28 May 2013

Araña Mama – A Mommy-festo, Part 2

(Continued from Part 1.)

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.
As a baby, I was olive-skinned with almond eyes and a shock of black hair. My parents called me “the Mad Russian.” During the course of my life, people have asked if I am Hawaiian or American Indian, Mexican or Puerto Rican, Brazilian or Italian, Sephardic or Ashkenazi, Persian or Moroccan, Anglo-Indian or Punjabi. As was typical of biracial kids of my generation, I belonged neither with the Armenians nor with the Filipinos. Growing up in a very white community in Sacramento, California, I clearly wasn’t “American,” either. On forms asking my race, I had to check “Other.”

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 spent my weekend nights in Boston’s dyke bars, but I devoted my weekday after-work hours to West African dance classes. The demographics of these two sites never overlapped. My five-evening-a-week dance schedule led to a year-long residency in Dakar, Senegal. On the westernmost point of the African continent, I transformed from a woman of color with middle-class means to a white woman with dazzling economic privilege. I weaved between my professional life as an English teacher amongst Dakar’s educated elite and my social life amongst dancers and musicians, many of whom had little formal schooling.

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)
A few months later, my husband and I moved to Lautoka, Fiji, where my husband planned to research the music of Fijians of Indian descent. English colonizers had brought Indian indentured laborers to work the sugarcane plantations, and about a century later, many of their descendents still farmed sugarcane. When the cane was ready to harvest, the farmers burned their fields. The smoke permeated the air, and black ash covered every surface. I continued to get sinus infections every few months and developed an allergy to another family of antibiotics. Since I was periodically confined to our apartment, I was unable to get momentum on projects with local organizations. A friend in my graduate program asked for my help editing her dissertation, so I worked from my bed when I wasn’t watching Bollywood videos.

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.)

1 comment:

  1. Wow. What a life! Not only an "American" story, but a global one. I am a former dancer and aspiring writer currently living in East Africa and you are inspiring me to rediscover some of my passion for dance. Lots more to say, but right now I'm just looking forward to the 3rd installation...