Outside of my hometown, I consider myself to have “lived” in very few cities. Soon to join New York City, New Delhi, and Zaragoza is Maputo, Mozambique, which makes for four continents over the course of 15 years! Unlike Raven Simone, I actually know the difference between a country and a continent, so I’d say that’s kinda a big deal. I’m quickly coming upon my one year anniversary in this southern African town and it’s got me reminiscing on the biggest lessons I’ve learned since embarking on a life of travel and subdued mayhem. People often ask me for tips and tools for life lived abroad. Usually I’m stumped by the combo of negatives and positives, much like the “Giving Tree,” but for this occasion I’m going to share the top ten lessons I’ve learned from living on the road…
10- Race is a figment of many people’s imaginations, but it’s real. – I’ve been stared at like I have 3 heads in India. I’ve been called “Negrita” in a loving way, really. I can speak 4 languages, but I still have very few close friends that are of a different race. There is no such thing as post-racial. No matter where you go, people codify color in ways that will make your head spin. One isn’t worse or better, it’s just the stories people tell themselves to understand where they fit in a social order that you may not yet understand. You can’t wig out every time someone does something “racist” or else you will be the subject of multiple international incidents. I’ve learned that understanding people’s thinking isn’t the same as accepting it. Understanding is something you can achieve with time & travel.
9- Life is better lived when you can eat everything you’re offered. – Just friday, I was browsing the menu of a hot spot in Maputo and noticed ‘hamburger de espada.’ I asked what ‘espada’ was and I was told it was a fish. “You know, it’s mainly for the vegetarians,” the waitress said with a straight face. As a person who has traveled the world with food restrictions, I can tell you that I feel like I’ve been restricted from taking full advantage of the cultural connection food offers. I’ve been handed chicken and told “but it’s not meat.” When I turn down the dish, then I feel bad and undoubtedly I’ve just offended my host. It sucks. If you can eat everything that comes your way, you’ll be the better for it.
8- Being bilingual is a gift. Being multilingual is best kept a secret. – I learned my first second language when I was 15 and I always used my powers for good. I always helped the Spanish speakers who looked stranded on the subway tracks staring at the English map. But then once Portuguese and Hindi started to muck up my brain waves, I’ve become very strategic about when to reveal my tongues. Seriously, it just makes me head hurt to switch between languages, and I’m always second guessing if I said the right thing in the right language. It stopped being cool the time I went to the nail salon and could actually understand all the languages being spoken by the workers – and they weren’t saying anything worth listening to. And just last week Thursday I went to a Zumba class and knew the words to all the songs. It was pretty cool at first, then I started to trip over my own feet while trying to translate “Chori chori..hum gori se pyar karenge.” Seriously, I almost long for the days when it was ok to just listen to people talk and not know what their words mean.
7- Money doesn’t make the world go ’round, but you’ll never make it around the world with no money. I’ve never said that I travel on a shoestring budget. Rather, I’d say that my travel style is modest – I like guest houses and family owned B&Bs. I think my approach comes from the reality that I don’t have the luxury of treating travel as a luxury. It’s a part of my life – much like brushing my teeth twice a day and checking emails, it’s so integrated that it’s hard to consider life without it. That said, many people blame their inability to travel on money and that’s just a thinly veiled lie. Travel is not about how much money you have. It is instead about how you choose to spend it. Some people will blow all their cash on souvenirs to show others that they’ve been traveling. Some people will eat through $300 on an exotic meal and great wine. Some people will not go anywhere because they value spending their money on things rather than experiences. Either way, money isn’t what matters in life, but travel is about finding a way to be comfortable in uncomfortable settings. That doesn’t come for free. It really does hinge on a cash flow that suits your travel needs and the currency of friendship, which can help you save your tour guide money and explore the joys of couchsurfing.
6- Art is life. No one remembers a city because it looked intelligent. You remember cities when they strike you visually. Barcelona and Chicago have a special place in my heart for their artsy architecture. Bangkok’s street graffiti juxtaposed with traditional Thai residential neighborhoods left an impression on me. I fell in love with every street corner in New Orleans’ Marigny and French Quarter neighborhoods, because of how delicately history and art were interwoven. Art tells all – the cultural struggles that exist or don’t. Even the absence of art can leave an outsider with very strong impressions about how little a people value or can access this mode of communication and expression. Beyond the galleries and sculptures, a city’s art scene (or lack there of) says a lot about what is important to the city’s inhabitants.
