12 September 2012

Home at home?

A few years ago when living in Honolulu, my ex Arnold would come out to stay with me from time to time.  At first we'd do the tourist things but after a while his visits became less about seeing stuff and more about experiencing O'ahu like the locals - going to my favorite haunts, hanging out with some grad school friends, hitting the beach, going holoholo in town. 

Arnold is Filipino, and one night out at the club a real lokal bruddah comes up and starts talking to us.  Well, to him.  In pretty full-on pidgin. Arnold had no idea what bruddah was saying, so he looked at me.  I translated and responded, looking at bruddah.  Bruddah looked at me, confused, faced Arnold, and asked another question.  Arnold, confused, looked at me.  I translated and responded looking back at bruddah.  Bruddah, confused, nodded and turned again to Arnold and said something else.  It just didn't compute that me, one ha`ole, was in this context the "local" and was the one who could understand a little pidgin; or that Arnold, by now very tan and local looking, couldn't speak or understand a word. 

As that visit was winding down I asked Arnold how it had gone and how he was liking Honolulu. He loved it, of course - most people do - but then he added something that I've thought of often over the intervening years: "I've never felt so comfortable in my own skin." 

He had shared with me some stories of being bussed growing up, from his very diverse West Long Beach neighborhood to very white Wilson HS on the east side. He had told me about being called "Cambo" at school, meant pejoratively and as a reference to the thousands of Cambodians who had settled in Long Beach after the "boat people" exodus from Indochina of the mid 70's.  He never said these things with any particular rancor or bitterness but it had been part of his experience, and now when he told me that being in Hawai`i was comfortable in a way that he'd never experienced before, I remembered them. 

The following year I spent a summer in Thailand for work with a couple of professors from UH.  We were in Chiang Mai and I was taking full advantage of being there - we worked in a hermetically sealed, over-air-conditioned conference room every day from 8 to 5 (or 7 to 7 by the end of the workshop), but we had weekends off and I some time to go exploring.  I fell in love with the food, the pace of life, the people, the steamy climate, pretty much everything, and I contemplated arranging my life so I could live in Asia - feasible? Worth pursuing? As I was idly thinking about it out loud over dinner one night, one of my professors counseled against it.  She was of Indonesian descent, and said that she always loved coming back home to Hawai`i, to the familiar, to a place where she didn't stand out and where she could really be at home.  She asked if I wouldn't get fatigued always being the outsider in places where my appearance meant I wasn't a local and never could be.  I made a comment about how it didn't bother me the two years that I lived in Japan, but how I'd never really thought about it like that. 

I thought about it after she asked me, though, and I thought about not having needed to have thought about it before.  When Arnold first told me about being a bussed-in minority kid in high school I was sympathetic but I didn't get it; when he told me that he felt comfortable in his own skin in Hawai`i I thought smugly, for a split second, that I was above that feeling or awareness of race.

I shouldn't have, because I'm not. At all. I'd been aware of race in Japan - I wasn't being totally honest when I said that "it didn't bother me" when I lived there.  I was a guest in a foreign country on a contract for a finite amount of time, so of course it was very different to what Arnold may have felt as a 9th grader on a school bus being driven across town, but I felt it. Like the time on the train, exhausted and stinky after 14 hours of travel back home to Nagoya from Thailand, when a Japanese business man in a suit sat across from me in the carriage and made no pretense of not openly staring at me. I watched him watch me for a few minutes and then I made a big show of taking out a borrowed old school 35mm camera and squeezing off a couple of shots.

I'd been aware of race in Hawai'i, knowing that no matter how long I stayed or how much language or culture I learned I would never be as local as Arnold would be just by stepping off the plane; that bruddah would speak pidgin to Arnold even though he didn't understand and even though I was standing right next to him, replying. 

And then I thought about white privilege: I'd never had to feel or been made to feel a sense of displacement in my hometown like Arnold had, but more than that, growing up white in Benton County, Indiana, meant that I got to think about race differently than my friends of color, of whatever color. How that meant that I didn't have to think about race at all. I remembered watching my ex Gabriel be stalked around a store in the mall in downtown Columbus and think "Holy shit, that really happens!" How I would hear a jackass in a bar tell my Wisconsin-born Asian friend that his English is really good and think, "Holy shit, people really say that!"  How my ex- Joe, after asking about a restaurant shortly after moving to Georgia, was told by a black neighbor that, "No, 'we' don't go there," as she rubbed an index finger over the skin of her arm.  

So I don't get to be smug - or to be anything - about how someone else feels in his or her own skin, and I'm embarrassed that I was.

But I've thought of Arnold's comment in another way since I've moved from the Bay Area back to SoCal. I hadn't realized that I'd never felt as comfortable in my own skin as when I lived in San Francisco until I'd left it. I was queer in a place where queerness was unremarkable and nothing that needed be commented on - queerness just was. Perhaps like being Asian just was for Arnold in Hawai`i. Like being white in Benton County just was, or being Japanese in Nagoya. I hated the weather in San Francisco, and the prices, and the insufferable smugness that techies can mount. (Yes, we get it, you're really, really special.) I hated walking over that goddamn cliff every night to go to the gym. I hated running my furnace every night in June, July and August. (And careful BLC readers may remember how I hated Palo Alto.) 

But even though I only lived in The City for a year, I grew accustomed to a baseline of queerness. I didn't have to do the work that needs to be done in other places; I didn't need to do the daily coming out, educating and revealing straight privilege that other places may require. I got very comfortable. Not everywhere in The City - I have queer friends who won't go to the Marina, and I was gay bashed by two guys in SoMa and had the bruised ribs to show for it, so I am not saying it's perfect, by any stretch. But in my daily life I was surrounded by queerness and I was the beneficiary of the consciousness-raising of all of the brave queer folk who came before me, and of the commitment to real equality by innumerable allies. I grew to love San Francisco as a special place that felt queerly homey that I didn't fully appreciate until I'd left. 

So I'm sorry that it took me a while, Arnold, but all these years later I'm finally starting to get it - what that feeling of being at home in your skin feels like. And I'll look forward to getting it back.

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