and I had a much different playing field. I wasn’t just some white girl. I was now a minority! Woohoo! My skin allowed me to stand out. But I began to learn what beauty meant in a new dimension. Beauty here, was not sitting on a toilet for hours on end flattening your hair. Beauty was having blue eyes. Beauty was having great eyebrows (I don’t get this one but okay). I thought I’d hit all the right notes but it wasn’t till much later I realized these were all pretty superfluous too. Now I was being liked for very specific, genetic features I had little to do with and little control over. They were my body, but they weren’t me. I’d been waiting for someone to see me. I felt like I’d been training for a marathon only to realize I can only get 3rd place. I wanted to be golden, dammit! Where is the gold? When can I toss my hair and make men trip over themselves? (Turns out that is easily accomplished by wearing short shorts while sitting on hallway floors reading books. But those are not the kind of men I wanted to talk to either.) Again, things that had very little relevance to who I actually was.
So I am mediocre, to some even ugly. Physically. I, like many ugly people of my time, have learned what a blessing that can be. I was generally left alone at parties and learned to host my own inner dialogues. Women didn’t see me as a threat and men weren’t interested so I was privy to all manners of degraded 9gaggery-like conversations. Oh yes, I had learned the power of diving into a book so I could pretend like the rejection of the outer world didn’t concern me. In the mornings at school I could easily flutter from different social groups because nobody cared enough to want me somewhere specific and I made myself like a chameleon enough to try and match the tone of a group. I was no alpha, but I sure made one hell of a role as a beta. I could watch people without catching their attention if I wanted, but more often than not I did want their attention. Somewhere along the way my confidence blossomed and I pulled head force into “I AM THE BEST THING IN THE PLANET!” A severe over reach that disproportionately blew up my ego which I then had to tape down.
I realized why certain men were after me. Growing up in Orlando, FL which was at the time of my area, mostly Hispanic in nature, I realized there was… the white girl fetish. Oh my goodness! #WhiteGirlMagic I’d only heard of the Asian girl fetish so this was new. This went hand in hand with pumpkin spice lattes and Ugg boots. My body and heritage meant something really different to those around me than it did to myself and I often felt that dating was like some cross-culture filibuster. In the words of Avenue Q, “And the whites have all the power!” when in fact I lived in the same neighborhood in the relatively same income bracket as these men did. But alas I fall into the same trap! I too had an unending stream of crushes on Hispanic guys. My friend once remarked after my wedding, “I thought you knew? Yeah you go for skinny, dark guys”. Inevitably I was pinning my own associations and fantasies on a tale of “otherness”. Was it wrong? Was it right? I still don’t have the answer but I had at least begun to realize after high school that I was chasing something I wasn’t willing to look at clearly.
Finally I found refuge in the mixed NYC. I was a spot on a Jackson Pollock canvas at my school. I was in a rainbow rather than being some harsh chord of red, or a forgotten pale blue. I preferred it this way. I’m very happy in mixed ethnic systems. I became “American” rather than “White” in a wash of international students and largely first generation children from every manner of borough and background. My upper hand was more about being able to navigate early 90 cartoon references than the color of my skin which was a relief. Later, I moved for more school. Being in upstate NY (but they will refer to it as “Central” if you’re a local) was a place where I felt like Jane Goodall, as I rediscovered the habitat and behaviors of white people. (Last I checked Syracuse University is about 48% Caucasian). I worked in a library system that served a largely retiring, elder white middle class neighborhood. I fit in, I checked all the boxes, I knew what I was about because I was a grownup (finally).
Now I live in a formally colonized third world country with my husband, who does see me. While there is always a certain level of appeal in “otherness,” it doesn’t form the base of our relationship. It more has to do with the fact that we both grew up playing Crash Bandicoot and Final Fantasty. When I put on “Lost Prophets” in our car he recognized the song and we screamed out lungs out to “Make a Move”. He had an endless fascination for making a hydroponic garden and I enjoyed sitting in his sunny room on the bed reading. Also he is one sick singer with vocal cords that would make any woman’s heart melt. Honestly I wish he’d dated more women before me because I feel quite selfish having snatched him up for myself. (That’s not actually an invitation)
In America mixed marriages are at least trendy and edgy in some circles, here there is so little to go on. I make a point to hold my husband’s hand in public because often he is assumed to be my guide, or driver. People will ask me 3 or 4 times where I live even though I’ve told them it is here in the city of Bandung. I suppose they think my Bahasa Indonesian is so bad I didn’t understand what I was saying (it is pretty limited) or their English is off and surely I didn’t say I was living here? It isn’t until I pull out my marriage visa that people tend to chuckle, apologize, or even high five my husband. Like he has accomplished something. Because catching a bule is some kind of marker of success. My skin says to certain people, “You’ve arrived. Have a drink.” Just like I’m sure some people think my marriage says “Oh, so tolerant! What a not-racist, good white person she must be!” My students in Jakarta were often surprised when they found out I’d gone native. It was confusing, exciting, and unnatural to most.
There are so little examples in Indonesia, especially outside of Jakarta, of mixed marriages. I wonder why other men make such a big show of what a good catch I am. Um, excuse me? Maybe I’m a nasty person on the inside? Maybe I work for the CIA and I’m here to continue instigating international spy plots against the fight against communism and China? You don’t know! But alas, we are met with smiles, revered handshakes, and the never ending request to have my photo taken. It’s what I imagine being a C grade Hollywood star feels like. People are staring and trying to figure out your story. They don’t know you but they want to. Eyes are always watching me on the street. When I pass through vendor stalls I am so cognizant, so aware of the attention, I feel like a piece of iron passing through a magnetic field. I couldn’t even enjoy my apartment’s roof top garden without being asked to take a photo.
People, again, tell me I am beautiful. I try to take a step back when I hear this because in my own culture, I’m actually pretty standard fare. I’m super prone to believing flattery. In reality I’m overweight, I like playing video games in pajamas under a nice blanket, I cannot stand wearing high heels for more than 20 minutes. I don’t like wearing makeup, and I have two beautiful tattoos. I have scars on my body from a near death birth and stretchmarks from my knees to my hips. It is very easy to get to my head when I hear these words, because I’ve wanted to hear these things all my life. From my sad lonely elementary heart, I have to remember they’re not seeing the things I see. The beauty they’re talking about isn’t symmetry, blonde hair, or being skinny. I haven’t achieved something really. It’s something that they don’t have and are suddenly confronted with.
I think when I move back to the U.S. there will be some relief and displeasure at not constantly being the center of everyone’s attention. Like any vain creature and anyone who knows me well, I certainly enjoy spotlight when I have it. I had a brief feeling of this being taken away as I worked my way through Singapore for a week. I walked down the street and no one even cared. In the mean time I’ve considered opening up a store where I just sit in a room and people can come and take pictures or look at me. I wouldn’t be able to live off it but I’d eat dinner on that salary a few days out of the week for sure. I often wonder where me and my husband would fit in naturally. I have no intention of living in a metropolis again, which is oft the liberal haven of mixed couples who batter only the uncommon eye or so. So where does that leave us? Do we live in a country where we are both strangers? Do we find somewhere that the staring is just better than other places? Between Indonesia and the US, it doesn’t leave us with much. We’re working to move back to the US at any rate, and other factors like family and job are out of our hands. But if we could choose, I don’t know a single place where we’d look “normal”. Our differences make us quite Puzzling, at least to the outsider.