5- You always have it better than someone else, you just may not yet have met that someone. Many cities I’ve visited have had their flashy sides of town and their gritty underbellies. Usually people in both sides have a rivalry based in their lack of mutual understanding, nevertheless this tension can really be palpable to a traveler. What comes with more time and travel to different places is this sense that the rivalries in that one small place are just distractions from bigger issues. In Dubai, I was disgusted by the labor camps and the practices to help build this town of glitz in the middle of an inhospitable desert. But then I thought, well having seen some slums in Delhi, I can imagine why someone would choose to be the lowest in the Dubai hierarchy, rather than somewhere in the murky middle in Delhi. Even when it seems like life in a particular place is unfair and unjust, there is always another place where people have it far worse. Sometimes it’s best to focus on the positive affirmation of what’s going well where you are in that moment, rather than focusing on the negative rivalries that seem more present and palpable.
4- It’s best not to compare traumas. Piggybacking off #5, I can’t tell you much I value people who can understand history and not compare traumas. People have asked me if I think slavery was worse than the holocaust. I’ve been asked in Portuguese colonization was worse in Cape Verde or Mozambique. I actually dropped my Spanish history class in 1999, because my instructor said in class that “Spanish colonialism was better than all other kinds of colonialism, because at least the colonizers mixed with the locals.” Whatever makes people sleep better at night is their own business, but I would caution against statements like these that pit one place/time period’s inhumane treatment against another atrocity of a different hue. Can we just all agree that none of us really know (and we should quit before someone ends up saying something hella racist)?
3- Friendships come (and go), but they ARE the journey. Much like seasons, friendships have their moment. Good ones are cyclical and they are consistent despite the changes. Others, not so much. Each is important in its moment, no matter whether the lesson is learned from a negative or positive experience. I’ve traveled around the world, often staying with people who I knew, but didn’t really know very well until I shared a night under the same roof with them. Some connections were brief. Others dwindled, but I do feel that the friends I’ve met and made in many towns all over the world were really the reason why I have certain travel memories in the first place. I’ve been to carnival in Bahia and I can’t separate that from having met Urania. My first trip to Jamaica was spent at Teelie and Leslie’s place in Gordon Town. Were it not for them, I suppose maybe I wouldn’t have grown this lust for travel and the assurance that no matter where I am I’ll make the friends I need to make in order to enjoy that space to the fullest.
2- Social media is the best thing that’s happened to me since birth. I got my first cell phone while living in Spain. I was 15 and it was a necessity. Our school had a computer room with 2 computers with internet and 50 students had to take turns sending emails and chatting with friends between classes. I remember thinking then that one day we wouldn’t have to ration our time spent staying connected. So, long gone are the days before Skype and Twitter and Instagram. Perhaps, now, there is the opposite challenge – it’s harder to unplug while traveling these days. I doubt I could have stayed as far away for as long as I have if I didn’t have the modes of modern communication to feel that I’m not as far away as it might seem on a map.
1- Being a critical thinker is priceless. Being judgmental is useless. From the likes of #4, #5 and #10, I hope you can tell that I learned to form my own opinions from a variety of experiences. Being an analytical thinker is the only way you can travel, absorb, and benefit from the experience. However, India in particular taught me that it is okay to strive to respect behaviors and practices you don’t fully understand and, even from what you do understand, you don’t like. Being overly judgmental runs the risk of having others be offended and shut you out, then you’ll never even have the opportunity to be exposed enough to learn more. Respecting isn’t the same as accepting, it’s being tolerant. I’ve learned that I don’t always have to have an opinion about something or someone, sometimes the curiosity to continue to explore is good enough – especially in a foreign setting. I’ve become a big advocate for learning and respecting, with no strings attached.
