Saturday, February 27, 2010
This is a guest post for swpd by fromthetropics:
I went sandboarding with an Asian friend a few days ago in a little town 1.5 hours away from the Australian city that I live in. I’m Asian too. And I found it amusing how we reacted to some things while on the trip. It reminded me of an earlier post by macon entitled "swpd: go on racially trouble-free vacations." Of course, since he's white and I'm not, our vacationing experiences were very different. The opposite, to be precise.
As my friend and I drove into a car park at the foot of the sand dunes, I noticed that the people parked next to us were looking our way and saying stuff to each other. I got anxious, and I thought out loud, “Are they looking at us? Why? Are we parked in the wrong place? Is it my car? Is it because it's a sedan while everyone else's is a 4WD? Does it look out of place? But this is the only car I own. Or are they looking at the guys behind us?”
As my thoughts ran on like that, I had a flashback to the time when I went to a country town with my family, and we came across Asians tourists who were loud and seemed unaware of how out of place they or their white Mercedes looked in that small town. It made me wonder how out of place we may have looked (perhaps less than them, but still).
I think this sensation that I experienced in both situations is what W.E.B Dubois famously referred to as “double-consciousness”:
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.
Before I came across Dubois, I used to call it “split vision.” I made up that term because I needed words to describe how I felt. I would sometimes be with a group of Asians, but my consciousness would then step outside the group, and look at my group with a white person’s eyes. And I would then think, “Man, we must seem so weird and out of place.”
Then I would try to shake it off, and get my consciousness to step back into the group where my body was, and I would say to myself, “Forget about what people think, and just enjoy the moment.”
So my friend and I got out of the car and walked up the dunes for some sandboarding. We never did find out why or whether it was even us that those white people in the car were looking at. It was nice to know that there were at least two other Asian groups there (there were no other poc groups) who were enjoying themselves. I thought, if they’re enjoying it, surely we can too.
Later, we took a break and sat with our legs hanging off the edge of our open car boot. We were chatting and eating some grapes when we noticed a ‘ranger’ (security) pick-up driving slowly by. Then it stopped near our car. I became anxious again.
I said to my friend, “Why is he stopping? Is it because of us? Are we doing something wrong?” She said, “Maybe we’re not allowed to eat here?”
Not allowed to eat in an open air space like that sounded like an utterly ridiculous reason, but still, I echoed her concern as I wondered the same. I said, “Oh gosh, there was a sign at the entrance that told us to make sure we read the ‘important’ sign in the car park area. But I haven’t read it because I didn’t notice any such signs. Maybe it says there what we’re not supposed to do.”
As I said this, I scanned the car park area for signboards. I didn’t see any. I worried that maybe the signboard was on the other side and I had missed it on the way in. Then I had a few flashbacks, one of which was of the time when my family encountered an obviously racist incident during an out of town trip.
After a few minutes, I was relieved when the ranger left without a word. As we finished sandboarding and began leaving the area, I looked around again to check for the ‘important’ signboard. I saw none. I again felt relieved, because we apparently hadn't missed anything.
But then I wondered why I felt so insecure with the presence of a security car. Wasn’t I supposed to feel more secure, knowing that they were there to stop troublemakers? Surely, I should know that two (Asian) women eating grapes don’t look like troublemakers.
When writing about his very different sensations during a trip to Indonesia, Macon wrote, “I now see that having been trained into whiteness made me feel especially entitled to go wherever I liked, and to do pretty much whatever I pleased when I got there, as long I was willing to pay for it.” He also quoted Shannon Sullivan, who says about the different ways that whites feel about themselves in such situations, “As ontologically expansive, white people consider all spaces as rightfully available for their habitation of them.”
But for me, it was the opposite. I was well aware that I was in someone else’s ‘territory’, and that some people might not like my presence, or that I might have done things which were seen as different and conspicuous, just because of what I am. In my case, this different kind of self-awareness meant that I used to avoid out of town trips out of discomfort. But this time around I thought I’d take a plunge, overcome my fears, and so off we went to the dunes. Yet, I was still not free to feel fully at ease.
On the trip home, we bought a soft-serve cone at a park. We didn’t want too much, so we asked for two chocolate dipped baby cones. I hadn't had a chocolate dipped one in a long time, and it was my friend’s first. The elderly white man serving us noticed that my friend was Japanese from the way she spoke, and he started telling us a story about some previous Japanese customers.
He was very friendly, but my first thought was, “Oh no, did we do something embarrassing?” By ‘we,’ I mean everyone who I had never met but who looked ‘Asian’ (a big chunk of the world’s population).
He told us that when the Japanese tourists come in a big bus, they either all order the same thing, or none at all. “Fair enough,” I thought, “it’s kinda typical and it doesn’t offend anyone anyway. No sweat there.”
Then he went on, and told us how a group of Japanese youths ordered one cone and asked for six spoons. I wasn’t surprised but I thought, “Oh shit.” For some reason I put on a surprised look and said, “Noooo, sixxx???” to indicate that I didn’t ‘approve’ of such behavior (not that I cared too much about the behavior itself, though I did think six spoons for one cone was a bit much and embarrassing indeed, except that it has a tendency to give ‘us’ all a bad name). I did this in case he was sharing the story to indicate how cheap or weird Asians were; it wasn't the first time I had heard white people mention the exact same scenario with other food.
He wasn’t finished. He went on to share another story, but this time with a bunch of Chinese customers who shared a cone among the five or six of them. I did the same drill and showed disbelief.
Wide-eyed, I said, “Did they each order some after they tried it?”
“Nah,” he said.
“Are you serious?” I added, to make sure that I put enough of a distance between myself and them.
"They said they go around the world trying ice creams everywhere they go," he said, "and they said that ours is the best one they’ve tried so far."
The story had a positive spin to it, so I quickly took advantage of the positive note and said, “So we’re getting the world’s best ice cream, eh?”
We praised his ice cream, thanked him, and walked off, lest he had a whole stock of ‘Asian’ stories tucked away under his belt.
It turned out to be a trouble-free trip. We ran into quite a few extremely friendly and helpful (white) people. We had sand in our shoes, all over our bodies (even in our ears), and in the car. Plus, I have a ‘redneck’ where I forgot to put sunblock on. We had an awesome time.
But I was bemused at how the littlest thing would trigger a defense mechanism in me. And each time it was triggered, I would get flashbacks of the racially-troubled vacations I had had in the past. Also, it didn’t help that I read this once I got back home. Nor does it help to hear from a friend who recently moved to a small mining town that racism is rife there.
On the ride back, my friend had pointed out the kangaroo road signs warning us to be cautious in case our mascot pops onto the road out of nowhere. She hasn’t been in Australia long, so she asked me if I had ever seen a wild kangaroo on the road. I told her no.
“So why do they have these signs?” she asked.
“I dunno. I guess if you live out in the country for long enough you’ll see a wild one pop out onto the road every so often,” I answered. Otherwise it would be a waste of government money putting up and maintaining all those signs.
I wonder if the way POCs automatically analyze situations for racial overtones is similar to the function of those kangaroo road signs -- if, for those who have lived in that terrain long enough, racism and Othering does happen enough times to warrant a defense mechanism, for the sake of staying physically and emotionally safe?