The editorial value of code switching?

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.

 

Teaching to the Choir

Takiyah Gray is a Brown University alum, who is currently an elementary school teacher in Vietnam. With her Trinidadian passport in tow, she treks the world in search of good eats, teaching opportunities, and sane couch surfers. She is a talented dancer and yogini, whose Trini roots keep her near tropical beaches as frequently as possible. Existabovethenoise.com readers may remember her as the friend I was staying with in Thailand back in January – check out the My Thai post.

We’re not in Thailand anymore, Toto. Sure, there are still roosters crowing at all hours of the day. Yes, there are street vendors hawking their wares—from fly-flecked pork innards to hanging pieces of chewy, salted squid, to the ever present random assortment of locks of various shapes and sizes. But this is Vietnam, and the people here sure do not like to smile at the odd looking stranger.

Some people think that the best moments of life unfold when you put yourself outside of your comfort zone. In her latest book, Committed, a mere $2.50 per Xeroxed copy in the backpacker district of Ho Chi Minh City, Elizabeth Gilbert agrees. She says that “I had ago learned that when you are the giant, alien visitor to a remote and foreign culture, it is sort of your job to become an object of ridicule.” For better or worse, I have been happily toeing that uncomfortable line for much of my existence, ever since my mother decided to bring me from Trinidad to America at the age of 2. Maybe this initial trip is what sealed my future as a world traveler, because since then, I’ve been crafty and fortunate enough to peak into life in countries like Sweden, Brazil, and Spain. (I say crafty, because anyone that knows me KNOWS that there had to be an ulterior motive to joining the glee club back in high school– clearly it was the summer trip to France). Not surprisingly though, nowhere has that discomfort been more present than here in South East Asia. Here, I am a complete foreigner, and boy do I stand out. In this part of the world, it’s not just my language that pegs me as different, but my height, my skin tone, everything that I’ve ever used to define myself. And believe you me, wherever I am the locals cannot wait to figure out what a tall black woman is doing in their country of size 4 shoes and K-pop idolizations. Though we in America are proud to have elected our first black president 4 years ago, many people on this side of the world are still incredulous that Americans can look like me. Add to this the fact that I still retain my Trinidadian citizenship and people are all the more confused. I, myself, pause to figure out which country I will say I am from today—do I go for the mildly puzzled look when I say that I am from the US or the completely dumbfounded look as I try to explain about where the Caribbean is?

No one needed this geography lesson more than a woman I recently interviewed with. Now, as a visitor in South East Asia, I am grateful for the opportunity to work as a teacher. It’s a downright privilege when my peers and I can travel, work and realize a standard of living that is generally higher than most of the population around us (simply because we speak English and carry TEFL degrees). My year of living in a beachside house on a Thai island was made possible by precisely these things. But they aren’t always enough, and apparently, having made the move to Vietnam, I was starting at square one all over again.

At this particular interview, I quickly learned that I was missing — what in the Dominican Republic they call — “buena aparencia.” Instead of a normal interview, where the trained and professional interviewer and skilled and eager interviewee go back and forth about the school, expectations and relevant work experience, I spent the entire time trying to prove that no, Trinidad and Tobago was NOT a country in South Africa (?!) and that YES I grew up with English as my first language. The interview ended with a cold, “If you are short-listed for a position, I’ll let you know in a few months.” The entire “interview” lasted a grueling 10 minutes. I had spent more time that morning trying to figure out an updo for my twists! Never before had I been in such a hostile interview environment. Later that night I spent many hours plotting the exact flavor of the very pointed email that would say thanks but no thanks, up yours, and oh yeah, I’ve attached a world atlas for your convenience.

Was I surprised that this level of ignorance could come from a fellow educator? The sad truth is no, not really. The fact is, before embarking on this journey almost 2 years ago, I had braced myself for many more scenarios like this one. Fortunately for me, Thailand never presented an issue, and I was able to find work without problems. Now that I’m in Vietnam, however, other brown-skinned expat friends, namely Filipino teachers who face similar prejudices, have warned me about this kind of overt racism. I’ve heard of many different ways to this overcome the issue, including lying about citizenship and leaving out the requisite photo that most schools ask for in their applications. What’s a girl to do?

For the most part, I realize that I travel to learn and to have others learn about me. So I put up with the stares, the odd looks, the oogly eyes, and the scores of parents with varying levels of discretion nudging their children as I go past, to make sure that they catch a glimpse of me. I spend the extra 10 minutes at the grocery stores, hunting out the soaps and lotions and deodorants that don’t have whitening ingredients in them. I choose the work environments where I know I will be treated with respect. I know many expats, mostly men, who are happy to make the permanent leap over to this side of the world. Me? I am grateful for the experience to observe these moments; at the end of it all, I’ll be glad to get back to my little corner of Kansas..erg…Boston.