Last week was one of loss. A coworker lost her unborn child. One of my staff members, lost his 8-year-old daughter (after having lost 2 daughters some years before). And a colleague lost her life and was laid to rest on Tuesday. I reached out to a woman who has been a priceless resource for my archival work and she recounted that she, too, had lost someone – her father. As a distant bystander to it all, these past few days have taken a lot out of me, so I can only imagine the loss of those more immediate.
India was full of near tragedies. Almost collisions were saved in the nick of time by a ‘Sai Ba Ba’ or a ‘Hail Mary.’ Lives lost had some kind of meaning – disease or illness or some sick twisted bastards brought together by male bonding turned on its head. Senseless death is something I understood from Newark, not from New Delhi. Some idiot with a gun can steal you away in an instant. A misfit with a death wish can definitely take you with him or her whenever they so choose. But, even that kind of death still has an explanation that you can sleep with at night. Wrong place, wrong time, but there is surely someone to blame. Those deaths leave a cause in their wake – something to fight for, or better yet, something to fight against.
Random death, however, with no explanation or sense of understanding, is not something I’ve ever known until I arrived here.
On my very first visit to Maputo, I was greeted by what would soon (-er than they thought) become my family. Drunk on laughter and cheap South African wine, we awoke jet lagged the next day to hear that a cousin – who had been present just the night before – had woken this morning only to lose her life just hours later. In a battle with what exactly? No one seems to know. Just in her third decade of life and with only so much as a stomach ache to show as a preamble to death, she was snuffed out and there was no one to blame. There was no autopsy to understand. There were no inquiries to explain. We never found a smoking gun. She was gone in an instant and everyone seem to accept it without question. The requisite week long death ceremonies began at once.
I had forgotten that sense of emptiness and fatigue. But it all came back with a vengeance.
What can you say to someone who lost an 8-year-old to a choking accident? Do you blame the maid who wasn’t watching? Or the mom who decided to leave for the market and thought she could trust the maid for just a few short hours? (Can you ever really trust the maid?) Do you blame the object itself and risk blaming the kid in the process?
There is no cause to rally behind except, perhaps teaching the Heimlich in grade schools. But, then again, most school-going 5 year olds here don’t recognize even one letter from the alphabet, so that’s an idiotic ambition. You get no peace no matter which way you manipulate your well-intentioned mind and your dear creative heart.
Here in Mozambique, I find people who are deeply religious and deeply reckless. There is the sense that you can go at any time and it will be when you least expect it, and probably for reasons you least deserve. You can be taken for reasons that have nothing to do with your will to live or your exposure to nefarious elements or your contribution to society. Mozambicans aren’t likely to die from some senseless act of preventable gun violence, like their African neighbors to the South. Actually, with the proliferation of free ARTs, Mozambicans are more likely to thrive with HIV than to die of AIDS than ever before in the nation’s history. So, when death does come it comes like a thief in the night, into the homes of people who until that moment thought they were too poor to steal from.
In a place with no police protection; where ambulances are only available from private clinics and, even then, it’s a taxi for a gurney not a life saving vehicle; where power cuts plague the country, but the government is negotiating to export electricity to South Africa; where Julius Nyerere Road looks like the pock-marked face of a hormonal 14 year old boy with acne, rosacea and eczema topped off with sunburn… people pray.
They pray for everything and nothing, at the same time.
This is a place where luck, steeped in religion, lives supreme. Every day that one wakes up alive, is a day worth celebrating to the tilt. Those that drink until the wee hours of the morning in celebration, also tend to wake up at the crack of dawn to pray. They find their solace in believing that a God somewhere has spared them. These people have a faith unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It’s not about knowing God, or even loving God – really. It’s about begging for an other worldly protection, since it sure as hell isn’t going to come from the living.
I’ve heard people ask if God has forsaken Africa. For their sakes (maybe our sakes?), I have to hope not, but my own observation leaves me pondering. Until I came here I didn’t fully understand the question.
Of all the quick saves. All the split second decisions. All the life saving measures that I’ve seen spare human life its final phase. I’ve never seen it happen here – not ever. Not once have I heard someone say, “You won’t believe what happened…” end with a positive outcome. Every car accident I almost saw happen, happened. Every coma wasn’t followed by an other-worldly recovery. In my humble experience, miracles don’t exist for Mozambicans.
