I Miss Brown People

October 24, 2009

Of all the things I could do here in China – I just watched an episode of "So You Think You Can Dance?". Because that’s what people do here – they illegally acquire American television shows and movies and watch them.

And part of it is definitely the heavy quantities of caffeine I imbibed through the gallon of tea I drank today (with the subsequent crash), but it has left me feeling oddly nostalgic. For dancing? No. American pop culture? That’s not it.

You know what it is?

I already miss brown people. And other non-Asian non-white people. Because, no matter how much I complain about Portland, it’s still got about 18% more non-Asian people of color than this entire country. And seeing a decent amount of black people,* specifically, on the show has me thinking about that. That – no matter how great this experience is for me – the reality of my world is that a large portion of people I spend real time with – and have significant relationships with – in the States are brown folks.** And they’re not here, people that look like them aren’t here, and brown people, in general, are just not going to be a part of my life here. Period.

And it’s going to be interesting to see how that affects me. I’ve mentioned before in my references to "code-switching" that I have a lot of mannerisms and speech patterns of the American urban culture of color due to my tendency to identify as a form of "brown," and here – I suddenly have to erase that, almost entirely, from my existence. Because the foreigners I see who are primarily English-speaking aren’t going to be from that background. My cousin is an assimilated ABC. And the Chinese folks simply don’t understand that way of being and have even worse stereotypes about that than folks back home.***

Now what do I do about it? I came here fully aware that I was going to have to let some things go. I came here kind of excited about that. I’ve done my "white side" to death – time to see what my "Chinese side" really feels like. But I’m not just a sum of those parts.

My "in-between-ness" has created a third part to my identity – the "person of color." The sense of being a part of a bigger struggle – that of people of color, as a whole – that doesn’t quite get fully expressed on either of those two blood-sides. Being mixed has drawn me towards the urban culture of color ("brown American culture"), and participation in that community has actually been the most influential in helping me finally feel comfortable with who I am and what I do. Sadly, it hasn’t been the Asian-American community. Nor, obviously, has it been the Caucasian majority culture.

So the question is this: when I’m speaking English to Chinese folks, and I "code-switch" to British-style English, and my sort of "English-as-a-Second-Language" mannerisms, am I "selling out" to a degree? When I’m teaching (mostly English, in all likelihood), and I do not bring any of the non-dominant American culture English to the table – is that contributing to Chinese stereotypes of Western people of color?

And on the other side – if I ever succeed in tracking down the "Chinese hip-hoppers," would it also be contributing to stereotypes and a form of cultural appropriation if I allow that side of me to come out?

I really don’t know. I hadn’t thought of any of this. In my anticipation of this trip, I only thought of immersing myself in Chinese culture and allowing it to seep into my understanding on different levels. But I never thought ahead about what I am allowing to slip by "going with the flow" in that way. As an ambassador of a very specific kind of American culture that doesn’t see its way here very often (outside of mainstream American pop media culture – which is not the best ambassador for creating awareness), what is my responsibility in regards to representing that culture?

I’m too aware these days to only take from this opportunity.

But code-switching has always been my gift. To be able to soak up and understand different cultural contexts and adjust to make others more comfortable, and to help me gain a better understanding of the cultures I travel through. It’s what made me establish truly meaningful relationships when I lived in Tanzania.**** It’s why I can do the youth work I do as well as I do it. It’s why I have the understanding of race and privilege that I do. It’s something I’ve always been proud of and such a part of how I am in the world.

So, for the first time, really – I find myself immersed in a different culture, and I wonder if fully code-switching is the right thing to do. Or if it’s time that I intentionally disrupt "the way they do things" here to attempt some education.

Of course, when I put it that way, it sounds too much like the privileged Westerner trying to tell the rest of the world how to do things, because "I know best" (a sort of mental imperialism). Like a snotty American just out of college trying to lecture Chinese people about Tibet before they’ve even lived here for any length of time.

But I know it’s not so simple as that . . .

And so, unfortunately, this post will have no tidy wrap-up. It won’t come to a satisfying conclusion, or even pass basic literary muster by finishing off an arc.

