Sometimes I wonder if I love my state more than I love my country. In fact, not even all of California–just the Bay Area specifically; the rest of the state might as well be another to me.
I suspect that I haven’t felt loved here–after all, the city is a harsh and lonely place. There is a kind of unspoken character, a confused jumble between rigorous materialism and outcries of painful poetic passion. Love is not a comforting warmth here–it flames in intervals like the passing heat waves, the “slow degrees of lazy Fahrenheit” that “cook the day, eat the night.” (That was truly written for us.) With the ocean to my left and the mountains to my right, the valley is nothing short of glorious. My valley. “It’s a beautiful day in the Bay,” announces an advertisement for morning news. And it is. An ocean breeze graces even inward cities. The summers are deep and sad.
You don’t look American, but you look Californian. Not the perpetuated vision, but strangely akin to the features of the place itself: enormous dark glossy eyes like some sort of creature of the sea, stormy hair like seaweed or onyx untamed fire, and skin the tone of warmed sand. The women here have beautiful names, names that as Warsan Shire states command full use of the tongue–names that owe no trust to those who cannot pronounce them correctly. The barista spells yours right. Salespeople converse in Vietnamese. Latina women stop you in the street to ask what shampoo you use; “Your hair is like mine,” they reach out to touch it, awed by the familiarity. They ask whether you are one of them–this time you don’t mind.
They are mournful when you answer, “No.” “You’re pretty!” they exclaim. Please be possible, had been the unspoken hope. I can’t look white but I can look like you! I know, because I see the reflection of my desires on their faces.
In the high-end shopping malls you have to dress twice as beautiful as any white woman to fend off curious borderline hostile looks. A white woman in jeans is casual and practical; a woman of color in jeans must have inadequate finances. Yet, “What beautiful hair–is that the conditioner you use?” she inquires reaching for it herself after seeing you pull it off the shelf, because she has clearly dyed her own once too many (but you are too polite to point out that this is the problem, not her conditioner). Instead you tell her when you were little you wanted to be blonde just like her. (Her eyes light up a little and indicate to you the message is received.) The reactions are so independently contrasted between suspicion and admiration it’s exhausting not to know what to expect.
But it is California and it is mine.
I will always be Californian. As disinterested as I am in sports if I do ever move I will almost certainly still cheer for Californian teams. But that’s no reason I’ll ever betray the next state where I live.
A white woman tells me something that reminds me of a moving article I have read before, “I don’t mean to be offensive, and I know how dangerous and hurtful the word ‘exotic‘ is to you, how it reinforces the colonial idea of you as not normal, but I am part Native American and I feel so confirmed when people say that in one moment by happenstance I look exotic–like I can connect with something I love, a part of my identity that has been denied to me. I would never claim it, but that’s how I feel.” And my heart breaks for her. They say white culture doesn’t hurt white people like patriarchy hurts men, but it does, it does. Just a little. After all, what conqueror can engage in such evil without feeling a dark emptiness where once was his spirit? Bound forever to appropriate from the cultures he has hated, a sick kind of love. Searching for the spirituality compromised in violence–by perpetuating more violence in this appropriation.
I would be a sick fool to mourn for a collateral backfiring for who have destroyed me–it is something similar to a kind of syndrome no doubt… but I’d rather feel it just a little, in case it isn’t, in case it is really just human.