Why not here? Why not now? Why not these people?
There have been so many maybes in our whirlwind of goodbyes.
Now I understand the question.
Descanse em paz nossa Rabeca e Teresa
I’m new to this. I don’t know the rules. And maybe things we said before we got married were all bullshit. But, this thing isn’t easy. At least, it hasn’t been for me.
Trying to form an identity with someone isn’t something I know how to do, but I hope you see I’m trying. But you have to imagine how hard that is for me. You eat meat. You don’t like people who yell. You watch lots of BET. Can’t you see how different we are?
Culture is something that I’ve grappled with my whole life – What is a sense of belonging? What are the traditions we carry to stay connected? Am I part of a Diaspora now? This, we, aren’t an academic exercise, though. Right? I can’t figure us out in a transnational paradigm of contemporary globalization. Or perhaps I can…
But that doesn’t make me understand things like why the towels never make it back on to the racks after you take a shower. Or why I’m the only one who seems to SEE the food rotting in our fridge. You know when something is fermenting in our kitchen, right? I mean, when I married you your nose was working fine. Has it broken since then?
And some of this is just about space. How to share it. When to invade it. Who has a right to it. And I think we both need a gender neutral “cave.” Me? Because I’m an introvert, I do my best thinking alone and being around lots of people (even you, my love) can be draining. You? Because you’re a dude and you want to do dude things that I frankly don’t want to see. You could also do all the running you wanted in there, esp. while watching youtube videos and world star hip hop clips. I mean, this could work.
Does this sound like I’m pushing you away? I hope not.
I’m just trying to figure out strategies to make it a lifetime. We made it longer than Kim and the guy before Kanye, so I guess that counts for something. But, doesn’t forever seem like a really long time to you?
I’ll be old and wrinkly. Things will sag. You might want that cave then. So, it’s now or never baby.
Like I said, I’m new to this. And I’m willing to make mistakes. But one thing you’ll never be able to say is that I didn’t try. I’m trying every day in ways you don’t even see. I’m trying to be a reliable part of this team. I’m trying to be an independent person who can rely on another person for help, regularly.
I am not from your rib. I was a whole person before I met you. I wasn’t incomplete before us. You rely on me to be whole. You expect me to be more than a fragment of a person without you. You expect me to represent you and us and me all at the same time, even when I’m not with you. You expect great things from me, with little more than a hug and a few pep talks along the way. You realize that you didn’t make me who I am, but that you are valuable part of everything I’ll be. You don’t see yourself as in contradiction with my ambitions. And you can’t see a future for either one of us without the other. You believe in us. I believe in your faith.
Sometimes I need you more than I admit. You don’t yet read my mind, but when you do… because someday you will… you’ll understand how embarrassed I feel to ask. You’re laughing right now. (I know this because, I just read your mind.) But you shouldn’t. You know that only compounds the original embarrassment. I’m weird.
Now you’re stuck and I guess you’ve got to come up with some strategies of your own. So, like they used to do back in the day, I’m going to have to ask you a few questions to see if you’re on team us:
- Do you like me? – YES or NO
- Can you agree to a cave? – YES or NO (if no, explanation required)
- Do you promise to love me when I’m old and naggier? – YES or NO
- Can you try to laugh at me less? (I’m sensitive!) – YES or NO
- Can you remember who I was when you met me? – YES or NO
- Can you agree to forgive me, in advance, for stupid things I’ll do through the rest our lives together? – YES or NO
- Will you sign my friend contract? – YES or NO
- Do you still like me? – YES or NO
If you can’t agree to all of the above, I think we’re days shy of being able to apply for annulment.
Think it over. No pressure.
At the start of every year, I have to look back on my year in books. In 2014, somehow I managed to move to Africa, get married, start a PhD program, start a new job, and read 49 books. Three books shy of my goal and still satisfied with myself, I have to tell you which works were worth reading and which I should have spared myself the life minutes.