I’m hanging. I don’t know. I miss brown people because there are almost none here. But, everywhere I go, there is one.


So what does any of that even mean?

* And hearing them talk.

** And yes – plenty of white folks, too, but I’m just going to be honest and say that I don’t miss that yet (a big reason being that the "foreigners" I do end up seeing around here are white folks, so they’re still a presence, to a certain degree; plus, Portland overwhelmed me so much, a break isn’t the worst thing in the world).

*** I’ll definitely do a post on my search for "Chinese hip-hop" sometime soon . . .

**** And ultimately got me "fired" from a basically volunteer job because I sided too much with the locals. Isn’t that a story for another day?




  1. (Gonna ramble a bit…I’m not even sure if my rambling is in line with what you meant, but here it is anyway…) Have you ever heard the term ‘Third Culture Kids’ (TCKs)? It’s a term popularly used to describe kids who grow up overseas and often move from country to country often due to their parents’ job. The way they came up with the term is that they referred to the parent’s country as the first culture and the host country as the second culture. And ‘third culture’ just refers to the ‘inbetween’ (regardless of how many countries you’ve lived in or how many cultures you have been influenced by). It’s being both here and there, and neither here nor there fully. And the idea is that being inbetween is another way of being – that it’s okay to be mixed cultured.

    So there’s that ‘inbetween’ feeling. Or sometimes the feeling that what you look on the outside doesn’t match what you feel you can relate to best on the inside. Then there’s the moving around so much that you keep having to make new friends and figure out how to ‘fit in’ every time the cultural context changes. Or, you might live in one country but shuttle to and fro from various communities with different cultures. From this some develop the ability switch cultural gears like a chameleon depending on who they’re with (cultural chameleon – or code switching as you’ve said). But often they feel most comfortable with others as mixed as themselves.

    >Or if it’s time that I intentionally disrupt “the way they do things” here to attempt some education.

    Yeah, I think that sounds good. Not so much as ‘education’ as just a way to have fun and sharing who you are with them. Besides, I usually find that if you can pass as a foreigner in Asia, then they find most things you do interesting if you can do it in a fun way.

  2. Since moving to small-town-Texas, I miss the other shades of brown too.
    Here, everything is Black and /or white.
    I miss having a mix of friends that looks like a Benneton ad.
    It’s odd – even though I feel more “Black” here in the South – that Blackness is often not enough.

  3. So many thoughts swirling around in my mind.

    I want to say first and foremost, that just cause you’re across the globe, and maybe some of our responses/comments have been less frequent, we are still reading! So don’t feel like your audience has disappeared! And I have been super busy, but seeing that you had posted audio and an entry since I last stopped thru made my Sunday morning.

    I found myself singing a Burning Spear song to myself when I was in Rwanda in ’04. The chorus and most of the lyrics, talk about “Where must I find my resting place,” and I found myself wondering what it means to have no “homeland” to go to. Sure, chances are high that my Black roots connect me to the west coast of Africa, once we trace back across the atlantic before the shackles and forced migration- but that is not a country, a specific group or culture where I can say specifically that I can learn a certain language, or set up a trip to return. Granted I do want to walk back thru gates of no return on the west coast of Africa and be one of many who return as proof that even through the atrocities of history, we survive and build and grow.

    But let’s be honest, in Africa, I was perceived as an American. Not to say that I didn’t feel loved and respected and welcomed and well taken care of and appreciated- all those things were present. But regardless of my connection to my history, my studies, intentions and even the way I felt at home and didn’t want to leave… that could not change the fact that “home” for me has always been malleable.

    For the white ancestry that flows through my veins, it connects me to various places and peoples in Europe- French, German, Dutch. I have even heard there is some Native American in my Black line of family as well (as is true for many of us whose ancestors joined and made community with the many indigenous peoples throughout the US). So what does it mean to be many things and yet not any on thing in particular?

    And when I look at two of the people I am closest to, that I am most likely to share many of my most inner thoughts/feelings with it is often you or W. Both of you walk the bi-racial, multi-racial line with me. Part of various worlds, yet not fully of them. An enlightening and at times seemingly lonely place to reside. I remember wishing to be just one or the other when I was a kid, although as an adult I wouldn’t change anything about my identity. Riding the fence between worlds is often uncomfortable, but the vantage point is incredible and really influences everything we take in and how we react. Could I be where I am at and who I am today without years of code-switching and being “third culture” as fromthetropics referenced? No.

