Apr 29, 2010

About My Whiteness

I'm actually glad that I planned a 2-day layover in Brisbane as I find I'm needing the time to adjust my perspective. Surprisingly, one of the things I'm having to come to terms with is my whiteness. This will be difficult to explain, but I'll give it a shot.

First, the issue of my being white is something that has come up before, of course. I am married to a Mexican-American who calls me "Guera", as an endearment, a term that translates loosely to "white girl". When we hang out with his family or attend his high school reunion, I am often a bit "out of the loop" because of my whiteness, although I am always treated well by these groups, and always feel comfortable.

When I arrived in PNG, however, my whiteness actually became an issue. Not at all like race discussions in the US, my neighbours were quite comfortable sticking me in a group they called "white" and discussing openly the differences between us. At home, except among close friends of different races, this subject is always handled with kid gloves. I mean, in the US we seem to work at ignoring our differences and focusing instead on our similarities in avoidance of old remnants of poor race relations. In PNG, however, there was much open curiosity about the "white lady" in the neighbourhood and questions and comments about "white people" were frequent. As a side note, the children seemed a bit fascinated with my strange hair, the fact that it stays wet so long after washing, that I never apply cream to it, that I brush it or rearrange my pony tail often, etc.

Some of my PNG friends have never travelled from PNG and often posed some very interesting questions. For example, I was asked if I have ever travelled to another black country. I just had never thought of such a question and had no answer. I talked a bit about my travels to Cuba and Venezuela where I could find no "line" between white and black, but rather a long progression of skin shades with extremely dark skin at one end and extremely white skin at the other, but this seemed to be met with some scepticism. When I think about my work in Houston, I so often work with people of different races, I tend to minimize the differences there as well. I think it might be different if I were a really social person as my social interactions might indicate with which groups I identify more closely. But, alas, I am not. I tend to work so much, and keep to myself outside of that, that most of my "social" interactions are really work interactions that have overflowed the boundaries a bit. In PNG my social selections are clear and straightforward. For whatever reason or reasons, I am most definitely more comfortable in the presence of PNG nationals, no matter what colour I might label their skin.

But, I am rambling here. Let me try once again to get back on target.

"On target" is to say that after living and working in a world where I was most often the only white face in the room (yes, for some reason I tend to avoid the expat crowd, finding them too separatist for my tastes), when I got on the plane in Port Moresby to head here to Brisbane, I was actually uncomfortable. Yes, that's right. Uncomfortable. I would not have been able to put a label on it except for that fact that on my last night out, I ate dinner in a restaurant that was filled with whites as well, and I was able to recognize immediately the cause of my discomfort there. When we chose to sit, I have to admit I chose a seat that put my back to the rest of the room and allowed me to face my 3 friends (PNG nationals) throughout the meal.

Hey, I didn't say I could explain this...I just said that I'm having to adjust to it!

So, here I am in Brisbane now, still a stranger in a strange place, but one that gets no second look at all, unless I open my mouth and let my south Texas accent spill out, of course. I sit at supper in a room full of white faces and struggle to understand their conversations as the Aussie and New Zealand slang I hear here is a far cry from the proper "television English" that is more understandable to me. In Port Moresby, even though I tended to frequent the same locations again and again making me often recognized by those around me, I still was treated "differently". But always "differently" in a good way. Greetings were often exchanged and random, open questions by those I passed on the street were common ("Where are you from?", "Where are you going?", "Do you live here?", etc.)

The neighbourhood residents up and down my street in Korobosea soon learned to expect seeing me at the betel nut stand outside the gate in the mornings and late evenings, talking with my friends and learning new words in tok pisin. Although my presence there stopped being unexpected, it still seemed to be something of a treat as many stopped by to hear my strange accent and listen in as questions were asked about my home and family.

And when I went out somewhere, or travelled anywhere, it was only rarely in a crowd with another white face. [As a side note, although of not much importance, because of my business dealings it was also most often in the company of only men.] Again, this didn't really occur to me, not as a point of consideration, until recently, when trying to figure out just what it is that makes me uncomfortable now.

Finally, there is this "white" habit of keeping to ones self. [I must place a disclaimer here that my husband has NEVER suffered from this...Leo speaks to anyone and everyone he encounters with no sense that this type of interaction is to be avoided. And I, often first embarrassed, am almost always happy that he feel so inclined to "intrude" as we meet so many more interesting people when he is along on the journey.] Now that I am back in a world where looking someone in the eye is almost considered rude, or intrusive, I find myself shrinking back into my comfortable little shell. The woman who sat next to me on the plane did not speak, not even once, and never even glanced my way. So I, of course, took the hint and ignored her as well.

I have no doubt that my 4-week foray into my mostly white world with a sprinkling of brown, black, yellow and all the colours in between will be comfortable and enjoyable. But, I was so very much surprised by my feelings over the past couple of days, that I thought I should try and think them through. I know now that I will very much miss finding out what my friends think of my "whiteness" by the questions they ask and am already looking forward to my return, to my new home, in June.

Post Script: on the issue of my bilum.
I have a bilum that I carry now, actually, I have a collection of them. This is a kind of woven purse that is worn slung across the body and stores an AMAZING amount of "stuff" inside. The first one I received upon my arrival was a string variety found in the coastal areas of the country. I received many compliments on it, from people of all origins there. When another friend gave me one that had a longer, thicker handle and I began carrying it (yes, I carry a lot of "junk" with me), I began getting smiles and compliments from my Highlands friends as well. On one trip to the bank, I noticed a woman pointing my bilum out to her husband and commenting on it. Even security guards and strangers would compliment me on it. And I continue to tell people about my, "Now you look like a proper Huli woman" comment, which is my absolute favourite and the one that gives me the most pride. I arrived in Brisbane yesterday to find I was one of only a few carrying such a thing. I have decided, however, that even if it does look out of place, it is still such a logical item, I intend to continue carrying it with me. I might look like the strange lady with the weird bag to others I encounter on my journey home, but I like my little "security blanket" and intend to continue hanging on to it while I am gone.

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