I started the year off strong with Jose Luandina Vieira‘s The Real LIfe of Domingos Xavier, the English translation of the 1978 A Vida Verdadeira de Domingos Xavier. This story of the kidnapping and disappearance of Domingos Xavier unravels the experiences of every day Angolans during the fight for independence. Confronting marxism and modes of resistance, as well as the slow development of the MPLA in the face of continued Portuguese domination, the book is a solid read. In its original version it is credited with authentic local vernacular, a credit to the author – Angolan of Portuguese origin. By February, I was re-reading a book which made a significant impact on me when I first read it back in 2009. Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity by Vijay Prashad is an exploration of the collaborations of African and Asian origin people and ideas. In this global, historical review, Prashad investigates untold stories of interactions that pre-date European colonial intervention, as well as modern-day relationships of resistance. It’s a really powerful text and an easy read for those interested in world history that doesn’t center on White history. Rather than focusing on the cultural clashes, he focuses on cohesion – showing how much more of the latter there have been.
Then I struck literary gold in March when I read The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss. The book is long as hell, but it’s pretty interesting. I have to be honest and say that I really couldn’t keep track of the three generations of Dumas men here. The revelation that the person who inspired the classics of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo was actually a Black man of Haitian birth shouldn’t be all that shocking. I was most interested, however, in the changing racial and social landscape of France – a country that is notorious for pretending to be colorblind and for proclaiming that racism doesn’t exist there. The real value was reading of how powerful Blacks could ascend in 18th century France and how their equity slowly evaporated with time.
Then I spent the summer months reading some unrelated texts that were interesting in their own right, but more for professional or pleasure reading. I read Stanley McChristal’s My Share of the Task: A Memoir to understand better the man whose 2 decade long career was dethroned by an expose that only covered 2 weeks of his life. Then I read Pearl Cleage’s Things I Should Have Told My Daughter: Lies, Lessons & Love Affairs, which is really just a collection of diary entries by the author, thespian, feminist, educator & activist. It’s pretty funny.
I hit a dud in July with Amanda Kovattana‘s Diamonds in my Pocket, about a Thai-English woman who revisits the tensions of her biracial childhood. Her English mother and her Thai father meet, mate and marry, but their views never really seem to match. The premise sounds more interesting than the book actually reads.
Shiva Naipul’s North of South: An African Journey really helped me settle in to my new African life and to commit to my exploration of Asians in southern Africa. This author, the now deceased younger brother of V.S. Naipul, travels from Trinidad to Africa in search of very little other than experience. What comes off as a Brown backpacker’s tale from Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia of the 70’s continues to ring true for me here in Mozambique today. Some people seem to virulently dislike this travel journal and to critique the man who wrote it. It rings pretty true to me, so I’m not sure what that says about me. He definitely cut out all the paternalistic positivity, a la “we are the world” sentiment, people expect to hear from those who come to Africa. Unlike people who seem to dislike the book, he clearly didn’t come to (1) help the people *side eye*, (2) find himself *double side eye*, and/or (3) seek a backdrop for adventure *eye roll completely.* So…it is what it is. Every time I get in a car, I can only think of his words describing how Africans either drive “dangerously slow or dangerously fast.” So true, Shiva.
The week before my wedding, I laughed like hell reading Bill Cosby’s Fatherhood, but I don’t think it’s politically correct to say you like anything about the man right now. Too soon for praise, maybe? Moving on…
Then I latched on to fellow Barnard alum Jane Allen Petrick’s Hidden in Plain Sight, a text about people of color in Norman Rockwell‘s paintings. She searches to find Rockwell subjects to understand just who these people were who were incorporated so subtly into his Americana classics. Clearly, the book is a labor of love, not necessary a wealth of information. But, the topic is interesting and Petrick’s appreciation of the human connection between Rockwell & the people he paid to pose really shines through.
Then I read some really shitty e-books, because they were free. So, steer clear of Motherhoodwinked (though for someone battling infertility, this may have some therapeutic value), The Path To Passive Income (I should have known when the author was “U, Val”), and Heather Graham’s blog series Why I Love New Orleans. Don’t bother…
Then just before Thanksgiving I honed in on South African writing with Nadine Gordimer‘s novel The House Gun and the biography of fellow Witsie Robert Sobukwe (Robert Sobukwe: How Can Man Die Better) by Benjamin Pogrund. Both were longer than necessary, though for vastly different reasons. Confronting violence and privilege in South Africa from vastly different angles, these two books are authored by and about writer-activists. Honestly, the back to back reading was a bit more valuable to me than each individually. I’ll spare you the summary, because I think you should read them yourselves.