    We deal with the constant struggle of defining ourselves in shades of gray, both/and, in a world that is about black and white and either/or. We code switch and camouflage ourselves to blend in with various environments because it becomes one of our greatest adaptations and means of surviving. But maybe the challenge is less about choosing sides and being any particular side and more about being more than the sum of our cultures, or the divisions of our cultures, and the mathematics of descent.

    So I would say, yes to learn from those around you and experience this voyage you are on, there will be times when you may set some aspects of self to the side when it makes sense to do so. That is natural. But I also want to encourage you to make spaces to be yourself in the full spectrum as well, so people can have the opportunity to learn from the unique perspectives and experiences that your life has offered. My dad always says, “Choose your battles.” That speaks so much to his experience of being P.O.C’s in the US, I mean if we fought over everything that needed to be done differently, when would we sleep?! So choose wisely when and where and how you “battle,” but don’t lose the fighting spirit. We have to challenge the norms of our respective cultures and identities in our daily lives and in the world around us, because we know first hand that there is so much more to who we are than a petri dish of DNA.

    You are amazing, and brilliant, and one of my favorite people, period. I hope you find spaces to represent all of that “you-ness” to others. And I miss you tremendously, this town has gotten whiter in your absence : )

  4. The thing about American culture of whatever type–White mainstream or minority “people of color”–is that it’s globally dominant.

    From MTV to Hollywood to CNN to US rap/hip hop itself, American culture has sadly invaded every part of this planet.

    How many Americans–including so-called POC Americans–know or respect the artistic forms (including even rap) practiced around the world outside the USA?

    Very few.

    This is largely because the sense of US cultural supremacy that Americans of *all colors* hold dear.

    It’s just some inferior Third World or non-American culture to them–unless it can be commodified as some kitsch like Wu Tang Clan’s appropriation of Shao Lin kung fu.

    Globalization in practice means Americanization.

    And Americanization is (cultural) colonization of the world.

    In fact, the concept of “people of color” itself is largely a North American invention that would be largely rejected by actual people of color in the Global South–where nationality, ethnic, religious, or even tribal identifications prevail.

    So-called “progressive” activists in the USA like to talk about White racial privilege, but they gloss over more fundamental sorts of privilege that Americans *in general* enjoy over the rest of the world–imperial privilege.

    But that’s all part of being a citizen of the most powerful (and criminal) empire in history: the American Empire.

  5. i miss you.

  6. CVT,I really identified with this post. I’m going through something similar right now (sort of) which is that I’m back in my own country for the first time in 18 years. Unlike you, I didn’t have time to prepare and had to leave my previous city (Shanghai, too bad, I just missed you!) on a day’s notice. Anyway, I’m also struggling with the stereotyping that I hear (mostly about Asian people, because I spent most of my life in Asia so people feel the need to ask me idiotic questions about Asian people who they universally refer to as “Chinese).

    I also agree with you about finding a community that makes you feel the most comfortable with who you are. For me, that was the TCK community that fromthetropics mentioned, because I didn’t feel accepted by the black community in America, the mainstream white community, or the mainstream communities in Japan or China where I lived the longest. Even now, I’m perceived on sight as being American like Ms. Sis just because of the way I dress, even though I’m back in my actual country of origin and citizenship. And I don’t fit into mainstream society here, nor the expat circles.

    I also want to disrupt the way they do things here and attempt some education, but I don’t even know where to begin.

  7. Hi there! Happened across your website when I was doing a search for code-switching. Really enjoyed this post. I wrote on a similiar topic about identifying as a person of color and as someone who chooses to identify as “brown” and not “yellow” for more political reasons. I agree – our voices as As Ams are often left out of the conversation in race or even mixed-race. Feel free to check out the post I wrote: http://loveisntenough.com/2008/10/02/wait-youre-brown/

    Looking forward to following more of your work!

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