Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Being White

This is a tricky post to write. In the spirit of honest communication, I feel like I need to discuss these things that have taken up a lot of my mental space...even if they reveal prejudices or ignorance in me.

I'll start by saying that before this trip I hadn't given much thought to my racial identity (other than the Danish Christmas traditions). Throughout Europe I was often startled by how often and naturally it came up in conversation. From Ireland to Turkey, nationality, country of origin, historical injustices committed against "your" people are all taken extremely seriously and personally.

I guess I've always thought of myself as a citizen of the US, but part of the identity of the US is that it is a nation of immigrants. Certainly over time an "American" culture has developed, but it is based more around recent experience (our country is so relatively young) and many people still have affinity with their country of origin...so it isn't quite the unanimous, racial pride that I've noticed abroad.

There are things I really respected and enjoyed about this national pride. People are (on the whole) invested in their country. Most countries don't have the privilege/liability of being the "world's great superpower" so there's more unifying and passion needed to have your country's voice heard. They also know their history well. History isn't just a subject...even fairly uneducated people often know the stories/legends of their national heroes and "their land."

I do find it interesting to see where people see time as "beginning". For us in the US, our country "started" in the 1600's with the Mayflower...we don't generally think of the Native American (First People?) population as part of the history of "our" land, and yet they certainly occupied it and had a long, rich history before the arrival of the Europeans. In Turkey, the "beginning" is marked by conquering and uniting of the Ottoman empire around 1300. In Ireland, the "us" is people who were Celts (originally from Central Europe) and the "them" is definitely the Vikings who began arriving in 800AD and of course those "nasty English" who persistently invaded. Granted, many "Irish" people are descendants of Celt/Viking unions or the Norman invaders.

Do you see how it begins to seem a little arbitrary as to where and why we call a place our own? If I was born in the US, of Danish/Norwegian/Swedish origins, but moved to Vietnam and lived here for years...at what point could I call myself Vietnamese? When I have earned/gained citizenship? We met someone in Norway who originated from Seattle, married a Norwegian and said she felt so strange about the idea of wearing the traditional Norwegian costume because although she is married to a Norwegian, has had two children in Norway and has lived there for nearly 10 years, she said it still seems like I am not quite "Norwegian" enough to be able to really wear that costume rightfully. And, yet, one of my closest friends whose grandmother emigrated from Norway has worn that same costume in the US since childhood.

So, then I arrive in southeast Asia to which I have no family heritage connection (that I know of) and am totally aware at almost all moments of my racial identity. Often I am the only "white" person in the room, on the bus, in the store, or on the street. I am certain that some of my previous lack of awareness of this is the result of the "luxury" of having lived as a member of the racial majority throughout most of my life situations. Honestly it has been a very "good" (not comfortable, but enriching) experience. To be on the receiving end of countless stares, pointing, assumptions and simply feeling on the "outside" is really an experience. It is amazing what "goes with" being white. I will say that I have never felt threatened based on this difference here in southeast Asia. I have certainly felt like a spectacle.

(Sidenote: I'm sure that some of my newfound noticing my racial identity is also due to the fact that I grew up on the West Coast of the US...it isn't strange to me to see racially mixed couples (here in Vietnam, an Asian woman traveling with a white man is often assumed to be a prostitute), interact with other cultures or eat many types of ethnic food in a week. In many of the European countries we visited this was less true...or maybe I should say, it was more geographically limited. In Seattle or Portland, I might eat Thai food one day, Indian food the next, Mexican the next and Norwegian waffles the next. In Europe, there is certainly French food in Ireland, but not much Cuban or Japanese.)

So, after Seoul, Kuala Lumpur and Saigon, we headed to Nha Trang which is essentially a resort town...and it was completely full of white people. I couldn't get over it. I felt the weirdest mix of feelings. I mostly just kept noticing it. It was an event. I felt a little bugged that there were so many of "them." I was often frustrated at their behavior and seeming lack of respect for the culture. One thing that seems like it can go with "being white" is the idea that you get to remake a place in your image if you "find" it or bring it enough money. That really bugs me. And we are trying very hard to transcend that. To join into the cuisine, culture, clothing habits, etc. of the place.

Part of what I am realizing is that whether or not I actively "claim" it I have a racial identity that is "visible" and it affects things. There are pieces of it that are accurate, pieces that couldn't be farther from the truth and pieces that are probably hard to see in yourself that are true. It kind of feels like someone put a badge on my back without me knowing it that signed me up for some club. Technically I meet the qualifications of the club and I maybe even went to a meeting or two, but I'm certainly not hardcore enough to walk around with a sign on my back advertising this club. But, I don't really have a choice. So, I'm trying to figure out what to do with this sign. Do I try to rewrite it? Do I make a big effort to try and change people's opinion of "white people"? Do I resent it? Do I get angry at the stares or the points or the assumptions? Do I try to pretend it isn't there? Do I act Vietnamese/Malaysian/Korean and look ridiculous to everyone around me but feel somehow more "authentic"?

I do feel like after a mere 20 days in SE Asia I am markedly more comfortable, culturally sensitive, and "fitting in" than I was before I arrived. And, I think I will forever feel a certain kinship to places like Vietnam (where I will have "lived" for a month) and people and food from there. But, I also will never be Vietnamese, nor would I pretend to...that would be kind of insulting to the Vietnamese.

Here's where I would like to put a well synthesized summary that ties together all these thoughts. But, the truth is, it is very much a work in progress. So, stay tuned.


Sarah said...

This post touched me enough that I am "de-lurking" to comment.

I experienced something similar to what it sounds like you are experiencing the summer I worked with PBT in Tanzania. I had never been a racial minority before and it was unnerving, probably in a good way.

Because of the large presence of Muslims in that country and because we were in the country as missionaries, we tried to be very careful of how we represented ourselves. We wore skirts, covered our shoulders, learned Swahili. Yet I was never so conscious of being "white" before. My teammates and I receive preferential treatment and deference, neither of which I expected nor was comfortable with. I was constantly conscious of the history of colonialism in that country and of my own country's contribution, if not in Tanzania, certainly in other places in the world.

This experience changed the way I think about myself and also the way I think about my citizenship. It has also affected the way I think about the kingdom of God.

Thank you for sharing a little of your experience.

Lisa in Leirvik said...

Thank you for your thought-provoking commentary on a subject that is difficult to put into words. I love your blogg and "tune in" daily!

Chau said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chau said...

I am glad that you both have the opportunity to visit Vietnam and soak up some new experiences. Ben and I went back to Vietnam to visit family a few years back and it too, was an eye-opening experience for us. As you can imagine, Ben, being 6'3", towered over everyone and as mentioned in your post, interracial couples were not keenly viewed upon. We were "paraded" around for our Western influence. My relatives gloated in having such connections. Despite being a Vietnamese-American, I was in a conundrum, suspended between two cultures in which I could not fully identify with. I was neither a native or a complete foreigner.

One of the benefits of traveling is the experience gained and the constructive growth that results from unfamiliar and sometimes, uncomfortable situations. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Trina. Vietnamese or not, I suppose in our deepest subconscious, we all aspire to look like a young Schwarzenegger.