Friday, January 19, 2007

If You're from America, Why are You Brown?

After my last post, I thought I'd add a little more about race stuff because it’s weird to me how I feel about race here (my race in particular). At home, race is the characteristic that makes me stand out in most situations, but here, I assume it’s my nationality. However, that’s not necessarily the case. Until I open my mouth, people have little, if any indication that I’m American. But since I am a racial minority here, not to mention the fact that I’m racially ambiguous, it is still my race that initially makes me stand out. I've been told more than a few times that people just assumed I was Maori because I am brown and work in Maori Health. Like in America, people are confused, so they make an assumption to make themselves feel better.

However, hearing my foreign accent adds a new dimension to the situation. Instead of explaining why I look different, it ends up magnifying curiosity about my racial ambiguity. I don’t look like what they envision an American to be, so they need to know what how my brown skin made it to New Zealand by way of a white country.

I assume that white Americans who travel over here don’t get questions about their ethnic background, so why should I? I know the answer—it’s the same reason I get the question back in the States, but it still frustrates me. What’s weird, though, is that I am more than happy to talk about my nationality, the characteristic that I think makes me stand out (in fact, I actively enjoy it), while I don’t like answering questions about my race, the characteristic that actually makes me stand out. Part of this could be that it’s a lot less fun explaining an oppressed identity than it is a privileged one, but by contrast, it’s not like I’m all excited to talk about my heterosexuality. And part of it is probably that I never get a chance to talk about my American-ness at home (especially with non-Americans), while I am sick to death of explaining my ethnicity.

But I think in the end the difference is that I chose to “other” myself with regards to my nationality. I came overseas specifically to experience life as an American in Australia/New Zealand. I prepared for the experience, and I can quit whenever I want. So of course I’m excited to talk about how I'm dealing with this change that I purposefully made. On the other hand, I have never chosen to be a racial minority (although that’s not to say that I wouldn't), I certainly never had an opportunity to prepare myself for the experience, and I obviously can’t quit my race.

I don’t dislike talking about race per se, but I’m also past talking about it at the superficial level that I currently talk about my American-ness. It’s still interesting to me to talk about American versus Kiwi fast food portion sizes or to explain what a fraternity is, but I'm done being shocked by the correlation between race and SAT scores or explaining why the model minority stereotype does more harm than good. I've had those conversations about race, and while they were interesting the first few times, I need to go a little bit deeper. The foreigner stuff is still pretty new to me, so even the basics are fascinating. I guess that's all part of the process of understanding an identity, and the race thing is one that I've been actively working on for a long time.

Fortunately or not, there is no way to separate the experiences of being an American in New Zealand and being a person of color in New Zealand. Just as I'm sure my experiences would be different if I were male or something. But sometimes I wish I could separate them out, just to know what it was like to have people see me strictly as an American and not as a hyphenated American. On the other hand, then they wouldn't really be seeing me for who I am.

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