My chance at an uncomplicated life was doomed the moment my mother, at college at U.C. Berkeley, needed a pot to cook spaghetti. Her roommate said, “I’ll bet those guys down the hall have a pot.” She surmised this from the sign on their door advertising “Armenian and Chinese cooking.” So my mom, the descendant of Filipino immigrants, walked down the hall and met my dad, the descendant of Armenian immigrants, who was rooming with a Chinese-Peruvian. When I tell this story, I say, “Only in America.”
|Past "the Mad Russian" phase.|
But race was only one thread. When I was 19, I came out as bisexual. During a suffocatingly hot East Coast summer after I graduated college in Connecticut, I shaved my head. Elderly women and men addressed me as “sir.” Amongst queer women, it was as if I had raised a flag signaling “potential date,” and my flirting rates improved.
While working on the “Relationships with Women” chapter of Our Bodies, Ourselves for the New Century, my co-editor introduced me to the term “chemical sensitivities,” which finally made sense of why fabric softeners, perfumes, and cigarette smoke gave me nausea, dizziness, and migraines—a condition that affects women more than men and so, predictably, was long ignored by the medical establishment and is still not well studied or understood. This discovery changed my perspective on the queer women’s community: a high concentration of women also meant a high concentration of chemical sensitivities, chronic illnesses, and alternative therapies.
|Dancing with the women of a groupment, |
an economic collective, in Diofior, Senegal.
(Photo by Janet Ghattas)
I can’t speak Armenian, Tagalog, or Ilocano, but I can speak French, Spanish, and Wolof.
Ultimately, cultural and class pressures as well as a conflict between my queerness and Senegalese society brought me back home to the U.S., and I moved back to California. I maintained a transcontinental relationship with my boyfriend, a refugee from the Republic of Congo, and I planned to go back in October 2001. I had tickets on Sabena, the Belgian airline. After September 11th, a Sabena agent told me, “We can get you there, but I’m not sure we can get you back.” I couldn’t get any promises from Swiss Air, Air France, or Alitalia. And then, the U.S. was at war. I used up two pre-paid calling cards to break up with my boyfriend. I was in Marin County, but I could hear halfway around the world a muezzin singing the call to prayer across a Dakar rooftop.
As a NorCal native, I never imagined I would move to Southern California. But I wanted to keep traveling to West Africa and studying dance, and I thought that UCLA’s World Arts and Cultures program would help me do it. My friend mentioned that her girlfriend’s step-brother was also in grad school for ethnomusicology at UCLA. A week after I moved, I invited every connection I had in Los Angeles to my housewarming party, and in perfect rom-com fashion, I met my husband-to-be.
During graduate school, I was plagued by recurring sinus infections. Over the years, I had developed allergies to several antibiotics, and avoiding them often meant weeks battling illness. I worried about my ability to hold down a job given my apparently fragile health. I finished my Master’s degree, then had my wedding. The stress of these two events gave me vertigo, and I spent the first days of my honeymoon with my head over the edge of a bed, trying to stop the spinning, and taking refuge in sleep.
|Dressed for a wedding in Fiji.|
(Photo by Kevin Miller)
We returned to the U.S. My husband got his PhD. My department at UCLA fell into conflict, and the chair of my project left. I decided against continuing in graduate school, and instead I picked up more editing jobs.
And in 2007, I finally got pregnant.
(To be continued in Part 3.)