I’ve already reviewed the trifecta of the year (V.S. Naipul, Ngozi Adichie, and James Weldon Johnson) in my recent blog post on code switching. So, I won’t revisit these.
And the book that left the greatest impression is a book I was very reluctant to read for a very long time. Emma Donoughue’s Room had been sitting in my house for years before I got the courage to read it and I’m so happy that I did. This novel is the story of a 5-year-old boy who has grown up living in one room, because he is the child of a kidnapping & rape victim. Held hostage his whole life, he doesn’t understand his captivity and struggles to cope once released. Heartwarming, gut wrenching, amusing and frighteningly light – this book is an amazing piece of fiction. I’d recommend it to anyone who loves someone.
I expect that this year will be filled with books for my research, so I’m preparing for less fiction and more history. More Indians and Mozambicans and east African and southern African themes. I’m finally dropping the goal down to 40 books, so I can avoid the inclination to read crappy ebooks to hit a target. I’m going to save my life minutes for real stories that matter and for texts that have value.
Since the clock struck 12, just 25 days ago, much has happened. Yet for weeks, I’ve felt that not so much of it has been worth writing about. I went to Joburg for my poor, poor friend’s wedding (you remember her, right?). I went to Durban to celebrate my birthday. One of my very best friends came to town to enjoy it all. I went to work a lot. I met exciting new people for my research. I made a few new friends. I bought the Minaj’s album (as well as that of Mafikizolo, Chris Brown, Drake and Liquideep). I even made my first donation, as promised, to the Whitman Walker Clinic. All great things…I tell you. And none of that has seemed worth writing about.
I’ve always been a bit of an Eeyore, i.e. the cynic (borderline pessimist) who never understands what the big deal is about things that other people considered big deals. But the problem now is that I feel like I’m doing so much that I just don’t get a chance to stop and smell whatever this flower is called, much less appreciate it enough to write about it. My whole life my parents have reminded me that I’m “never satisfied.” No matter how much they tried to make me smile or enjoy a good day, I was always looking for more of a good thing, so much so that it negated their efforts in the moment. And what’s worse, I think I’ve lost the ability to understand how stressful chasing the next satisfaction really is on me and the people I love.
What most might call “a first world problem,” has followed me wherever I’ve lived, wherever I’ve gone, no matter how much I try to run away from responsibilities. So, maybe it’s just a character flaw? I don’t know how to relax. I never have. Is it possible that I never will?
I’ve spent much of my adult life talking with counselors and therapists, friends and people who probably didn’t really care enough to listen with both ears, simply trying to find outlets to vent. But it has occurred to me now that talking about all the things I do, rather than actually limiting those things, will not offer much relief. I watched a really great Ted Talk on ‘work/ life balance’ a few weeks back and I thought “shit, so a gym membership won’t fix this?” (Nigel Marsh: How to make work-life balance work).
When I originally heard the term back in 2009, I was a skeptic of the value of ‘work/life balance’ debates. First, I didn’t have much of a family and I’d just started my job, so work was still exciting for me. Almost 6 years down the line, I’m figuring at this rate either my body or my brains will fight against any willful efforts at procreation, so there’s nothing to balance there. According to the IRS, my husband and I make a family. That should be enough to tear me away from my office, except my sense of work ethic keeps me attached to my seat complaining about people I don’t particularly like and work I don’t find particularly meaningful. Not to mention that at this very moment, my work eats a piece of brain and two pieces of my soul on a daily basis.
My poorly thought out solution was to chase my dream of completing a PhD. But, there’s a fundamental problem here. I didn’t actually quit my job. How many more hours of the day did I gain by pretending that work isn’t the real focal point of my life? Negative 8 hours.
I genuinely feel like out of a 9 hour work day, when I add the time I spend without my spouse and the time I should be working on my PhD, and divide that by the time I spend complaining, I end up losing 8 hours of life energy per day. The 1 hour retained was lunch.
So, of all the awesome things I’ve done in the past few weeks to take my mind off things and to relax, much of it – like my PhD – seemed to be fulfilling, but still stress-inducing. I made work out of relaxing and certainly didn’t take the time to stop and enjoy each moment.
Nigel Marsh says that even adding a gym work out to the mix won’t help me be more balanced, just more fit. And I’m inclined to believe him. It’s already one more thing on my lengthy and never-ending to do list… just above “read.”
Obviously, for me the question isn’t so much about the tension between work and life, but finding value in both accomplishments and happiness. Being a glutton for work punishment may be an outgrowth of my own inability to separate the two. My own personal sense of achievement comes from seeing something through from start to finish. I value measurable accomplishments. Taking the time to live out my own happiness is hard thing to step back and admire. I’m not sure how to celebrate my days spent at the pool. But, it sure makes me feel energized for the days ahead and it just feels good.
Perhaps 2015 is the year to figure it all out…
I’m struggling with whether or not to buy Nicki Minaj’s next album….
I didn’t even know the name of the album until I googled it to write this post, but after hearing a number of singles (for free) from any number of radio stations, websites, and songbirds over the last month, I’m feeling like I just might make a purchase. Oh, but there’s so much to consider.
I buy maybe 3 albums every year. Let’s not discuss how I have such an extensive music collection, but rather let’s talk about why I don’t bother to buy albums.
1) I usually only like 5 songs off of any EP.
2) With so many free ways to get music, making a purchase feels like a political statement I should really think long and hard about.
And 3) Apple already runs my life. Buying one more damn thing from itunes feels like I’m giving in to THE MAN!
What does all this have to do with Nicki Minaj? Not much, except #2. I’m a Barnard woman and I’m not supposed to want to buy music with a song cover that’s this purely hyper sexualized, with no pithy or sarcastic elements to mask it. And she’s got her own misogynist tendencies, which my $40,000 per year education tells me I’m not supposed to appreciate. If I put my money where my mouth is (or ears are), I’m supposed to stand by these feminist principles I paid so dearly for. Lord knows I don’t want my underage daughter or anyone’s for that matter listening to Nicki talk about ass shots, but… I am not my daughter, now am I? I am an adult woman who can appreciate a variety of content, even when packaged in a way that I would normally detest. Herein lies the rub…
Those Jordans are hot. She probably spent a whole $500 on that cover, sneakers included, which shows a business acumen I can appreciate. If it’s her natural butt or not really doesn’t matter to me. And I have a tendency not to like people – men or women – so I can relate to her words. Last, but not least, anyone who openly says they have NOT had sex with Lil’ Wayne is a woman I can believe in. (It seems like all the women he sleeps with have his progeny to prove it.)
Let’s put this all into context. The last albums I purchased were back in February 2014 when I bought three albums in one week. Majestic Casual pt 1, Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke and Rebellious Soul by K. Michelle. The latter 2 were purchased because I got cheap tickets to see them in concert and I couldn’t be the only one in the nose bleeds not knowing the words. And the first one is probably my favorite album of the year! It gets listened to wayyyy more than anything else I currently own. Revisit above reference to my approx. 3 album/ year quota. It’s been met. But, 2015 is just around the corner.
Do I want to start my year off like this?
When she wore a lot of pink and was on that whole Harajaku negress tip, she was so lame to me I had no words to describe how little interest I had in anything she did, said or produced. Now, she’s a human again. She’s got a much needed make under, though she still sounds like an updated/remixed Lil’ Kim from Queens, and I kinda like her. I feel ashamed for even admitting that I want to hear more from “the Minaj,” (as Mama Dee would probably call her) but she shut down Iggy Azalea publicly and it got me to thinking… maybe she stands for something more than a butt squat in really nice customs. Shouldn’t I give her the benefit of the doubt?
I’m an almost 30 year old woman, with more degrees than a thermometer, and I’m trying to figure out what my inclination to spend my first $15 of the new year on tunes of “the Nick” (the other name that Mama Dee might call her) really says about me?
Am I ratchet?
When I first picked up Americanah over a year ago, I put it back down after page 10. It was yet another African turning on Black Americans by pretending to both know and despise Black America. When my book club picked it last month, I was more curious this time around. As a Black American in Africa, maybe I wanted to find hints for how to navigate the reverse world. Alas, I found no hints. And I really didn’t find many bursts of wisdom, just a strong sense that Ngozi was telling us all that where we are from is truly where we belong – no matter how many lives we wreck in the going and coming. I disagree with that sense (which may be more strongly felt because I absolutely disagree with extramarital affairs). But, when I picked up Autobiography of an ex-Colored Man, I realized that becoming what you aren’t to become who you think you deserve to be is a timeless human challenge.
The 1912 book by James Weldon Johnson focuses on a mulatto who spends his whole life wondering which color is more advantageous to him – Black or White. When it is in his best interest, he code switches. He plays that part and lives that side of life’s dream, until it no longer becomes the winning card. He trades all that Blackness has to offer, by using remnants of Black music to make a living entertaining Whites all over the world. He eventually marries a White woman who, after some shock and horror, accepts that he is of Black heritage. While I was pretty disgusted with the book’s content, it took me back to an America that’s only 100 years gone from today. It was an America where the popularity of the Cotton Club co-existed with the highest rates of lynching of Black men in history.
It brought me back to the counterintuitive-ness of today, where similar extremes seem to be so ever-present. Where our Black president ground-breakingly declares immigration reform and gives us December 26th off AND a laundry list of young Black males are gunned down with impunity by police. There is no ‘but’ here… this is not abnormal and this is not an aberration. These things co-exist and make code-switching both necessary and useless. Our times have always been odd. And that oddity has always made me seek the shores of elsewhere, where the odd isn’t for lack of giving a damn about another person’s life. But, it’s deeper. It’s older.
Difference and hatred can be a colonial and aristocratic being. That being is a being I understand. I can see how centuries of human chattel and land grab combine to create indivisible barriers between people. And I can also see how those who experience it in vastly different places can be brought together by the similarity of that experience. So, when I grabbed Half A Life, by V.S. Naipul, it was finally a text I could understand. The code switching Indian who traveled the world reinventing himself to escape his farce of a family, finds himself in a new country. This unnamed place must be the country in which I reside today. He speaks of living someone else’s life – the life of his wife who was born in what is clearly Mozambique. Their initial attraction was born out of recognizing the code-switching in one another and finding relief in no longer having to pretend. Better yet, they don’t even feel the burden of admitting which parts of themselves are lies – old and new. This brings them together and it is what tears them apart decades later. One day he wakes up and feels that he hasn’t really been living a life of his choosing. But, if not his, then whose?
These three texts brought me full circle to wondering what wandering is all about. Has my life been a long tale of serial code switching – becoming someone who everyone believes you already are? And if so, why? For me, it’s about finding a place where I’m comfortable being uncomfortable. There are situations of discomfort that we can tolerate and others that we can’t. I’ve never been able to tolerate code switching close to home. It’s why I don’t take photographs of New York City and very rarely, if ever, in my hometown. It’s why I don’t stop cursing when I go work. It’s why I wore a kurta in India for all of 5 times in 2 years. Take me far, far away from what matters to me and I’ll be whomever I must, but get within 10 feet of something that matters to me and I must be myself. It is an automatic and involuntary reality.
Code switching is a survival tool, not a way of life. It isn’t sustainable over the long-term. In fact, over the long-term, it is parasitic. It eats away at the soul, casting doubt and promoting amnesia. What being in Mozambique has brought me is an undying sense of self. So far from what I know, I find the familiar in me – even when I am not looking for it. The routines come back. The fish and grits on weekends. And the soul music on Saturdays. They say you can run, but you can’t hide. I disagree. I think that’s only true if who you’re running from is you.
From others, you can live a series of lifetimes playing the part that curries the most favor.
Whether it be a Nigerian woman in 2013, an African-American man in 1912, or an Indo-Trinidadian in 2001, great writers seem to cling to that conundrum. They do more than explore it, they dissect it – as if trying write an obituary for someone who they met a lifetime ago and only now realize that they’ve never really known.